My Liver­pool re­grets

Ger­ard Houl­lier on his An­field years

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page -

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)

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