Gerard Houllier – From deputy head teacher to Liverpool great, the story of a Liverpool ‘legend’.

On Monday morning, it was announced that one of football’s greatest managers Gerard Houllier had passed away. Gerard is a man that many believe brought Liverpool Football Club into the 21st Century in the best of manners. During his time at the club, he changed everything including the attitude of players and their lifestyles off the pitch. He won trophies. He also gave a debut to Steven Gerrard, one if not the most influential Liverpool player ever. 

Before Houllier turned his career to football, he was a University student at Lille University where he would complete an English degree. As part of this course, Gerard would spend a year in Liverpool. Attending a 10-0 thrashing of Dundalk, in 1969. Bill Shankly was the manager then. He would use his degree to later become a deputy headmaster at a French school, leaving this role to become a player-manager aged 26.

First of all, we should talk about his career as a footballer. He wasn’t the best of footballers, at all. In fact, Danny Murphy speaking to ‘Talksport’ said ‘Gerard would ping balls across the training ground, people used to laugh, he wasn’t a great player’. He would feature for French minnows Hucqueliers after coming through their youth system, going on to play for Le Touquet. Gerard would never threaten the professional ranks as a footballer.

It was at Le Touquet that Houllier earned his coaching badges, the club’s player-manager for three years. He would spend a respective six years at Noeux-Les-Mines and a respective three at Lens before he transferred to the dugout at Paris Saint-Germain. At Noeux-Les-Mines he would win three promotions, despite limited resources, taking the club to the second division. Lens would be promoted to the top division and qualify for the UEFA Cup. He transformed PSG from a side that finished 13th to a club that would win the league, in his first campaign. This would dip as they would soon finish 7th and 15th. 

However, he had done more than enough to show that he was worthy of a coaching role within the French national team’s system. Gerard would be Michel Platini’s assistant manager, upon the departure of Henri Michel. This wasn’t a successful time though, France’s best finish between 1988-1992 was a group stage finish in the ’92 Group stage. Due to this, Platini was sacked yet Houllier would stay in the French setup. Gerard Houllier was named manager of the French senior team in 1992. This was a team that consisted of a few ‘world-class’ talents, such as Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps and Eric Cantona. Gerard would be in charge of twelve games: winning seven and losing four. However, this wasn’t enough to qualify for the 1994 World Cup thus he would resign from his duties in the November of ’93. Gerard Houllier would spend three years managing the youth talents of the country whilst continuing his role as technical director. France under 18s would be victorious in the 1996 Under18s Euros and this team consisted of Premier league great Thierry Henry.  

After many years in France, Gerard would return to the city that he called home for a year during his student life. Houllier would return to Liverpool being partnered up with Roy Evans as joint managers in 1998. This wouldn’t be a successful partnership. The ‘reds’ were knocked out of the league cup with a defeat to Tottenham, after losing their place in the UEFA Cup with a defeat against Spanish side Celta Vigo. Evans would soon leave, Houllier being named sole manager. In this role, he could truly transform Liverpool who hadn’t won the league for eight years and were struggling with consistent off the pitch attitudes. The team was, at the time, labeled the ‘spice boys’.  In Jamie Carragher’s autobiography, ‘Carra’, he said ‘Gerard rigorously modernized Liverpool’s traditions, the club’s recovery began under him. Players started to care more and the attention to detail was amazing’.

Gerard took a continental approach to his recruitment. During his first summer transfer window, players such as Paul Ince, David James, Jason McAteer were all sold and Steve McMannaman would depart Anfield on a free transfer. Centre-half Sami Hyypia, defensive midfielder Dietmar Hamann, and ‘heading specialist’ Eric Meijer were upon the list that would be signed. However, the youth system would be used to good effect. It wasn’t a totally continental approach to the squad revamp. Defender Jamie Carragher, midfielder Steven Gerrard and forward Micheal Owen became a cornerstone of the team. 

Along with the squad, the training facilities at Melwood were also transformed into something ‘special’. Gerrard, just like Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, was a Frenchman who knew what needed to be done to turn his team into winners and he was determined to do so.

Micheal Owen was a great talent that had been produced by the club’s youth system. However, he needed someone to partner him. Another forward that would be on his wavelength, someone to do the ‘dirty’ work whilst he could use his pace to tire defences. With that in mind, Emile Heskey would be signed in 2000.

Taken from Owen’s book ‘Reboot’, published in 2019.

‘When Emile first turned up at the club, I used to look at him and think you’re absolutely unplayable. I remember playing a reserve game alongside him against Italy, the Italian defenders would swarm around me but Emile would fend them all off. I thought, you’ll do for me! He was a terrific player: big, strong and had a good touch – he offered something different. He was very unselfish, he loved scoring goals but he could also hold the ball up very well and look for chances to put me in. I’ve played with many better strikers with arguably bigger reputations across my career: Shearer, Raul and Fowler etc. However, I’d have to say my favourite strike partnership was with Emile Heskey. He enhanced my play’

As well as the signing of Heskey, Gary McAllister and Nicky Barmby were another two that would call Anfield ‘home.’ 

With these signings, Liverpool had a fantastic 2000/01 campaign. Winning a cup treble: League cup, the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup. They would finish third in the Premier League, qualifying for the next season’s Champions League tournament. They would soon win the Charity Shield against Manchester United and the UEFA Super Cup against Bayern Munich, all in 2001. This was a phenomenal year for Liverpool, with five trophies and two great awards for academy products. Micheal Owen winning the Ballon D’or and Steven Gerrard winning the PFA young player of the season. It was on Houllier’s hospital bed, before a European fixture, that he would ring Owen and tell him about the award that he would soon receive. Micheal couldn’t believe it, he was amazed, he would be the first English man to win the Ballon D’or since Stanley Matthews.

This campaign alongside his general work was enough for Gerard to be named in Jamie Carragher’s book ‘Carra’ as the best manager he had worked for. ‘Gerard spoke my football language’.

Houllier had started his reign at Liverpool in the best possible manner. However, his health deteriorated and this would cause great worry across the Liverpool squad. Another thing mentioned in Micheal Owen’s book ‘Reboot’ was the compassion that the manager showed towards his players. ‘Houllier would ask about the player’s families and when he asked you knew he was being serious. With some people, they do that and you know they are just doing it to seem nice but Gerard did it and he was nice. He really would care about you.  He would remember what you had told him the last time you spoke, that’s how you knew he cared about off-the-pitch matters’. This care even stretched to his recruitment process. He would ask players if someone he was looking to sign was a player that key squad members would like to be brought into the club. Squad unity was important. Gerard would discover that he had a bad heart condition in 2001, after falling ill during a match against Leeds. At halftime, he was found unconscious in the toilets and the players were rushed back out. Their manager would soon be rushed to the hospital with the use of an ambulance.

Caretaker manager Phil Thompson would guide Liverpool to a second placed league finish with the absence of Houllier, Liverpool’s best-recorded league finish in the ‘premier league’ at the time. 

He would return to Liverpool to manage the ‘reds’ during the 2002/03 campaign. However, this was a fairly unsuccessful season. They would finish fifth and Houllier’s summer signings were highly criticized: El Hadji Diouf (£10million), Salif Diao (£5million) and Bruno Cheyrou (£4million). It was also deemed a failure to not make Nicolas Anelka’s time at the club permanent. However, it would be the season that Liverpool would defeat Manchester United 2-0 in the League cup final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. 

Another good thing came in 2003 as Steven Gerrard would be named club captain. 

Gerrard Houllier would depart Anfield in May 2004, following a couple of seasons of deemed ‘unattractive football’ and a perceived lack of support from the ‘reds’ faithful. Off the pitch and in the calendar year of 2001, Houllier had done phenomenally well. However, his time was up. 

In Jamie Carragher’s autobiography ‘Carra’, the former Liverpool centre half says ‘I felt sorry for Gerard but the decision was the correct one’.

Rafa Benitez would be appointed Liverpool manager in the summer of 2004 and with a team that had been recruited by the departed manager, they would win the UEFA Champions League with a performance deemed the ‘miracle of Istanbul’.

Upon his departure from Anfield in 2004, he would go on to manage French league winners Lyon before returning to England to manage Aston Villa. Houllier would also make a return to the French national set up, as technical director.

Gerard would pass away, on 14th December 2020 following a heart operation. He will be missed by all that knew him and all of the fans that he had given great memories to. He truly transformed Liverpool Football Club and some say that today’s successes started with the actions he made during his reign.

Tributes to Gerard Houllier – taken from Liverpool’s official website ‘https://www.liverpoolfc.com/news/announcements/420028-tributes-to-gerard-houllier’ :

‘I didn’t know Gerard too well – I met him a couple of times, but in those few moments he created a relationship with me that was really special. He is a true Liverpool legend and he is a true coaching legend. He was really influential in the game. A great coach, but a human being who gave you a really warm feeling when you were around him. For all of us it is a big loss and a really sad day’. (Jurgen Klopp)

‘Devastated to hear the news that my former boss Gerard Houllier has passed away. I will never forget what this man did for me and my career. Rest in peace Boss. YNWA x’ (Steven Gerrard)

‘Very sad news about Gerard Houllier. He was a gentleman and a great footballing person; I enjoyed his company many times. His legacy at LFC will forever be appreciated, respected and never forgotten. Marina and I offer our sincere condolences to his family. RIP Gerard. YNWA’ (Kenny Dalglish)

‘Absolutely devastated by the news about Gerard Houllier, I was in touch with him only last month to arrange him coming to Liverpool. Loved that man to bits, he changed me as a person & as a player & got Liverpool back winning trophies. RIP Boss’. (Jamie Carragher)

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