My Liverpool regrets
Gerard Houllier on his Anfield years
Gerard Houllier sits down in his chic Paris apartment, a clubbed forehand away from Roland Garros, and exhales deeply. The room is tastefully designed with exhibits that would not look out of place at the Pompidou Centre, scattered alongside the sort of mementos that can only be accumulated from a long-standing career as a member of football’s executive class.
And yet there is something playing on Houllier’s mind. “You know, when I go back to Liverpool, I am surprised when the people are so nice to me,” he says, a hint of melancholy lowering his voice as he reflects on the club that was his home for six years.
It seems an odd admission. Houllier’s Anfield CV is studded with successes, including a Uefa Cup, an FA Cup and two League Cups, plus multiple top-four finishes. So, why the surprise at such goodwill? Houllier, 72, gives a coy shrug, as if he believes a couple of unfulfilling final years overshadowed the broader, innovative contribution. It does not take long, however, for his mood to lift.
“It is nice to go to Anfield and hear people speak so fondly of the European nights we started to bring back,” he says. “Liverpool is not like any other city. It suffered a lot. Winning a European trophy – the Uefa Cup – after 16 years and after the long ban meant something.”
Houllier allows himself a smile. That achievement may feel diminished in the context of Liverpool’s more recent accomplishments, but there is a genealogy beginning with Houllier, blending into Rafael Benitez and eventually leading to Jurgen Klopp that merits greater appreciation than he received in the wake of his exit in 2004.
Houllier’s career spanned France’s lower leagues, Paris St-germain – pre-qatari investment – the French national team and, currently, a role as global director of the Red Bull football empire that, despite severing ownership ties in 2017, remains commercial partner of Salzburg, Liverpool’s Champions League opponents tonight.
But it is his time at Anfield that resonates deepest. He beams with almost paternal pride when discussing Steven Gerrard’s coaching development at Rangers – the pair are regularly in touch – and Jamie Carragher becoming a leading media pundit.
The warmth for Houllier from former players and in his home country is tangible. Generous with his time, Houllier has arranged for the interview to be relocated to a nearby restaurant – Le Murat – where guests stand up to shake the hand of a man revered as one of the architects of France’s 1998 World Cup win. It was that role which earned the attention of Peter Robinson, then Liverpool chief executive, a chance conversation that same summer revealing that a deal to become Sheffield Wednesday’s manager had stalled because of a contractual issue. “The next day Peter arrived with [former Liverpool chairman] David Moores and Rick Parry. They agreed to everything,” Houllier recalls.
His tenure was a success if judged solely on trophies, but the legacy is more profound than that. Houllier was Liverpool’s pioneer of the Premier League era, the club’s first overseas coach who overcame suspicions and occasional outright xenophobia when leading the club into the 21st century.
“There was a pattern which had to be broken if Liverpool was to move forward,” Houllier says. “There had been no foreign coaches, so when I came it was a shock. When Rafa Benitez took over it was no longer such a battle for acceptance, and of course for Jurgen it is a different club now.
“But we knew that, as a coaching team with Phil Thompson, Patrice Bergues, Sammy Lee and Joe Corrigan, we had to move gradually. We had to begin the process of convincing people. I never saw it as a revolution.”
Ask anyone around the club what began to change when Houllier took sole control after the ill-judged joint-management experiment alongside Roy Evans in 1998 and there is a simple answer – everything. Yet Houllier still treads carefully when discussing those alterations, eager not to be disrespectful to his predecessor.
“We never fell out. It just never worked having two managers,” Houllier says. “There were changes we needed and were able to make, like the new training ground, Melwood. It was not a building in 1998. It was a barracks.
“Then we brought a different approach to training. I recall Sir Alex Ferguson telling me what Eric Cantona brought to Manchester United. He said he did not train, he practised for the game. Sir Alex said the young players saw this and everything changed.
“We wanted the same at Liverpool. I would say to the players that football is the only profession where you cannot enjoy the rewards until you retire. Do not go to the nightclub, buy it at the end of your career.
“We had to convince players to change their diet and make sure they rested properly. I remember giving Jamie Carragher a list of players in England who were heavy drinkers, all past their peak at the age of 26. The players came to understand what had to change.”
Houllier was shrewd enough to buy time by immersing himself in Anfield culture. “There was a key moment for me early on which was not a particular game,” he says. “Tom Saunders, a former assistant of Bill Shankly, would come to Melwood every morning to enjoy a walk with Ronnie Moran. I did not need to read anything about Shankly. Tom told me everything. He was on the Liverpool board at the time and was very good to me.
“It was my first year, there had been some poor results, and I still did not feel it was my team. Tom came to me and said, ‘Gerard, we may not know everything about football here, but there is one quality we show to our manager: patience. Do what you have to do’. It meant so much to me.”
Smart signings such as Sami Hyypia, Stephane Henchoz, Didi Hamann, Gary Mcallister and Emile Heskey blended with the academy class of Gerrard, Michael Owen and Carragher to regenerate Liverpool at home and abroad. It peaked with the 2001 cup treble, but the formidable challenge of Manchester United and Arsenal meant Houllier would finish no higher than second in the Premier League.
“The Liverpool of the past were able to step on to the pitch and feel
‘My heart surgeon was not happy about me going back. It was a great night but I paid for it. I made a mistake going back so soon’
they would win. The world started to change because to win football games, you also had to win the commercial games.”
In this, Houllier was frustrated: he was once quoted £17million for Rio Ferdinand when his entire summer budget was capped at £12million. “To buy players you need the commercial partners,” he observes. “Now you see Jurgen can sign players like Virgil van Dijk and Alisson [Becker], but don’t forget he has kept the tradition of developing players, too. I don’t think [Andrew] Robertson and [Joel] Matip cost so much, eh?”
Away from the training pitch a more severe battle was to be won, with Houllier unaware of the toll the stress of leading the club was taking on his health. The storm broke in October 2001, when he was taken gravely ill at half-time against Leeds United.
There is a spiritual quality to his recalling every quirk of fortune that saved his life. The fact that Mark Waller, the club doctor, was sufficiently concerned to test the manager’s blood pressure when he complained of chest pains; that the streets around Anfield were deserted enough to grant an ambulance access; that Liverpool was one of only three specialist heart centres capable of emergency surgery; and, most remarkably, Abbas Rashid, the world-renowned surgeon, had chosen, for the first time in months, not to travel away on a Saturday to visit his daughter, so could respond when informed by his son about a high-profile patient in critical care. Houllier underwent 11½ hours of surgery and was in a coma for two days.
He returned four months later, inspiring a 2-0 win to seal a place in the European Cup quarter-finals, yet memories are bittersweet.
“I made a mistake going back when I did,” he says. “A couple of times I had been to see the boys and I said to Phil [Thompson], ‘Do you think it will help if I come back on that night? Maybe give the team a boost?’ My surgeon was not happy about it. I did not even tell Rick and David Moores until three hours before kick-off. It was a great night, but I paid for it.”
The final two years brought one more trophy, but momentum had evaporated. The inspired signings who brought European glory were overshadowed by those who prompted ridicule – El-hadji Diouf, Bruno Cheyrou and Salif Diao.
“I was very tired for a long time after I returned,” Houllier says. “The following season was difficult. When we started in 2002, I was not recovered. I was not sharp and when you are not sharp, you do not make the right decisions and there were a few I took which were wrong. There was pressure for me to continue in the job, but I wanted to do it as well.”
Houllier was replaced by Benitez in 2004, his parting gift Champions League qualification and the core of a squad who knew how to win in Europe a factor in the improbable triumph the following May.
After a successful return to France, the enduring effect of heart surgery prematurely ended another brief Premier League comeback at Aston Villa.
The risk was too great to carry on as an elite coach, a setback Houllier was coming to terms with in March 2012, when he received a call from Darren Dein, son of former Arsenal chief executive David and agent of Thierry Henry. Dein had a proposal on behalf of Dietrich Mateschitz, Austria’s billionaire owner of Red Bull.
“He said maybe I could help with a new project and would it be OK if Mr Mateschitz called you,” Houllier recalls. “I flew to Salzburg and was waiting in the office when I saw this guy, casually dressed in jeans and checked shirt, arrive on a motorbike. He took off his helmet and waved to everyone. I thought it was the mailman – 15 minutes later I was being interviewed by him.
“The meeting was supposed to be half an hour. We were there for four hours. I said I would work for him immediately if I could.”
By the evening, Houllier had agreed to file a report on how Mateschitz could impose his vision across an empire of clubs – in Leipzig, New York and Strasbourg – and a footballing academy in Brazil. Quickly, Houllier was given a full-time technical role.
“At the time I was approached I was feeling very low, because my life is football and I was not doing anything,” Houllier says. “Things changed after that first meeting. Everything I suggested, they did it.”
His decisions paid off: Houllier’s first appointment at Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig was the highly rated sporting director Ralf Rangnick, while his first signing for Salzburg was Sadio Mane.
If Houllier’s new role has rejuvenated him, there is no doubt Liverpool’s rejuvenation in Europe began with Houllier.
“As a manager there are things you want to achieve,” he observes. “The first is results. At Liverpool, that has to be silverware. The second is good habits – a way of working for the players and staff. The final one is to make sure there is still a team after you so they can win. I think we did that.”
Rich legacy: Gerard Houllier changed the culture at Liverpool, culminating in the club winning a treble of Uefa, FA and League Cups in 2001 (right)