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It's a wonder that Houllier's in Gerland

Paul Doyle simply can't understand why Lyon think Gérard Houllier can bring them the Champions League

Friday June 3, 2005

Jean-Michel Aulas and Gerard Houllier
L'odd couple Photograph: Fred Dufour/Getty/
 

The bus was late, the dog ate my homework, my satchel spontaneously combusted. When he was a school teacher you can be sure Gérard Houllier heard every excuse imaginable. Clever man that he is, he noted them all and trotted out their football equivalents whenever his Liverpool side lost. Opponents and fans eventually saw through his game and in 2004 he was sacked. Last weekend, however, he returned to management at the most unexpected of places: high-flying Lyon.

Jean-Michel Aulas is a shrewd and successful operator. Business has made him rich and football has made him famous: when he became chairman of Olympique Lyonnais in 1987 the club was squatting in the basement of the French second division and now, less than two decades later, they regularly lord it in the group stages of the Champions League, and have just clinched their fourth French title in a row. It's an extraordinary tale ... but one which, following the appointment of Houllier, is about to take a stinging downward twist.

Houllier is the wrong man at the right time. It's the right time for Lyon to hire a new manager because, well, their previous one left. After winning two titles in two years with 'OL', Paul Le Guen decided to walk out on the club for an as-yet-unidentified new challenge. Failing to convince Le Guen to sign a new deal was the first major setback Aulas has suffered since taking charge of his hometown club, and, of course, replacing him with Houllier is the second.

"We've enjoyed tremendous success in recent years, hoisted ourselves above any other team in France, but what we needed was someone who can take us to the next level," explained Aulas when unveiling the new manager. Any Liverpool fans listening must have been baffled.

Houllier proved at Anfield that he can take a disintegrating club and give it a backbone. He can weed out wasters, instil discipline and, as the Reds' Mellwood training complex demonstrates, install important infrastructures. He took a Liverpool club that was stumbling like a pathetic tramp, still drunk on long-gone glories, and got it back on the straight and narrow. He did what a good teacher should do.

But he is a teacher not a nurturer. He preaches a dogma; he can't foster improvisation or sharpen creativity. He fears such variables. He signed Jari Litmanen because knowledge told him he was an exquisite player, but he hardly ever fielded him because the Finn's unboxable genius made him queasy. He was finally frogmarched out of Liverpool precisely because he showed he was unable to take them to - were you watching, were you watching, were you watching Mr Aulas? - the next level.

Houllier would be a perfect appointment at Marseille, Bordeaux, Nantes or any club in need of stability, which means just about any French club other than Lyon. OL are impeccably run and, on the pitch, have developed a distinctive, thrilling style of play, becoming the sort of fluid and vibrant side that Houllier's Liverpool habitually sought to smother with sandbags. What's more, Lyon have momentum. Every year, they get progressively better in the Champions League, where this season they topped a group including Manchester United and were the tournament's top scorers. They were then surprisingly dumped out by PSV on penalties in the quarter-finals and critically, Aulas seems to have landed on his head.

"The disappointment in Eindhoven was high in our minds when we thought about the new manager," said Aulas, without resolving the mystery as to why he thought Houllier could inject the nous required to go further next season. Houllier has only been as far as the last eight once, and then he surrendered the initiative to Leverkusen by bizarrely replacing Dietmar Hamann, who was having a masterful game, with Vladimir Smicer, an altogether different proposition. Liverpool went out with a whimper.

It wasn't, of course, the first or last time Houllier flopped spectacularly. The primary reason his appointment was greeted with dismay by most Lyon fans (who had been teased by names such as Ottmar HItzfeld, Giovanni Trappatoni and Didier Deschamps) is because they recall with horror Houllier's cursed spell in charge of their national team. In 1993, Houllier's France needed just one point from matches against Bulgaria and Israel to pocket their tickets to the following year's World Cup. Absurdly, they lost both games. What riled French fans almost as much as that capitulation was that Houllier was tacky enough to come out after the second defeat and blame the whole debacle on David Ginola, who had misplaced a cross in the last minute.

That's the sort of man-management Lyon could do without. Indeed, it seems Houllier has already made enemies in the dressing room: last week, when rumours of Houllier's appointment bobbed to the surface and refused to be flushed away, Sylvain Wiltord publicly declared that he hoped the next boss would be "anyone but Houllier." When asked about this outburst after his enthronement, Houllier laughed and said dismissively, "I don't know why he said that, I've never even worked with him."

But Wiltord obviously has reasons for shooting so suddenly from the hip: it could be because players who have worked with Houllier have told him he can't cut it at the very top or it could be that Wiltord formed that opinion himself by forcing himself to watch Liverpool from 2002 to 2004, but either way, the former Arsenal man is someone Houllier needs to take seriously: he's massively influential among his team-mates, so much so that he captained France for the first time last Tuesday (in a friendly against Hungary) because all the Lyon players in the squad asked manager Raymond Domenech to give him the armband.

Of course, WIltord may not stick around. Though his agent has said, naturellement, that his comments on Houllier were misconstrued, the belief around the Stade Gerland is that he's serenading other clubs and that his discontent may have rubbed off on team-mates Sidney Govou, Nilmar and Mahamadou Diarra, who are also said to have started cavorting in shop windows across the continent. For Aulas to make an appointment that risked provoking such undignified antics is quite simply bizarre, especially as he already knew that he's likely to lose outstanding midfielders Michael Essien and Juninho (the club's top scorer last season).

All those departures would, at least, generate huge piles of cash. Which brings us, with a wince if you're a Liverpool fan, to Houllier's record in the transfer market.

Will he again go out of his way to pay good money for planks like Igor Biscan, Salif Diao, Bruno Cheyrou and Bernard Diomède? Will he squander £10m on the new El Hadji Diouf? Will he, as he did with Harry Kewell, perform the rare feat of stumbling on a bargain and then making even that look like a rip-off by deploying the player out of position and shattering his confidence? Would he dare buy another Emile Heskey?

He's already admitted to making overtures to Milan Baros. This is nothing short of perverse, the sort of mind-boggling reasoning that once saw Houllier drop Michael Owen, put Jamie Carragher in midfield in the most stultifying of 4-5-1 formations and then moan - after Liverpool predictably lost to Arsenal - that the referee prevented his side from playing entertaining football. Baros can be dangerous, but when Houllier was at Anfield, he darn near drove the Czech to tearing his precious hair out by dropping him every time he played well.

Houllier, of course, has ignored questions on all such quirks but, in contrast, has wasted no time reminding people that he has already won the French league with PSG - 19 years ago. He has also mentioned one or a million times that he once guided Liverpool to five trophies in a year and, in fairness, has kept an impressively straight face when explaining that one of those was the Community Shield. Aulas, as if entranced by Houllier's words, has neglected to point out that none of the other trophies won in that year, with the possible exception of the Super Cup, are of any interest to Lyon, for whom the Champions League is the holy grail.

Yet Aulas can speak with a flourish too. Recently he's been saying he wants Lyon to become "the ultimate Formula 1 car ... capable of shifting through the gears to cope with all types of road." Houllier took up the theme at his inaugural press conference, quipping that he was delighted to be "the new driver." Yet the 57-year-old has never, ever made it to top gear. He's well capable of hitting reverse, though.

Copyright - Guardian

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