ABU DHABI // When it comes to references on a medical practitioner's CV, they rarely come more positive than the written testimony Gerard Houllier, the former Liverpool coach, provided for Dr Mark Waller earlier this year. Waller, 53, moved to the Emirates last week to take up his position of medical services director at Al Jazira, the Abu Dhabi-based Pro League club.
But it was in his previous role as club doctor for the English Premier League side - a position he held for 17 years - that he left an indelible impression on Houllier. It was October 13, 2001, at 1.05pm when the Frenchman approached the Northampton-born Waller in the doctor's treatment room. The Frenchman had broken off his team talk to seek medical advice at half-time during a match with Leeds United - then coached, coincidentally, by new Al Ahli manager David O'Leary.
Despite Waller being busy treating striker Emile Heskey, when Houllier appeared at the door of his treatment room, he knew the situation was grave. "Gerard was very unwell with a serious problem, which - without intervention - could have been fatal," Waller said yesterday. "He had left the dressing room to come in and see me and, knowing Gerard as I did, I knew he wouldn't stop his team talk for anything unless it was something serious."
Houllier has written in the past that, at the time, he did not appreciate the severity of his situation and even enjoyed a joke with Waller, saying that Heskey, an £11 million (Dh63.8m) signing from Leicester City, "is worth more money than me, but I am more urgent". Waller, however, acted quickly and within half an hour, Houllier was in an ambulance on his way to hospital. By the next morning he was recovering having undergone emergency cardiac surgery.
"Gerard rings me every October 13 and reminds me that this is the anniversary," said Waller from his seat in the plush lobby of Jazira's Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. "He did me a reference in case I needed one to come here and in it he wrote 'this man saved my life'." Phil Anderton, the chief executive of Al Jazira, said his staff carried out a thorough and intensive worldwide recruitment search before selecting Waller.
"Dr Waller has a huge amount of experience at the very top level and expertise in all the right areas," Anderton said. "When we looked at the work our candidates had done throughout the years, whoever we spoke to had nothing but positive things to do say about Dr Waller. We feel he is ideal for this position." Waller will now lead a five-man full-time medical team at Jazira that includes three first-team physiotherapists, a club masseuse and fitness coach.
He will also, in time, oversee the work of 17 other part-time staff members, who work with the Al Jazira volleyball and swimming academies. "This is very much a new challenge for me," said Waller, who also previously worked with the England set-up's Under 21 side and is open to helping develop the UAE national side. "I wasn't familiar with Al Jazira beforehand, but having had a look and seen the facilities they have here and the potential, it seemed like a very good opportunity and I decided to commit."
Despite having visited the Emirates on two previous occasions, Waller said his biggest challenge remains coping with the weather and is understandably concerned by the effects of Ramadan on the players' health. With the majority of the squad observing the Holy Month by fasting throughout the day and enjoying Iftar late at night, Waller said it is essential to ensure they do not, as has been the case in the past, lose significant amounts of weight, muscle mass, energy and endurance.
Jazira, who have finished second in the Pro League for the last three seasons, are scheduled to start their 2010/11 campaign at home to Dubai's Al Nasr on August 27 - midway through Ramadan - and Waller is in the process of developing a strategy that will maintain players' hydration and nutrition throughout the fasting period. "The that way we are doing that though," he added, "it probably would not be wise for me to reveal."