Across the 2003/04 season, I nearly had two significant breakups. The first, definite breakup was with my first girlfriend. I could lie and say it was a “conscious uncoupling” – like Gwyneth Paltrow and that bellend from Coldplay – but only one of us was aware that an uncoupling was going to take place and that was her.
I’m not ashamed to say that there were more tears than watching the first ten minutes of the film Up. In spite of this I was over the relationship pretty quickly. The Return of the King was out in the cinema at the end of 2003. What better way to get over a breakup by watching the arrival of the Riders of Rohan appear to save the city of Minas Tirith?
That first breakup would have paled into nothing had the second one actually happened. During the tumultuous 2003/04 season for my beloved Reds, I nearly had to breakup with one Steven George Gerrard.
Throughout that season and into the arguably more successful 2004/05 campaign, our captain was rumoured to leave Liverpool. He also helped egg those rumours on himself at times.
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that much of the club’s history following 2003 would have looked very, very different without Gerrard.
Suffice to say, a binge-watch of The Lord of the Rings was not going to be needed to get over it. Although when I take you through the final season of Gerard Houllier, you’ll see why I was reaching for the hardest alcohol I could get my hands on after most match days…
Start as you mean to go on
The warning signs were already there for Liverpool and Houllier before a ball was kicked in the summer of 2003. The end of the previous season had been disappointing. With the “new Zidane” (Bruno Cheyrou) and company managing to finish fifth in the table and miss out on the Champions League.
Despite winning the League Cup, that season represented a final warning for the beleaguered Frenchman. Produce the goods or it’s all over. However, a single glance at the transfer ‘ins’ during the summer made for uninspiring reading.
Only the dependable Steve Finnan would go on to become a regular in the side. Add to the general feeling of malaise around the club the fact that we lost 2-1 at home to Chelsea on the opening day of the season. It wouldn’t take Nostradamus to recognise that this was a club going in a very different way to its manager, unless things could be turned around.
Insipid, back-to-back goalless draws followed before the Reds twatted Everton over at the Theatre of Beams. But beating the Blues in the derby is hardly any indicator of form since we tend to regularly beat them anyway.
Between 28th September and 13th December, Houllier’s side suffered five hugely damaging league defeats. Along with an embarrassing League Cup exit at home to Bolton Wanderers. It was the legendary Youri Djourkaeff who applied the coup de grace to our ‘defence’ of our League Cup. His penalty ensured we would limp out at the fourth round stage.
All around the club, there were whispers that this was to be the last season for Michael Owen, as well as Gerrard, who had become talismanic at the club since his debut in 1998. He represented arguably – alongside the treble season – Gerard Houllier’s finest contribution to Liverpool Football Club.
Without Houllier, Gerrard may never have got the chance to become the club legend he would go on to be. With talk of both star players possibly leaving, it felt like the gloom that enveloped the club wouldn’t go away. By Christmas however, that end goal was a mere pipe dream thanks to the terrible performances and woeful home defeats to Arsenal, Manchester United and Southampton.
Still though, there was always that sweet, sweet bit of Tolkien to look forward to at the cinema. Who needs girlfriends when you have Legolas and that magnificent head of hair, eh?
Hou let the dross out?
After Christmas, we managed to inflict a modicum of revenge on Chelsea by beating them 1-0 at Stamford Bridge. A scoreline not nearly as astonishing as the fact that it was Bruno Cheyrou, that byword for absolute shite, who scored the crucial goal.
El-Hadj Diouf (remember him?) was sent off as well, providing a marvellous microcosm of his time at Liverpool which can only be compared with the sinking of the Titanic in terms of how disastrous it was.
Another win, against Aston Villa, quickly followed, but between 10th January and 14th March 2004 we wouldn’t win a single game. This shambolic run also included a Didier Drogba-inspired defeat and exit from the UEFA Cup at the hands of Marseille. Old hands like Carragher and Hyypia struggled to stem the flow of the magnificent Drogba as he wreaked havoc amongst them.
Liverpool were playing on auto-pilot. Sleepwalking through their fixtures as if they knew that a change of the guard was inevitable. Gerrard made no attempt to hide the fact that he was unhappy and Owen wouldn’t commit to a new contract.
The football was boring, often muddled. The seeming lack of ability to change the mood from the manager was making the internet message boards (kids, ask your parents) light up in fury. To compound all of this, a home draw against Portsmouth in the FA Cup fourth round meant a replay, and a pitiful 1-0 away defeat and another early, disappointing cup exit.
Just two seasons before, the Reds had finished second and there was real talk of a genuine title tilt. All of that was now an elusive dream. A combination of poor transfers, increasingly poor playing styles and a refusal by Houllier to adapt to the ever-changing game (this was the season when the outstanding Arsenal went unbeaten with slick, crisp football) meant that just finishing in fourth spot was by no means secure.
There’ll be Houll to pay
In the end it would be the old guard who would ride to the rescue. With six wins in eleven games and goals scored by the likes of Heskey, Owen (who finished top scorer again), Gerrard, Hyypia, Murphy and Hamaan dragged the exhausted, jaded club across the line.
A final home game and a draw against Newcastle was all that was needed to finish fourth and secure UCL football. How vital did that turn out to be in 2004/05…
The negativity that plagued the club all season was still hanging heavily in the air. Many fans had lost patience with the manager, who was clearly struggling and had never been the same since his illness two seasons earlier. The signings that had been made had offered no tangible impact and there was no serious money being invested in the squad. With the exception of the incoming £14 million Djibril Cisse, who would never get to play for the manager who signed him.
The summer brought more “will he, won’t he” sagas from both Owen and Gerrard. At the time I thought to myself that I could hardly blame them. They had been the star players at the club for years and as it stood, the club were no closer to serious honours than they had been at the end of the 2001 season.
All around the city, the overall feeling was one of tiredness, of a desire for something new. In the end, the Champions League qualification was not enough to save the likeable Houllier. He left the club by mutual consent on the back of a bizarre press conference which he ended with the retort “if they want to go back to the 1970s and 1980s they can, but it won’t be with me”.
This was unusual (to say the least) for two reasons: the first was that he was indeed prophetically right as he was not going to be the manager much longer. The second was that it was an odd thing to state to the fans that we wouldn’t be going back to the most successful era in the club’s history.
As it happened, Owen would go on to leave. He even sat out of Champions League qualifiers so as not to put his move to Real Madrid in jeopardy (he said that he chose Madrid as he wanted to win the Champions League, ha). Gerrard would stay – but the rumours would also stay with him.
In the end, it was just too much for the Frenchman. The Liverpool manager’s job must be a blessing and a curse. We canonise our bosses who bring us joy – and Houllier was no exception.
However, football moves on and people have to move with it. Despite the fact that – in terms of silverware – he remains our most successful manager of the modern era, Houllier ended up being driven to distraction by the enormity of the job. As did Benitez after him, and Roy Evans before him.
The 2003/04 season was one to forget for all concerned. Until I decided to bring it back and dump it into your minds like a festering turd. But I refuse to apologise for this for two reasons:
The first is that we should embrace our history, both the good and the bad. In this modern, ‘we must win every game 9-0’ era, it is important for us older heads to remind the new generation of Reds that however bad they think it is now, we can remind them otherwise.
The second is that even though he would part company with us, Gerard Houllier getting us to fourth position in the league in an otherwise forgettable season would mean that we could go on and embark on a run under the new manager that would culminate in the greatest night in the history of our club, under the lights in Istanbul.
Up the Reds.