How Gerard Houllier Transformed Liverpool Football Club

The Anfield Talk’s Ronan (@ronan_orourke) is taking a look back through Liverpool’s history at former manager Gerard Houllier, and the impact he had on the club…

It was an incredibly bizarre situation at the time. To be honest it still is. Nobody could quite understand why Liverpool Football Club had hired a relatively unknown Frenchman named Gerard Houllier to be joint boss with Roy Evans. It has been just over 20 years now since the plan was put into action. The idea was that Houllier would bring a fresh and more professional approach to the club while the popular Evans would remain to please the fans and keep the boot room culture somewhat intact.

To the shock of nobody, the two headed monster experiment failed miserably, and just a few months later Evans stepped down after a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Tottenham. It was now up to Houllier to prove exactly why the board had taken such a chance on him. The pressure had to be immense but the rest as they say is history.

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You have to imagine that the source of inspiration for this unusual change was heavily influenced by the appointment of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal only a couple of years before. Wenger’s hiring too was a highly unorthodox decision but one which had paid off handsomely for the Gunners as his methodical approach had rewarded the London club with a league and FA Cup double.

The parallels between Wenger and Houllier were striking. Neither were actually unknown quantities but instead just were unfamiliar to many Premier League supporters. Wenger had won a Ligue 1 title with Monaco while Houllier had also won the French league with PSG before becoming both manager and Technical Director of the French national team. These were two men with pretty good pedigree.

The Liverpool side under Roy Evans promised so much but never could quite manage to sustain a title run. They had importantly brought the club back to life after a dismal few years under Graeme Souness. The team played highly entertaining football with a pleasing blend of club legends like Ian Rush and John Barnes coming to the end of their careers, mixed with up and coming talents like Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp.

Rightly or wrongly, the squad of the Evans era will mostly be remembered for the “Spice Boy” attitude to football. There was an underlying sense that the professionalism wasn’t what it could be especially compared to a Manchester United side under Alex Ferguson which was just coming into its own and starting to dominate the league. Something had to be done to shift the power. It was thought that signing former United captain Paul Ince was going add the necessary grit but in the end that wasn’t enough.

It was never going to be an easy process for the new manager. To change the culture of a club so drastically was going to take some serious buy-in from senior players and most importantly enough time and patience to implement these changes. After all, any attempt to alter a team culture will not happen overnight even with the best of intentions in mind. In Houllier’s first season, the club struggled to a disappointing 7th place but thankfully, the manager was awarded the necessary patience to put his plan into full action and sweeping changes were made in the summer of 1999 which would alter the outlook of the club for the next 10 years.

Among the outgoing transfers that summer were Ince, Jason McAteer, and goalkeeper David James while McManaman also left on a free transfer to Real Madrid. In came a mixture of characters from all over Europe who Houllier envisioned could take the club to the required level. They included no nonsense Swiss centre half from Blackburn Stephane Henchoz, as well as the classy defensive midfielder Dietmar Hamann from Newcastle. From further afield, Houllier signed little known Finn Sami Hyypia from Willem II, Czech Republic playmaker Vladimir Smicer from Lens, goalkeeper Sander Westerveld from Vitesse, and Titi Camara from Marseille.

 

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These were incredibly bold moves at that time as few would be considered marquee signings. The Premier League was becoming increasingly multi-national and having a manager who could pick off talent from the continent was an increasingly strong attribute to possess. The squad over-haul recruitment continued in the summer of 2000 with a focus on experienced European footballers such as Germans Markus Babbel and Christian Ziege and veteran Scot Gary McAllister. The squad was really starting to take shape.

However, Houllier’s positive influence went far beyond simply changing the personnel in the squad. As I previously alluded to, it was an entire culture shift that took place which allowed the club to finally embrace what was needed of players in modern football. The Premier League in the 1990’s was essentially still living in the glory years of Division 1 football. Despite the branding change in 1992, the adaptation was slow moving for most clubs.

Continental football was already on another planet when it came to the tactical side of the game. This was perhaps best highlighted by the swashbuckling Newcastle side under Kevin Keegan who didn’t truly seem to have a game plan of any sort at all. Keegan was almost playing a video game with his squad inserting as many attack minded players in the team with the idea of outscoring the opponent. Unsurprisingly this approach did not pay off. Even Alex Ferguson’s title winning teams in the 1990’s were exposed tactically in European competitions early on which was empahised in United’s 4-0 hammering at the hands of Barcelona which inspired Ferguson to adapt his approach.

The most important area of change though was simply the professionalism of the players with regards to diet, nutrition and how they looked after themselves off the pitch. It well known by now that there was still a rampant drinking culture at English clubs in the nineties. Managers like Wenger and Houllier were determined to make their players take their roles and responsibilities a little more seriously. Wenger even went as far as famously banning tomato ketchup from the Arsenal canteen! (He did later allow Ketchup to return as a compromise for the players).

We can also be thankful that Houllier expertly handled the development of two local lads who went on to become centre pieces of an entire generation in Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. Clearly, Gerrard would have thrived under almost any management but his positive influence on both cannot be understated.

 

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Houllier celebrating with a young Steven GerrardThe Houllier era is of course remembered most fondly for the incredible year of 2001 when the team picked up 5 trophies, participating in some truly memorable finals along the way. He also brought the team back to the Champions League the following year and they were only minutes away from a potential semi final spot before falling heartbreakingly to eventual finalists Bayer Leverkusen. Liverpool also finished second in the league that year, the highest finish in over 10 years. That was however sadly to be the peak of his reign. The team struggled in the following years and the time had come for a change.

Houllier was of course far from perfect either. A famously poor decision was to sign El Hadji Diouf instead of the rejuvenated Nicholas Anelka in the summer of 2002 and his handling of Robbie Fowler irritated many supporters at the time. The Diouf move may well have signaled the beginning of the end.

At the conclusion of his tenure Houllier had taken the team as far as he was capable of. It was the right time for someone to come in who could take the team to the next level which of course most certainly did happen under Rafa Benitez. However, Houllier deserves massive credit for building the foundation on which all the great moments of the last 20 years have been built upon. I may not have quite appreciated the scale of his achievement at the time but I can assure you that I unquestionably have immense gratitude for what Gerard Houllier did for our wonderful club. I don’t think it is overly sensationalist at all to say that he made sure that the club stayed afloat in the modern era of football. Twenty years on, I can look back and confidently say, thank you Gerard. 

Ronan O'Rourke

Irish/Belgian. Lifelong Liverpool fan and eternal optimist. Always been a firm believer in the Kloppolution.

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