Europe provides a perfect incentive for Liverpool manager's return
Those concerned about the health and wellbeing of Gérard Houllier - and there are many, such is the affable, adopted Scouser's place in the affection of the English game these days - will be reassured to know that he took it easy the day after plotting Liverpool's win over Bayer Leverkusen last week. 'I put my feet up,' he insisted before adding, with no trace of a smile: 'I watched Inter Milan v Feyenoord in the Uefa Cup.'
Houllier returned to what he lovingly calls 'The Bunker' in the club's newly and lavishly built training centre at Melwood at 8.30am on Friday, setting to work with his coaches on plotting the completion of the job in Germany on Tuesday to secure the Champions League semi-final against Manchester United that all in this country hope for.
Then, after training and a light lunch (no dairy products, though 'red wine is very much advised') Houllier entertained a small, privileged group of us to his thoughts on life and Leverkusen, as well as a tour of the centre he helped to conceive. The light, airy, open-plan atmosphere is designed to create togetherness, he says, pride in his every word. The rehab area for injured players is deliberately on a balcony overlooking the equipment for the fully fit, so that the top group can be inspired. The main dressing room has a curved wall to foster a feeling of closeness.
That coaches' room, 'The Bunker', the place Houllier says he missed most in his four-month absence from the club after major heart surgery, is a spacious, carpeted replacement for the Boot Room. You wonder where Bob Paisley would have gone for a cigarette. Houllier likes that one and mentions it to the man who minded the store for him so ably, Phil Thompson - the two of them manager of the month for March - who also smiles. You can almost touch the bond between them.
Houllier is back in his environment and element, the colour returning to his cheeks. Concerns about the form of Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen ('They will be all right. Definitely.'), even the criticism of 'boring Liverpool' after the 1-0 first-leg win, led surprisingly by Franz Beckenbauer, whose Bayern Munich side have been known to be similarly efficient, cannot disturb his mood ahead of his first away trip with the team since October.
'It's always nice to be criticised,' he says with a smile. 'That means people are not indifferent to your performance. The worst thing in life is that people don't even notice us. I prefer us to be criticised in the quarter-final than to be out of the competition in the second stage.
'The second leg of a tie is always the most important, whether you play at home or away,' he adds. 'In the first, three things can happen. You put yourself in a good position to qualify, which Manchester United did in La Coruna, or you keep your options and secure the possibility of qualifying, or you ruin your chance.'
Liverpool under Houllier, as they showed in winning the Uefa Cup last season, have become adept at keeping their options then securing the result, as exemplified in the 0-0 draw in Barcelona followed by the thrilling 2-0 win over Roma that took them to the last eight. The Bay Arena will hold no terrors and you can even see them stretching their advantage.
After the result in the Nou Camp, Houllier decided that it was time to return. 'Once we had drawn there, I knew I would be at the Roma game,' he says.
'I knew it would be a special night. But I couldn't tell anybody. I didn't want the talk before the game to be about Houllier's comeback. I didn't want the boys to lose focus and concentration.'
The abiding image, off the field, that night is of him laughing almost uncontrollably early on. What was all that about? 'Phil Thompson, he whistles all the time,' says Houllier, cracking up again as he tells the tale. 'Then he was searching for something in the grass. I said "Phil, what are you doing?" I thought it was a superstition or something. Then he showed me his teeth. He had whistled and his teeth fell out. He showed me and I burst out laughing. It was just too funny.'
Houllier was in constant touch with Thompson and the staff through the winter but had stopped watching live games on TV after the 1-0 win over Sunderland in November. He had got too involved in the planning for it, he says, too excited by the commentary, which made it sound to him a closer game than it was. 'Then Phil said to me, "Gérard, we were never in trouble". And against Roma, I never thought they would break us. This is why I sit on the bench. I have trained myself to become emotionally detached there.'
That training happened during the period before he watched his next live game, the 4-0 win at Leeds in early February. 'When you have a heart operation, you can get more fragile emotionally and some people can get depressed. The fact that I kept in touch with the team kept me mentally alert. Working with limited energy helped me to keep away from emotional depression.'
So is he a different person? 'As a manager I don't think so but as a man, yes. People ask if I am going to ease off but you only succeed in this job if you are 100 per cent in it. As a man, I don't think anybody would go through that experience in life without saying, "Oh my God, I am still alive here". Yes, it changes your life, your outlook.'
He will, he says, do less of the scouting and worrying about the peripheral issues that caused him to overdo things, and might give this summer's World Cup finals a miss, his first absence from a major tournament since 1978. And he is, he insists, prepared emotionally for the potentially momentous events of the next few weeks - a Premiership title tilt and that possible European Cup semi-final against United.
'There was nothing wrong in terms of stress or tension. People who see me before a game know I am pretty relaxed, cool and collected. I am not somebody who is overwhelmed by the tension of events. The problem was I overworked. I will not do that again.
'Sometimes when people overwork, they get a virus, break their leg, even get cancer. My aorta was complaining. It was not a heart attack, nothing to do with coronaries. What I was good at was doing several things at one time. Now I want to be better in quality than quantity. I will need some time to break off and rest.' Probably to watch some game somewhere in the world beamed in by satellite.
Copyright - The Guardian