It was Monday, 24th May 2004. I sat at my desk tired, hungry and jaded, occasionally clicking the “refresh” button at the top of my computer screen, waiting to see if the inevitable news had been confirmed. Liverpool Football Club was set to announce the departure of Gérard Houllier, after seven years at the helm.
By the time that I had gotten home, it had happened. A dignified Houllier sat in front of the media, and spoke of all the good times that he had enjoyed during his time. For Liverpool fans, in general, this news came to a positive response. Two seasons and seemingly going nowhere fast, with many misfits bought for ridiculous fees on top. I, however, couldn’t just look forward to the future, just yet. I couldn’t help but wonder just what might have been…
Throughout history, people have done and said things they later will have regretted. Some have been fatal, others simply amusing.
Joseph P. Kennedy once said, back in 1936; “I have no political ambitions for myself or my children."
Chairman of IBM, told the world in the 1930s; "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
Bill Gates, one of the world’s wealthiest men stated, back in 1981; "640K ought to be enough for anyone."
How about when Hitler led his military army into battle against Russia in the winter, that few German soldiers could handle? Or how about when Gérard Houllier took off Didi Hamann against Bayer Leverkusen, back in the 2002 Champions League quarter finals?
I hate to pinpoint specific moments in matches or events, because everybody makes mistakes. Everyday. Whilst sitting here at my computer, I might be making one. I may have forgotten to pick up my son from football practice; I may have forgotten it’s my wife and I’s anniversary. People are entitled to them. It’s what they do afterwards that defines their character and charisma.
Houllier had proven to the world in the past two years that his side has one of the shrewdest defences in the business. In the treble season, the back two partnership of Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz were indispensable. During the successful UEFA cup campaign in 2000/2001, Liverpool picked up two clean sheets against Porto, two against Barcelona and one, away from home, against Roma. Without such solidity at the back, Liverpool wouldn’t have been able to rely upon their attacking strengths to bag them the three trophies. Even though it is those that put the ball in the back of the net that get the recognition in the media.
When Liverpool, after keeping seven clean sheets in twelve games facing some of the stiffest opposition in European football, conceded three goals against a Leverkusen side who themselves were more renowned for their defensive capabilities, many eyebrows were raised. Despite earlier in the campaign being outclassed in every way imaginable against Barcelona, falling to a 3-1 defeat, things had gradually improved since then.
After the first tie ended 1-0 thanks to a Sami Hyypia goal just before the half time interval, scoring two goals in Germany would have surely secured the tie, and considering the past defensive record, won the game on the day, too.
Michael Ballack, whose talent shown particularly in Bayer’s Champions League campaign won him a move to the more lucrative Bayern Munich, opened the scoring with a truly wonderful strike. Xavier hit back before the interval, and everything was looking fine and dandy. Klaus Toppmoller promised his side would attack for the ninety minutes, and he was true to his words. Liverpool remained under constant pressure.
It was then, with the score still at 1-1 were Houllier made, as they say in his homeland, a big faux pas. Possibly. Who knows? At 1-1, with Didi still on the field, Liverpool still may have crumbled. But the job that the German, who will have known Leverkusen very well from his time over in Germany, was now inexistent. Vladimir Smicer was thrown on in a far more attacking role. Was Houllier trying to finish the game off there and then? Or did he genuinely believe that Smicer could operate successfully in holding the ball up in the ‘right end of the field of play’.
I’m not a psychic. But evidence suggests that from that point onwards Liverpool lost their bearing on that match. Ballack added a second, Berbatov grabbed a third. At 3-1, Liverpool were going out. Houllier was left scratching his head. Despite Litmanen pulling a goal back, Liverpool still went out, due to Lucio’s late goal. Perhaps it was destiny? Perhaps Alex Ferguson had bunged the referee, in an attempt to avoid an all-English semi-final tie (with his Manchester United side being conquered by Houllier’s men twice already that season)? Who knows? But many will pinpoint that occasion, 60 minutes on the clock at the Bayarena, to be a fatal one in Houllier’s Anfield career. Rome may not have been built in a day, but it could certainly be knocked down in that amount of time.
It was the 13th October 2001, Leeds United who, at that time, sat top of the Premiership table, were in town. Despite the sheer adulation of the treble season and finishing above the Lancashire side, Houllier couldn’t, on both occasions in the League, overturn his high-flying rivals. Losing 4-3, thanks to Mark Viduka at Elland Road and 2-1 at Anfield. The Frenchman had, however, defeated them in the FA cup 2-0, in his second journey to Cardiff that season.
Football was not an issue that day, though.
As Harry Kewell, a future acquisition of Gérard’s, fired Leeds a goal up; Houllier sat uncomfortably in his plastic seat in the dug-out. As he played his usual role, being the serene one, alongside the frantic Phil Thompson -- little was made of it. Until the second half, that is.
News spread around the ground like wild-fire about the news of the manager’s ill health. Danny Murphy grabbed an equalizer for the Reds, but strangely – nobody really cared about what was happening on the field.
Houllier had suffered a condition known as dissection of the aorta. As a result, he spent six months away from the sport.
The mosaic “GH” was held in the air by The Kop, against Manchester United. Liverpool won that particular game 3-1, and perhaps it was the inspiration of Houllier fighting for his life, insisting that he’ll once again be back in the Anfield dugout that won the game for the Reds.
The night of Roma, in which Liverpool won 2-0 and advanced to the quarter finals of the Champions League, was also the return of Houllier. Greeted by a polite Fabio Cappello and of course a mass of Liverpool fans, holding banners and flags aloft singing the Frenchman’s name – things were business as usual. Or were they? Was that merely a temporary reassurance? Was Houllier simply ‘never the same’, again?
The unfortunate sequence of events following speak for themselves.
Would Liverpool have number 19 in the trophy cabinet and number 5 (under Houllier) had he signed Duff and Anelka? It’s another unanswerable question.
In the summer of 2002, Liverpool fans across the globe were on cloud nine. Their side had finished a Premiership campaign with 80 points, for the first time since it changed its name from ‘Division One’. Such tally would usually have been enough to lift the crown, had it not been for Arsenal, who ended the season with 87. Some stated, rather boldly, that the 2001/2002 season was a far bigger achievement that the previous, treble season, in which Houllier secured the Worthington, FA and UEFA cup. With the World Cup on, it was a chance for Kopites to kick off their shoes, put their feet up and watch the events unfold.
Many, if not all, will have been baffled and no doubt amused, like the rest of the world, by the events on the first day. Senegal had beaten France, the Champions 1-0 via a goal from someone whose name would suit a haemorrhoid cream, more than it would a professional footballer: Papa Bouba Diop. The man who stole the show, however, was El Hadji Diouf, who was, at that time, playing his football in Ligue Une at Lens. Liverpool fans will have been delighted by the news that covered the newspapers during this period: that Houllier was in the hunt, and the lead, in the race for his signature.
He, alongside fellow Senegalese team-mate Salif Diao, Bruno Cheyrou and Alou Diarra, were brought in for a grand total of 19.5 million pounds. You all now know, as well as I, that Houllier might as well have placed this cash, pound by pound, in the nearest gutter.
During Houllier’s zenith, people would have suggested that he was a rather shrewd businessman, especially when it came down to his wheelings and dealings in the transfer market. Looking back, he simply wasn’t. Some of the players he signed were genuine bargains. You can sometimes assess how successful a manager will be based upon how he judges players available to him. Unless, of course, the side he inherits are perfect in every sense; they have young players who are certainties to set the world alight and the club also has the best youth system around. When does that ever happen though?
Take, for example, and compare Houllier’s purchases in the summer of 2000 and those in 2002. During the 2000/2001 season, Liverpool spent 22.5 million pound. Roughly three million pound more than they did 2002, for players that offered little for the squad. It just goes to show – it doesn’t matter how much you spend, all that does matter is on what.
Onwards and upwards
We could assess Houllier’s time in charge of the club all day, and get nowhere with it. All we care about now, is the future, with Rafa Benitez. And rightly so. No matter how successful we may prove to be, I’ll still think back on what might have been with Monsieur Houllier. Unfortunately things didn’t turn out as planned. Was it the reasons above? Or was it sheer incapability and lack of something new on Houllier’s par? Did his system ‘go stale’? Were the expectation levels unreasonably, and unfairly high? Who knows?
I for one, wish Gérard all the best with his new club. He has the chance to prove himself once again in a league he knows best. Good luck Houllier, we’ll always remember the good times.
Right now though, we need to raise our glasses and wish Benitez the very best of luck. A new epoch is upon us, lets sit back and enjoy the show.
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