Gerard Houllier, who died at the age of 73, was Liverpool’s French revolutionary. He won Ligue Un with two clubs two decades apart and did a treble during his time at Anfield but his legacy extended beyond his medal collection, impressive as it was.
Rafa Benitez’s Champions League triumph in 2005 came courtesy of plenty of players Houllier had either bought, in cases such as Sami Hyypia, Didi Hamann, Jerzy Dudek and Vladimir Smicer, or promoted and nurtured, like Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard, who he made Liverpool captain at 23.
France’s 1998 World Cup win featured players first capped by Houllier, in Marcel Desailly, Bixente Lizarazu and Youri Djorkaeff. While he had resigned as manager after failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, he was one of the architects of subsequent success as the French federation’s technical director.
At Anfield, he is remembered for an extraordinary season, but also for the sense of what might have been. Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola are the only foreign managers to have won more major trophies with English clubs, just as only Guardiola, Alex Ferguson and Joe Fagan have won three in a season, but Houllier’s health may have denied him still more glory.
“2001 should never be forgotten,” said Phil Thompson, his assistant manager. Liverpool’s seminal season 20 years ago, a 63-game epic culminating in League Cup, FA Cup and Uefa Cup wins, plus Champions League qualification, was Houllier’s masterpiece. An Anglophile and a Liverpool fan who had studied on Merseyside before becoming an English teacher, his name was to reverberate around Anfield. While he brought the great European nights back to Anfield, especially the 2001 semi-final win over Barcelona, he was also the great moderniser, the man who dragged Liverpool forward.
He was a disciplinarian who ended the drinking culture, an uncompromisingly tough character who dispensed with the captain Paul Ince, but also a great champion of youth. His proteges remained grateful. “Loved that man to bits,” Carragher said on Monday. “He changed me as a person.”
Michael Owen, who became European Footballer of the Year under Houllier’s management, said that he was “absolutely heartbroken. A great manager and a genuinely caring man.”
Thompson added: “One of the greatest moments of my life was when we came together in 1998. Just to be in his company was an absolute treat. So loyal, so passionate and extremely fierce.”
Houllier reinvented Liverpool as a counter-attacking, defensively resolute, mentally strong team with a habit of winning at Old Trafford. After only two trophies in a decade, they got three in 2001, with Owen’s double upsetting Arsenal in the FA Cup and Houllier’s inspired decision to sign a 35-year-old Gary McAllister paying particular dividends in their Uefa Cup triumph, clinched 5-4 against Alaves in the final. It fostered optimism that, long before Jurgen Klopp, he would secure Liverpool’s 19th league title.
Perhaps he would have done but for the heart attack that he suffered during a 2001 game against Leeds. Houllier returned to the touchline unexpectedly five months later, giving his side the fillip to beat Roma. Yet he felt diminished, his judgment failing him; three weeks later, after pronouncing Liverpool 10 games from greatness, he made the worst substitution of his career – Smicer for Hamann – prompting a Champions League exit to Bayer Leverkusen. Nevertheless, he won another League Cup and at least finished fourth in 2004, facilitating Benitez’s triumph.
He won Ligue Un with Lyon, as he had earlier with Paris Saint-Germain, but his heart curtailed his career and then his life. But his heyday was wonderful, and Anfield’s favourite Frenchman and Les Bleus’ honorary Scouser will be remembered fondly on both sides of the English Channel.