How Gerard Houllier, the father of modern-day Liverpool, revolutionized a club drowning in nostalgia
DUBAI: There’s a famous banner that Liverpool fans unfurl on the Kop before home games.
Above images of Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Kenny Dalglish and Rafa Benitez, it says: “Success has many fathers.”
It has one glaring omission, however. Missing is the man who in many ways is the father of modern-day Liverpool Football Club — Gerard Houllier, who died on Monday at the age of 73.
It is often overlooked that the man who himself had stood on the Kop when teaching French in Liverpool during the late 1960s, revolutionized a club that was in danger of drowning in its own nostalgia.
Before his arrival in the summer of 1998, curiously to co-manage with Roy Evans, the club had since Shankly’s arrival five decades earlier experienced a long, unbroken lineage of managers who had been promoted from within, served the club gloriously as players or, in the case of Dalglish, both.
When Evans left in November of that year, the fabled “Boot Room” era at Anfield was well and truly over. Houllier immediately set about modernizing a club that had won no league championships since 1990 and only a League Cup and FA Cup during that time. Having feasted on one trophy after another in the 1970s and 80s, this was a famine for Liverpool fans.
Out went players he thought disruptive, the last lingering influences of the so-called Spice Boys, bad diets and ill-discipline on and off the field.
Having been technical director of the French national team that had just won the World Cup, he brought in modern coaching expertise, professionalism among the squad, healthy eating habits and a revamping of the club’s training facilities.
Above all, he bought or developed players who would end up serving Liverpool gloriously, and oversaw the rise of two who would become all-time club greats.
The team he would build was one that married strength, discipline and devastating football.
Sami Hyypia and Stephan Henchoz formed a formidable central defensive partnership, with the brilliant German Marcus Babel filling in at right-back. Left-back John Arne Riise joined a few years into his reign and became a cult hero. Didi Hamann was a trusted midfield pivot, and the young Danny Murphy flourished under Houllier’s mentorship.
Gary McAllister became arguably the club’s best-ever free signing, and the Czech duo of Patrick Berger and Vladimir Smicer would each contribute to some of Liverpool’s greatest triumphs, especially in Europe.
Up front, the beloved Robbie Fowler shone on and off before his departure and Emile Heskey was bought from Leicester City to act as the perfect foil for the jewel in Liverpool’s crown at the time; Michael Owen enjoyed the finest years of his career, and won a Ballon d’Or no less, during the Frenchman’s reign.
But perhaps Houllier’s greatest gift for the future of the club was his development of two youngsters who would go on to conquer Europe and become club legends; Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard.
As tributes poured in after the news of his death, the duo posted near identical messages that reiterated just what he meant to them and the club.
“Devastated to hear the news my former manager Gerard Houllier has passed away. I will never forget what this man did for me and my career. Rest in peace Boss. YNWA x,” Gerrard posted on Instagram.
On Twitter, Carragher wrote: “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 @LFC back winning trophies. RIP Boss.”
When those trophies came pouring in, after a dry first full season in charge, it was in glorious, historic fashion.
In 2000-01 Houllier led Liverpool to the treble of League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup, as well as backing the Champions League. For the only time in the club’s history, Liverpool would play the maximum amount of games they could possibly take in.
First Birmingham were beaten on penalties at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium to secure the League Cup, the club’s first trophy since the same competition was won in 1995 under Evans.
Then, on a wonderfully sunny day in Cardiff, Liverpool were utterly outplayed by Thierry Henry and Arsenal in the FA Cup final. And yet somehow, thanks to the spirit Houllier had instilled in his team and to Michael Owen’s genius, one of the competition’s most memorable comebacks was completed in the dying moments in front of hysterical Liverpool fans.
And having dispatched Barcelona in the semifinal of the UEFA Cup,Houllier’s “tireless team,” as one commentator called them, completed a unique treble with an astonishing 5-4 win over Alaves in Dortmund.
The image of Houllier and his players singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in front of what for the day had turned from a yellow to a red wall, remains one of the highlights of his time at the club.
A second place finish in 2001-02 had Liverpool fans dreaming of reaching the promised land of the Premier League title. Sadly, a heart operation that season meant Houllier had reached his peak, though there was yet another great day out in Cardiff as Liverpool beat Manchester United in the 2003 League Cup final.
In his last two seasons there would be some low points too. Selling crowd favorite Fowler was one. A failure to even qualify for the Champions League following the runner-up finish was another. Strangely, Benitez and Brendan Rodgers would suffer similar fates, respectively finishing 7th and 6th after second-place Premier League campaigns, a curse finally broken by Jurgen Klopp last season.
What Houllier and his team provided by the bucket load, beyond the silverware, was magical individual moments.
Michael Owen’s match-winning performance in Rome on the way to the UEFA Cup triumph, Anfield erupting as Houllier emerged from the tunnel for the first time after heart surgery to help inspire a famous Champions League win against the same opponents, and Murphy’s three match winners at Old Trafford come to mind.
But perhaps no moment sticks in the memory quite like McAllister’s absurd injury-time winner against Everton on April 16. As the Liverpool players celebrated at a stunned Goodison Park, the look on Houllier’s face was one of joyous disbelief. It’s how most Liverpool fans will remember him.
In his last season, Houllier ensured Liverpool returned to the Champions League before being replaced by Benitez. The Spanish coach would go on to mastermind Liverpool’s greatest-ever night in Istanbul.
The miraculous Champions League triumph against AC Milan was achieved with many of Houllier’s players, though he would never have dreamed of taking credit for it. His post-match visit to the dressing room at the Ataturk Stadium to congratulate Benitez and his players was misconstrued by many as an attempt to grab some of the glory.
It was nothing of the sort, simply the act of a man still in love with the club. Though Liverpool would endure some dark days in 2010s, Houllier’s contribution to future successes should never be forgotten.
Perhaps that banner can find space for one more father of Liverpool’s success.