A Quarter of a Century of Liverpool FC in the Premier League Era, 1992-2017, Part 8
Judging Gérard Houllier
In this instalment of this major series on Dynasty, Anthony Stanley assesses Gérard Houllier’s tenure at Anfield.
Originally a series of articles covering the period 1992 to Klopp’s arrival in 2017, it was written by TTT Subscriber Anthony Stanley, serialised on The Tomkins Times and then published by TTT as a book called A BANQUET WITHOUT WINE - A Quarter-Century of Liverpool FC in the Premier League Era.
The book is available from https://www.amazon.co.uk/Banquet-Without-Wine-Quarter-Century-Liverpool/dp/1521850674. It remains a definitive matter of record of Liverpool FC during the period in question.
The summer of 2002 was, for many Liverpool supporters, when things began to unravel for Gérard Houllier. Three signings stand out as the apogee of poor talent spotting and most probably were still giving Reds a headache nearly fifteen years later when this was written.
We were meant to kick on, we were meant to take the final step, the gradual improvement was supposed to reach its glorious zenith with that much sought-after league title. Not for the first time, we were to be severely disappointed.
El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao, Bruno Cheyrou; a depressing troika of underachievement and a trio that have – rightly or wrongly – come to symbolise the massive displacement between the Houllier that came before his health issues and the Liverpool manager after he had almost died. It may be overly simplistic – in fact it almost certainly is – but the transfer dealings in the summer of 2002 were a massive alarm bell, something which became progressively clearer with every passing month.
Liverpool had signed Diouf after passing up the chance of securing the permanent signature of Nicolas Anelka - another decision that had many supporters scratching and shaking their heads. From the outside this made little sense, but the Liverpool management had been privy to some disturbing (and, it has to be said, typical) noises from the French striker’s camp. Apparently there had been an attempt from Anelka’s agents to sell him back to Arsenal and, as Phil Thompson noted:
“It told us a lot about the advice he was getting (which) had caused issues at other clubs and we didn’t want to take any chances.”
Steven Gerrard, who would soon don the mantle of captain as his manager sought desperately to turn things around, was scathing in his assessment of Diouf, who he claimed was the signing by the Reds that he liked least. In his autobiography, Gerrard wrote:
“It seemed to me that Diouf had no real interest in football and that he cared nothing about Liverpool Football Club. For example, the way he spat a huge globule of gunky phlegm at a Celtic fan…summed up his contemptuous and spiteful demeanour…the only positive aspect of the otherwise ugly signing is that he worked hard on the pitch…but after a while I decided Diouf simply wasn’t your usual footballer. It seemed to me as if football got in the way of his social life.”
Jamie Carragher was equally unimpressed with the Senegalese forward:
“In all my years at Anfield, I’ve never met a player who seemed to care less about winning or losing. An FA Cup defeat at Portsmouth in February 2004 effectively sealed Houllier’s fate months before his sacking, and there was a desolate scene at Melwood the following day. No one was more distressed than Mo (Owen), who’d missed a penalty at Fratton Park. As he arrived at the training ground with his head down, Diouf drove in with his rave music blaring out of his car, then danced his way across the car park into the building…his attitude disgusted me.”
Nor was Carragher impressed by Diouf’s ability on the footballing pitch claiming that ‘after a few training sessions with (him), I’d have walked to Man City to get Anelka back.’
Bruno Cheyrou was simply, and admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, a bewildering signing. He lacked both the pace and the physicality to thrive in the fast-paced English game and equally baffling was his new manager’s assertion that he could be the new Zinedine Zidane. This was ill-advised and a troubling indication of where the manager was heading; strange, inexplicable utterances would increasingly become the currency that the formerly formidable Houllier now dealt in.
Then there was Salif Diao, who Carragher, perhaps slightly unkindly, deemed a ‘catastrophe’. The assessment of the Liverpool defender on his new team mate was contemptuous and scathing in the extreme: ‘(H)e couldn’t pass, was a liability when he tackled, and never looked like scoring a goal. And they were his good points.’ Though this may be a mite unfair, the thoughts of the two Liverpool stalwarts on the signings that summer speak volumes and point to the fact that the first burgeoning notions that their manager may be losing his powers were taking hold. If managers live and die by their transfer record, then the signing of this trio of players was akin to Houllier tying a noose around his own neck. Just for the record, the Reds also signed Patrice Luzi and Alou Diarra and if this duo aren’t as notorious as the aforementioned terrible three in Liverpool fans collective consciousness, it’s only because they barely featured for the first team.
In terms of results, Houllier’s third season in sole charge began with a hugely impressive run; it would be November before the Reds suffered their first defeat in the Premier League. But performances were worrying, and though some supporters speculated as to how good this team could be when they clicked, the reality was that Liverpool had been lucky with results and when the wheels fell off following a 1-0 defeat to Middlesbrough at the Riverside, they did so spectacularly. This fixture was like a harbinger, an awakening to the reality that this squad of players was actually poor. Astonishingly, given the progress thus far in Houllier’s reign, the Reds would not win another league game until Emile Heskey gave Liverpool victory over Southampton near the end of January.
The Champions League campaign had been similarly depressing; indeed, unlike the domestic season, the Reds never really got going. A certain Rafa Benítez dished out a footballing lesson with his superbly orchestrated Valencia side and the Swiss side Basel effectively condemned the Reds to the UEFA Cup by snatching two draws. Liverpool would then be eliminated in this competition by Celtic in the fifth round in a tie that became infamous due to the spiteful spit of disgraceful Diouf.
The league campaign limped on with Houllier not even able to find solace in a previously nigh-on-miserly defence. The hitherto unflappable Polish goalkeeper, Jerzy Dudek, was struck down with a serious case of Liverpool goalkeeper malady and rapidly lost confidence as the season progressed; he would find himself rotated with the young Chris Kirkland but did manage an inspired performance in the League Cup final as the Reds salvaged some crumb of comfort with a 2-0 victory over Manchester United. But by the end of the campaign, Liverpool’s great rivals finished nineteen points ahead of the Reds who now found themselves languishing in fifth place and confined to the UEFA Cup. Chelsea, soon to be bankrolled by Russian billions, took the place of the Reds at Europe’s top table; we didn’t know it at the time, but theirs would now be a vice-like grip on a top four place, plunging more doubt upon an already panic-stricken Liverpool support.
If the fan base was agitated, Houllier seemed in the midst of full on paranoia. Never the type to take well to criticism, and having previously worn a bullet-proof vest against the potential barbs of the media thanks to his initial success, the dramatic downturn in form and the subsequent reproach left the manager in a cloud of bemusement and befuddlement, hinting darkly at what he viewed as a campaign against him by former players. A slew of statistics was routinely trotted out to try to mask his team’s shortcomings and the previous urbanity and managerial aloofness which he had made his own was now replaced by a haunted visage. At press conferences, Houllier’s eyes darted here and there as he became a walking caricature of uncertainty and frustration. As the 2003/4 season dawned, many were of the opinion that he should do the honourable thing and fall on his sword, but still others thought that the previous campaign was merely a blip and that the Liverpool manager could recapture previous assurance. But the hovering and troubling spectre of his illness was never far from any Liverpool supporter’s thoughts; had Gérard Houllier lost that vital spark, that essential extra couple of percent that separate the good from the very good? The footballing landscape was shifting dramatically again with the astonishing millions being pumped into Chelsea by Roman Abramovich; at the very least there was a sense that the French manager was now ill-equipped to face this additional challenge.
As Paul Tomkins previously observed, the ill-advised splurge in the summer of 2002 meant there was little funding available for reinforcements in 2003. Harry Kewell was the latest so-called coup that the Reds secured but, after a decent start to his Anfield career, he faded in a haze of injuries and poor form. Anthony Le Tallec and Florent Sinama-Pongolle had long been identified as ‘gems’ by Houllier and finally arrived but neither made the grade (although the latter made a contribution on the road to Istanbul). Only Steve Finnan, signed from Fulham for £3.5 million, could be termed a good signing and this was effectively what spelt Houllier’s doom: one player succeeded out of a total of eleven signings made between 2002 and 2004. The contrast between the Liverpool manager’s first forays into the transfer market, when Hyypiä, Hamann, Babbel, McAllister et al. had arrived, and the newer recruits was stark indeed.
There was a perplexing cloud of inertia swirling around the Liverpool side throughout Houllier’s last campaign at the helm; results were resolutely inconsistent, but arguably worse, the performances were usually stilted and unconvincing. Emile Heskey’s confidence had completely deserted him, Bišcan and Diao were sometimes played in central defence, Owen looked like his mind was already in Madrid, Danny Murphy – previous supplier of vital goals – now found himself frequently rotated, Dudek struggled, his personal nadir that was a litany of calamitous mistakes in the previous season now casting a palpable cloud over him, Šmicer and Kewell frustrated and perplexed. The twin scouse bright spots that were Carragher and Gerrard appeared suffocated by the pall that had settled over the club. Liverpool somehow managed to finish fourth – which showed the weakness of the league, just before a golden age for English clubs in Europe – but finishing in a Champions League place could not disguise the troubling ineptitude and underwhelming nature that the Reds habitually displayed. With Liverpool thirty points behind the new champions, Arsenal, and with fans now joining in the incessant tide of criticism from the media – who had started to question Houllier’s sanity as well as his suitability for the job – the time had come for a change and in May 2004, he left the club.
How, then, to judge Gérard Houllier? Though often dismissed as the ‘French manager’ by his critics, his methods were actually very British – with a dash of continental autocracy added to the mix. Discipline, mental and physical fortitude, hard work and team camaraderie were all the tenets preached by Houllier. His was a pragmatic approach, building from the defence, and if his style of football was sometimes at odds with that craved by Kopites, this was tolerated when results went well. There can be little doubt that he brought a modernity to the club and did have a positive effect on players who would go on to become legends. For three years, Houllier was close to achieving iconic, nay messianic, status and he delivered three trophies in one remarkable campaign. Illness may have deprived him of some judgement and may have been partly responsible for his downfall and a revisionist outlook has changed many people’s perception. The final two seasons were a mess but that should not take away from the phenomenal success that Houllier enjoyed prior to this.
His treatment of Robbie Fowler has also coloured his legacy and not in a favourable way. Paul Tomkins put it succinctly in Dynasty:
“The problem Houllier faced was that Fowler was ‘untouchable’ in the eyes of the fans, and that’s always dangerous for the man who has to decide who plays. It seems pretty certain that Fowler was not an easy character to deal with, and one who made mistakes, but at the same time his account of Houllier’s behaviour paints the picture of a man who couldn’t cope with confrontation or deal with players on the straightest of levels.”
The Liverpool manager made the decision from a position of massive strength (and from his hospital bed) but the truth is that Fowler, in his subsequent career, never came close to regaining the spark of his earlier years. But football supporters tend to deal in currencies of what may have been (or what should have been, according to themselves). Some fans never forgave Houllier and once the rot set in, they were happy to give vent with their frustrations.
Gérard Houllier should be given the respect that is his due for some fine achievements. He may have lost his way as his tenure sometimes threatened to spiral into practical farce and he didn’t win the Reds a league title, for which the fans were so desperate for. But then, these two charges are hardly unique in modern Liverpool management.
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