Gerard Houllier: From Teacher to Treble Winner

Matthew Crist by Matthew Crist / 16 July 2018, 09:38

In September 1969 Liverpool destroyed Dundalk 10-0 in a Fairs Cup tie at Anfield in front of a crowd of 32,656.

It was a record victory at the time and provided those present with the ultimate “I was there,” moment. But for one 22-year old watching from the Kop that night it was the start of a 30 year love affair which would ultimately lead to him becoming one of the club’s most respected managers.

It was while studying for a degree in English at Lille University that a young Gerard Houllier spent a year attending Alsop Comprehensive in Liverpool and from that moment on a great love for everything about the city and its football was ingrained in him:

"I suppose going to the game that day was a touch of destiny,” he later claimed.

So when he returned to Anfield as joint manager in July of 1998 it was the culmination of a dream which very few could have foreseen, including Houllier himself as, although a decent player in his youth, he had little ambition to become a top-flight manager, favouring a career in teaching instead.

But a cruel twist of fate meant his career path took a very different path when his father fell ill and after dropping out of University Houllier took a role as Deputy Headmaster of the École Normale d'Arras before returning to football and eventually becoming player-manager of Le Touquet, a small provincial club in the Calais region of France aged just 26.

Leading the club to two consecutive promotions he soon attracted the attention of RC Lens where, in just three seasons, he secured promotion to the top division and then qualification for the UEFA Cup before the biggest move in his young managerial career saw him take charge at Paris Saint-Germain.

By 1988 Houllier was assisting the France coach Michel Platini as his Technical Director before graduating to become the boss of the national side in 1992 during the disastrous qualifying campaign for the 1994 World Cup when he publicly blamed David Ginola for an error in the crucial final qualifying game against Bulgaria which France lost 2-1.

And the circle was eventually completed in July 1998 when Houllier returned to Anfield having been appointed joint team manager of Liverpool, together with Roy Evans, a move which was not universally popular, particularly with Evans; but one which would rejuvenate a club that appeared to be drifting.

Following Evans’ resignation that November Houllier took sole charge of Liverpool as he embarked on what he described as a five-year program to rebuild the team and restore discipline to a squad as well as introducing a continental approach both tactically as well as in terms of personnel.

Gerard Houllier

Just as Arsene Wenger had at Arsenal, the Frenchman was credited with overhauling the culture among a group of players who had been dubbed “The Spice Boys” with everything from training, diet and day-to-day lifestyle under scrutiny.

Steve McManaman, Paul Ince, David James, Jason McAteer, Rob Jones, Tony Warner and Steve Harkness all departed the club in the summer of 1999 while Houllier brought in a number of fresh faces over the next 12 months including; Sami Hyypiä, Dietmar Hamann, Emile Heskey and Gary McAllister.

The highlight of Houllier’s time at Anfield was undoubtedly the 2000/2001 season which saw the Reds lift the FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup in an unprecedented treble as well as finishing third in the Premier League table.

But just a few months later, after falling ill at half-time in the Liverpool's Premier League match with Leeds United, Houllier was rushed to hospital for an emergency operation after suffering a dissected aorta and would be absent from the dugout for some five months as Liverpool finished runners-up with his assistant Phil Thompson at the helm.

Some felt he was never the same after his return from illness and a fifth place finish in the Premier League in 2003 along with failure to qualify for the Champions League increased the pressure on Houllier as critics questioned a number of unsuccessful summer signings like El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou not to mention his team’s playing style.

Houllier eventually left Liverpool by mutual consent in May 2004 amid accusations of negative, one-dimensional tactics, unattractive football, and a poor youth policy; but it could be argued that his revolutionary approach paved the way for the club to become champions of Europe for the fifth time just 12 months later under Rafa Benitez.

In his time at Anfield Houllier had taken a side of ageing stars and turned them into challengers once more, bringing silverware and securing two top-three finishes in the Premier League while also overseeing a complete transformation of the way the club was run.

He also understood just what Liverpool Football Club was all about, as he had when he first visited Anfield as a fan some 30 years earlier. “What impressed me first of all was the atmosphere inside the stadium. We were on the Kop, and it was fantastic to see the unconditional support of the fans,” he would later recall when describing that fateful night in 1969.

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