Back in December of last year, that year where days and months seemed to melt into one whole mass of time, Liverpool lost an adopted son in Gerard Houllier.
His death affected me a lot; being a teenager when he arrived as joint-manager in an ill-fated experiment alongside Roy Evans I watched as this elegant Frenchman, when appointed sole manager, transformed our club from an anachronistic throwback into the modern entity we have today.
Houllier was a wonderful man who quite literally nearly gave his life for our club left behind a fine legacy and many reasons for us all to be thankful. As my tribute to him, here are five – although there are many more.
When he became sole manager off the back of a League Cup defeat to Spurs in November 1998, Houllier began what he described as a “Five-Year Plan” centred on bringing discipline and a hard-working ethos to a side that had been dismissed as a group of players who were not taking their responsibilities as players of England’s most successful club all that seriously.
He knew that it would take time; the last trophy the club lifted was in 1995 and despite the fact that at times Evans cultivated a fine, brave and attacking side it was a light touch at the back and at times was a shambles on the pitch.
Houllier would change all of that. Out went Paul Ince, Jason McAteer, Steve Harkness and several others of the “old school” and in came players (see below) that would help refresh the squad, along with a complete overhaul of the facilities of Melwood and new, strict diet and training regimes.
It is entirely fair to say that without Houllier pressing the reset button in such a manner, we would not be in the shape that we are in today as a modern football club.
Signatures Magnifiques (and Erik Meijer)
Houllier knew that to put his own stamp of authority on the team, he would have to bring in his own signings.
Not content to get rid of the players who he felt were either past their best or a bad influence on the side (note how he very publicly stood up to Paul Ince in front of the rest of the squad in an early indicator of who the new sheriff in town was), Houllier drafted in signings who for the most part would go on to become Liverpool legends.
Players like Stephane Henchoz, Sander Westerveld and Vladimir Smicer would carve out legacies for themselves at the club. But it was the signing of two players in particular in that summer of 1999 that would really help transform Liverpool into a side worthy of a seat at the top table again: Didi Hamann and Sami Hyypia. Both players would be the equivalent of daylight robbery in terms of what the club paid for them (£8 million and, incredibly, £2.6 million respectively) and both players would be utterly integral to the success of the club across the next seven years.
An honourable mention here must surely go to Phil Thompson as well, who Houllier cannily recruited as an assistant – a man who lived and breathed the club and would become just as essential to Houllier’s plans as any of the signings he made. Future signings would include Emile Heskey, Markus Babbel and the legendary Gary McAllister, proving that in the early days at least, the Frenchman knew how to spot a quality player.
Before Trent Alexander-Arnold and Curtis Jones gave us local boys to cherish, there were others. Names that will be on the lips of our fans for generations to come, in songs on the Kop and on the sprawling wasteland of social media.
Many managers at this hallowed club have harnessed Liverpudlians and made them the beating heart of their sides, players like Terry McDermott, John Aldridge, Tommy Smith and Ian Callaghan to name but a few have etched their names into the fine fabric of club’s history.
Houllier was not different to his forebears – he would establish local players as the beating heart of his Five Year Plan, bringing one Jamie Carragher very much into his plans – “Carra” would go on to become second only to the legendary Ian Callaghan as in the appearance stakes, with 737 games to his name and his status forever preserved as a leader, organiser and tough-tackling folk hero. And although not a Scouser, Michael Owen would really come into his own in the early years of Houllier’s reign, forming a deadly partnership with Heskey and raking in the goals.
But it is one local boy who Gerard Houllier is most responsible for bringing to the fore, a young lad from Whiston who would go on to become one of the greatest ever – if not the greatest ever – player to ever pull on the red shirt: Steven Gerrard. On a cold night in November 1998, Gerrard was brought on as a substitute for Vegard Heggem (there’s a pub quiz question for you) and the rest is history.
Suffice to say, his fifty starts and ten goals in all competitions in the Treble Season of 2000/01 were only the beginning for our greatest ever local boy.
Gathering Cups in May
Before Gerard Houllier became the manager of Liverpool Football Club, we had won two trophies in seven years. By the time he left, we had collected two FA Cups, a UEFA Cup, two League Cups and the UEFA Super Cup.
The Treble Season to this day remains one of my happiest times as a Liverpool fan; the games we played and the teams we cut down – and then the barmy, utterly ridiculous manner in which we won each of the finals of that season…unforgettable. And strangely, given that we were so defensively strong under Houllier, the games against Birmingham, Arsenal and Alaves were almost the antithesis of Houllier’s style of play.
But still, what a season, and what a collection of silverware the Frenchman brought us. And truckloads of memories along the way.
The Return to the Promised Land
The third-placed finish of the 2000-01 season was arguably as significant as the three trophies that Liverpool gobbled up in that campaign and for one major reason: it secured the club, for the first time since Heysel, a return to the European Cup – now known as the Champions League.
This was Liverpool’s return to the top table and it had been a long time coming. The season after the Treble, we struck out into that great unknown, a revamped format with two group stages; the first was negotiated with ease whilst the second presented Liverpool with the formidable Barcelona and the mighty Roma. And it was against Roma, at Anfield, needing a win that saw one of the most emotional and poignant nights in our history.
Barely twelve weeks earlier, Houllier had been rushed to hospital at half time in a match against Leeds complaining of heart troubles. He actually died on the operating table was saved by the incredible staff at Liverpool’s Broadgreen hospital. And now, on a night were Liverpool needed to win by two goals, Houllier made a shock return to the dugout, sending the Kop into a frenzy of excitement and delight.
Of course, we did win that night, with two goals from Emile Heskey and the mercurial Jari Litmanen. Although never the same after his operation, Houllier’s commitment to the club was never more obvious than that emotional night under the lights at L4.
Gerard Houllier should rightfully go down as one of our all-time great managers. He never quite got us to the summit, but he absolutely returned us to the promised land, reinvented for the modern era and reinvigorated as a force to be reckoned with once more.
Reposer dans la patron de la paix.