Gerard Houllier died at the age of 73 earlier this week, prompting an outpouring of grief from the football world, especially in Liverpool. It is for his feats at Anfield that the Frenchman will be mainly remembered.
Houllier managed the Reds between 1998 and 2004 – a period when the club was struggling to reassert itself in the era when Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were sweeping all before them in England. He led the Merseyside club to five major trophies during his spell in charge – including the FA Cup, League Cup and Uefa Cup treble in 2000-01.
Joined up with Roy Evans
Originally, he was appointed as joint manager at Anfield, working in tandem with Roy Evans in 1998. After just three months, Evans resigned and Houllier took sole control. He battled health issues during his time at Anfield, undergoing open heart surgery in October 2001 after suffering from chest pains during a game against Leeds United.
He soon returned to the dugout, though, and would manage the Reds for another three years before returning to France, where he led Lyon to two French titles. After that, he worked for the French Football Federation until 2010 when he spent a year in charge of Aston Villa. Further heart problems meant that he stepped down from the Villa job in 2011.
During his time at Liverpool, Houllier won 160 of 307 competitive matches, drawing 73 and losing 74. His Reds team scored 516 goals and conceded 298. It is impossible to quantify Houllier’s contribution to the Reds in purely statistical terms, however.
Former players whose careers developed under Houllier’s tutelage like Jamie Carragher and Steve Gerrard have paid tribute to the positive influence the Frenchman exerted on their careers. The Frenchman’s influence on players was not just on the pitch either, with many also asserting that he helped improve them as people too.
The changes he made at Liverpool were important. When he arrived in English football in the late 1990s, the game was still struggling to escape a conservative mindset that failed to appreciate the importance of factors like nutrition in improving performance.
Houllier oversaw the improvement of Liverpool’s Melwood training ground, cut fatty foods from the club canteen, and put in place restrictions around the alcoholic intake of players. Houllier put the hours into the job too. He claimed to need only three hours sleep a night and would regularly work 16-hour days.
Former players and colleagues pay tribute
Sky Sports pundit Phil Thompson was Houllier’s assistant at Anfield, and he has stated that that being appointed alongside the Frenchman in 1998 was one of the greatest moments of his life. Former Liverpool goalkeeper Chris Kirkland, whom Houllier signed for the Reds in 2001, highlighted how effective the Frenchman’s calm approach to things was.
“He changed the dynamics at Liverpool, he changed it all, and the way they went forward,” he told BBC 5Live.
“He was so calm. Some managers rant and rave but he always used to take a couple of minutes, he always used to compose himself before he came into the changing room. He had a calmness about him, if you were losing he would say he backed you and told you to trust each other. You had to be there to appreciate how special his team talks were and nine of 10 times they worked.”
Even Sir Alex Ferguson was able to reveal how he and Houllier became friends during the Frenchman’s time in England, with the former Manchester United boss hailing Houllier’s “fantastic football knowledge” and describing him as “a true gentleman.”
While it is Jurgen Klopp who finally ended Liverpool’s long, long wait for a league title last season, no one should forget Houllier’s contribution to the glory days finally returning to Anfield. The Frenchman’s spell in charge may now be two decades past, but it put in place the fundamentals that eventually allowed Klopp to restore the true glory days.
The warmth of feeling expressed by former players who worked with Houllier is testament to that. Although he never won the league title or the Champions League with the club, he put in place a culture and ethos that allowed the club to escape from its, admittedly glorious, past and see that there was a different way of doing things.
When the roll call of Anfield great managers is called, Houllier should be there. He might not have had the massive impact of Bill Shankly, have won all the silverware that Bob Paisley claimed, or ended long title drought like Jurgen Klopp, but his influence on the club has been weighty, profound and significant all the same.