More so than any other Liverpool manager, Gérard Houllier’s stewardship is characterised by two distinct periods, divided by a single dramatic event: the building up of a very good side, and then failure as he dismantled it following a near-death experience as his aortic valve ruptured. Decisions made after that potentially fatal heart problem in October 2001 were no longer laced with a Midas touch, and while it may be merely coincidental, the After did not match up to the Before in any way.
In the summer of 1998 Gérard Houllier walked into a club beset with problems. Indeed, simply by taking the job he instantly became one of them. With Roy Evans having lost control of some of his players and with performances starting to stagnate, the club’s hierarchy, breaking away from all received wisdom, decided against sacking the affable manager and instead appointed yet another. If too many cooks spoil the broth, too many managers muddy the pitch. Things started well enough, as the Reds won three and drew another in the opening four games –– including an emphatic, hugely stylish 4-1 win at St James’ Park where the travelling Kop informed the new Newcastle manager Ruud Gullit that he could ‘stick his sexy football up his arse’. Michael Owen, fresh from his France ‘98 World Cup success, scored a superb hat-trick, and a revitalised Patrick Berger added another. But soon problems began to arise. The next five league games saw three draws and two defeats. Players began to question who they should turn to, with the English players more loyal to Evans and the overseas stars seeing Houllier as their man; meanwhile, everyone was questioning why a winning side had been changed ahead of defeat at West Ham. A 5-1 thumping of Nottingham Forest, with Owen bagging four, suggested the Reds were back on track, but they then lost the next three games, including home fixtures against Derby and Leicester — really dire stuff. Defeat at Anfield to Spurs in the League Cup was the final straw, and Evans walked out on November 11th.
So it wasn’t until mid-November that Houllier’s proper stint as manager began; clearly he cannot be judged on those early months, as the decisions weren’t solely his. However, unlike most managers he’d had several months working from within to assess the club and its players before taking full control. So he wasn’t coming at the task cold. He had time to see what was wrong, before moving to implement great change in the summer of 1999.
Looking back, it’s remarkable how many of the players Evans bequeathed to Houllier ended up in a lower division fairly quickly. Bjornebye, Harkness, Babb, Ruddock and McAteer were all in the First Division within a couple of years; either they’d lost their way, or, as was more likely, they were no longer good enough for the cutting edge of the top division as the English game began importing top foreign players at a greater pace. David James also ended up in the First Division with West Ham, but had enough ability to rise back to the top level and eventually proved himself one of the best in the land.
If the deadwood and journeymen were quickly offloaded, to make matters more difficult, three of the best players in Evans’ legacy never amounted to much under Houllier, for one reason or another. The first to fall was Rob Jones, whose career was curtailed by an injury to his left knee in February 1998. Houllier offloaded the player to West Ham in 1999 after almost 250 games for the club but none under him. Houllier was pretty damning about Jones, saying he was sick of seeing him in the gym all the time (alluding to a lack of desire to get back playing), but the true extent of Jones’ injury was apparent when, having only played one game for West Ham, he called time on his career, at the age of just 27. The finest British full-back of the ‘90s should have been at the peak of his powers under Houllier, but instead he was never able to feature.
Secondly, injuries in 1997 had robbed Robbie Fowler of his sharpness, and he barely played in Houllier’s early years. Perhaps if Fowler had looked after himself better in those early days, and been better guided, he’d have either been less susceptible to some of the injuries (although many were impact damage from collisions, which are a fact of football life) but –– more likely –– he’d have been able to recover from them more quickly. Houllier could get to Jamie Carragher at a young enough age to have the defender adopt more professional methods, but Fowler was perhaps too far down a certain route for the manager’s intervention. The two did not get along, even after Houllier made Fowler vice-captain, and eventually the striker was sold to then-rivals Leeds United in October 2001, in a shock deal, worth £11m.
Finally, Steve McManaman already had one eye on an exit before Houllier arrived, almost certainly because in 1997 Liverpool had agreed to sell him to Barcelona for a fee of £12m; when he turned up in Spain to talk over the move, he found that the Catalan giants had instead decided to sign Rivaldo, and that he was only a safeguard should the deal for the Brazilian fall through. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the player then running down his Liverpool contract to leave on a ‘Bosman’, you can see it from his perspective of having been made to feel like a piece of meat that was being traded; Liverpool could argue that in not having signed a new deal prior to the Barcelona approach, McManaman was already thinking of moving on. He would have his revenge on Barcelona by joining Real Madrid and twice winning the Champions League, even if he was a bit-part player by the time of the second success in 2002. That £12m — 80% of the English record — would have gone a long way towards helping Liverpool rebuild in 1997, but by 1999, following an injury-hit final season, the Scouser was on his way out of the club for nothing. “When the choice is between a hell of a lot of money and a hell of a lot of money,” McManaman said, “the difference between the two sums, in reality, is not enough to sway you one way or another. I wanted to play abroad, full stop.” With Paul Ince and David James two others in an England quintet destined for the exit, Houllier was almost starting from scratch when it came to building a Liverpool side that could challenge for honours.
Inheritance — Brains Trust*
[* An average taken from ratings out of 10 by a number of long-established Liverpool fans.]
In terms of Quality, Houllier inherited four players who scored 9 or higher, plus two more who scored more than 8: surely the nucleus of a great side? However, of the four ‘outstanding’ players, Fowler was never going to hit his very best form again, and Carragher was not an exceptional defender until after Houllier had been sacked — at the time he was more of a very steady full-back. But Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen were worthy of such high marks during Houllier’s time. Gerrard, excelling for years in the club’s youth ranks, was immediately given his debut and became the team’s go-to player, while Owen, despite some limitations, was voted European Footballer of the Year in 2001.
Of the two players to score between 8 and 9 — McManaman and Jones — one was already intent on leaving, while the other would never play for the club again, so neither was a true part of Houllier’s inheritance. As a squad, it was a fairly average collection of players. The poor quality of some of the other players made for a very unbalanced team, and the First XI scored the lowest mark out of 10 for Quality out of any of the teams inherited by a new manager (although only a fraction below the one Souness left to Evans, and the one Houllier himself passed on to Benítez). As an overall squad it was slightly stronger in terms of Quality, and considerably better than the one Houllier would leave for Benítez. Once adjusted for age, serious injuries and the desire to leave, the 1998 first XI dipped to an Inheritance average of 6.4. Houllier also inherited the 2nd-youngstest first XI, with an average age of 25.
State of Club
Despite hailing from a different country, Gérard Houllier had a very influential ally in the Liverpool boardroom in the key figure of Peter Robinson, the vice-chairman. Robinson forged a firm friendship with Houllier during the Frenchman’s spell as a teacher in Liverpool in the late ‘60s. “I had known Gérard for a long time,” Robinson said, “and we had established a friendship. We had kept in touch and I had followed his career and admired what he had done.” Robinson went to lengths to stress that Evans had been very much involved in bringing Houllier to Anfield.
The problem was that Evans –– and his players –– expected the new man to come in to replace the retiring Ronnie Moran. Houllier had been working behind the scenes with France, and had just helped his country land the World Cup. It was not immediately apparent to Evans that Houllier was returning to the front line. In further changes at the club that summer, Rick Parry was appointed as chief executive. Robinson eventually left to become an agent in 2000, and the club lost one of its greatest guiding forces.
One of Houllier’s main problems was not the club itself, but those ex-players who were by now filling up every vacant media position. “There are some players who get upset about what is said,” he explained. “They just can’t understand how a former player can be so critical of his own club. It always seems to be Liverpool under fire because, of course, so many former Liverpool players are employed by TV and radio. There are 22 currently working in the media as pundits — that’s a whole squad. Sometimes I envy Everton because they seem to get support from their ex-players even through the hard times.”
When Gérard Houllier wanted an assistant with Liverpool connections, Phil Thompson’s name was suggested to him by director Tom Saunders. At the time, not having an Englishman –– and preferably a Scouser –– in a key coaching position was almost unthinkable. It had been 39 years since the club appointed a manager with no previous Liverpool playing or coaching experience. The original aim to keep Roy Evans in tandem with Houllier highlighted the desire for continuity.
By the time he was ousted along with Houllier, and returned to his job as a Sky Sports pundit, Thompson’s reputation was mixed. Clearly he was not as limited as many onlookers suggested — he wasn’t merely a ranter and raver. He had amassed a wealth of experience as a player, and played under two of the greatest ever managers. However, there is also little evidence to suggest Thompson was a really great thinker on the game. It was clear that he was not particularly popular with many players — particularly the youngsters, who weren’t used to such treatment — but then again, his role was the bad cop to Houllier’s bon flic. Thompson fell out publicly with Robbie Fowler, the Kop’s idol, and as such, the fans naturally sided with Fowler, even if where the blame lay wasn’t clear. Ronnie Moran had previously been the archetypal bad cop, but success makes it easier to forge harmony. Or maybe Moran was just a more skilled and respected coach.
Thompson did lead the team for a number of months following Houllier’s illness. But his performance is hard to judge for a number of reasons. There was the ‘let’s do it for the boss’ reaction, when the team responded positively to the drama. Even then, Houllier was soon picking the team from his hospital bed and, later on during his recuperation, signing Nicolas Anelka on loan. By then the team had started to wobble badly, and it was only really when the manager returned that impetus was regained and the Reds ended the season strongly.
Sammy Lee seemed to be a more gifted coach. He was also there to motivate, but in a very positive sense; ebullient and infectious, he lifted the players. Lee chose to leave when Benítez arrived with his own assistant, and mixed a role on the England coaching staff with being second in command at Bolton. Lee eventually became manager at the Reebok at the start of 2007/08, but in trying to switch from direct to pass-and-move football, the Trotters struggled and he quickly lost his job. In retrospect, he might have wished to have stuck to being a top-class assistant, which more suits his talents; in 2008 he was appointed Benítez’s no.2, and the pairing appears to offer a nice blend.
Patrice Bergues was perhaps the most important person behind the scenes during Houllier’s time at Anfield. Bergues was a hugely popular and highly respected figure — Robbie Fowler, who doesn’t have too many positive things to say about the staff from that era, described him as a “fantastic man”. His departure in 2001, to become Director of Football at his old club Lens, came just a year before a big decline in the Reds’ fortunes, and only one trophy — the League Cup — was won after he left. Ian Rush, who also had a minor coaching role at the club, felt that Bergues leaving was as much a turning point as Houllier’s ruptured aorta a few months later. “When Patrice Bergues left in 2001, Gérard Houllier replaced him with Jacques Crevoisier and then Christiano Damiano, neither of whom commanded the same respect from players and other members of staff. That created extra problems for Gérard he didn’t need. An assistant is supposed to handle some of the difficulties, not create new ones. It’s impossible for a manager to be a friend of the players. He needs to keep a distance, and that’s where assistants play a crucial role. Quite often, if they’re not providing this link or are simply causing more irritation, they’re having a counter-productive role and making life even tougher for the manager than it already is. I’m sure this happened in the last few years of Gérard’s reign after Bergues left.”
In 1999, fomer Hibernian boss Alex Miller was appointed as director of scouting, working with chief scout Ron Yeats. Yeats explained the process in early 2004: “I haven’t got the last say who Gérard signs or doesn’t. I go see them [the targets] and recommend them. Alec Miller, who was a manager at Aberdeen and Hibernian, does all the European tactics and looks at all the European players, thank goodness. I can’t do two jobs. I’ve got 20 scouts in England and have to make sure they do their jobs. Alec also looks at all the European teams we’re playing. A very, very technical man who does all the team reports on the opposition. Gérard trusts him.” Miller would be promoted under Rafa Benítez to first team coach, although he left the club in the summer of 2008.
Somewhat pertinently, Michael Owen described Houllier as a “manager in the wider sense” — a man, he felt, who could spot what was wrong in any organisation, but who was not a great tactical thinker. Houllier was less a training ground, hands-on boss, and more a general manager with philosophies that enabled success to be planned for; he tried to provide the players with what he hoped was the right environment for them to succeed. He was a disciplinarian, but without the hysterics of someone like Graeme Souness.
While Liverpool was not a totally unprofessional club under Roy Evans, teams elsewhere were raising the standards of fitness, athleticism and abstinence required to be successful. Houllier described the difficulties he encountered upon arriving in England. “The problem here is that players think they can drink. Maybe they could once, but the game demands so much more now, not just physically but mentally because of greater tactical awareness. If you drink, you lose half an inch, then an inch, then half a yard, then a yard [ –– of pace; he didn’t mean the players all ended up resembling Sammy Lee]. Your brain also becomes gradually slower to react. And in the process you lose the chance to progress from being a Premiership player to a top-class player. I compare top-class players to racing cars. Drinking alcohol is as silly as putting diesel in a racing car.”
Houllier also felt that the younger players in England were susceptible to bad influences. “What stuns me here: a young player comes into the game, looks the part. He’s not a drinker, looks after himself. Then, as soon as he gets into the first team, he thinks that to show he’s a man he has to drink. In probably every other country, the young player actually becomes more serious about the game. He’ll do anything he can to improve and stay in the team.”
Jamie Carragher was seen as something of a tearaway in the late ‘90s, although this was almost certainly something of an exaggeration. But he still needed guidance with regards to acting with the utmost professionalism –– which came after the 1998 Christmas party, at which his drunken antics made the front pages of the Sunday tabloids. Some 500+ games later, Houllier’s direction looks justified. Carragher has every chance of moving ahead of every other Liverpool player in the appearance table, with the possible exception of Ian Callaghan.
Jason McAteer, who didn’t last long under the new regime, later detailed his experiences with Houllier: “Obviously the board thought discipline was lacking and Gérard came in. We never saw eye to eye. I wanted to play football, week in, week out, and he wasn’t prepared to give me that. He didn’t like the Spice Boys thing, and I think he was under pressure to change all that. If you look at Liverpool now, there’s none of my old team left. Sometimes I lie in bed at night thinking, ‘I bet he wishes he had half that team now’.” This last point is debatable — it’s hard to see Houllier craving some of those players at any point in time, even as things fell apart towards the end.
Houllier was obsessed with the small details of running a club. Gary McAllister explained his take on the manager’s methods: “At Liverpool I sometimes wondered why, oh why, Gérard was so pernickety, but over time I realised that taking care of so many small things in training and preparation carries through into games. If you’ve been focused and disciplined all week you’re more likely to stay disciplined when you’re hanging on in the final few minutes of a vital match.”
Despite his image as a taskmaster, Houllier hated confrontation. During their ill-fated partnership, Houllier left the delivery of bad news to Evans. The pair had agreed to jointly inform McAteer that he was being dropped. “I went to tell Jason the news and had to do it by myself because Gérard was nowhere to be seen,” Evans said. “It’s a shitty job at the best of times.” Evans subsequently found Houllier having a cosy chat with some of the club’s hierarchy, and when asked why he wasn’t where he was supposed to be, the Frenchman claimed to have forgotten. For a man who focused on every small detail, it was a strange excuse.
Also, players were not allowed to show their disappointment in front of the new manager. “He didn’t like having to deal with players expressing anger or frustration,” Evans explained. “He thought it showed a lack of respect for management and he had to be the dominant character. My own view is that you want to see players hurt when they’re dropped or when they’re substituted. Any self-respecting professional should be.”
Clearly it’s about getting a balance. A manager needs to be the boss, in total control. And players need to know their place. But there has to be some kind of dialogue, a willingness to hear ideas. And a manager needs to understand that disappointment at being omitted from the team, or at being substituted, is normal. There is of course an unacceptable level of dissent that any player can show towards his manager, but that’s not the same as merely expressing frustration. Good players should be keyed up, wanting to play. Robbie Fowler accused Houllier of buying meek characters who would gladly accept his decisions, but again this is about getting a balance. If players disrespect the manager and undermine his decisions, then that is working against the team. However, you need players with some kind of character and backbone.
Gérard Houllier was the first Liverpool manager to employ rotation with fitness in mind, although in his case it was limited mainly to the strikers. Before Houllier arrived, team selection was based on form, and fitness, on the day. Now it was about trying to plan for a long season. In particular, Robbie Fowler suffered with the notion of rotation, given that he was dropped — or ‘rested’ — after scoring goals, and tended to sit out more matches than he started. But maybe that was more about him coming to terms with no longer being the first choice striker at the club; any manager will always have in his mind the identities of his preferred players, and Fowler was now third-choice.
Houllier’s main ethos was about the team, and equality. His philosophy on this was sound: “To me, the team is more important than any individual member of the squad, and the players have to realise that and accept that my priority is to pick a side with the best possible chance of winning each match.”
He wanted the players to bond: “I want camaraderie. Players have to get on well, be friends.” But that was clearly not the case — at least in his later years at the club. “I won’t let anybody raise a finger against the togetherness of the team otherwise I chop it immediately,” he said. El Hadji Diouf had another take on it. “The squad was not close-knit. The French were on one side, the English on the other and the Czechs on the other. [It must have been a triangular room he was referring to…] The players had enemies among themselves and Houllier never got the respect of any of them.” French defender Djimi Traoré had a slightly different view on Houllier: “He was much appreciated by the Englishmen and I can see why. But a lot of the French players didn’t have a chance to play and express themselves. We had to work twice as hard to play.” Of course, a number of English players resented Houllier too. Even allowing for the grudges that can build up at a club when disgruntled players are out of the first team, it doesn’t paint the picture of a unified club.
Having never been a top-class player himself — merely a non-league forward in France — Houllier’s methods were not about passing on his genius or experience of high-pressure situations on the pitch, but rather creating the right environment for the players to thrive in. He used his acumen and common sense to work on players’ weaknesses, to give them the best chance of succeeding.
Take the example of Michael Owen’s left foot — or lack of it. Quite why it took so long for someone to notice this glaring weakness in an otherwise superb finisher’s armoury is a little baffling, but Houllier seriously addressed it. Owen was always effective, but a predictability about which foot he would use gave defenders a chance to snuff out his threat. Even if a player is never going to be anywhere near as good with his weaker foot, no matter how hard he practices, a willingness to use it when it’s the only foot that can naturally strike the ball from a certain position is such an advantage, particularly as it gives defenders doubts. By the end of 2001, Liverpool were winning the FA Cup because Owen was confident enough to take on Tony Adams on a side that the defender wasn’t expecting and finish with inch-perfect precision with his weaker foot.
There was also Houllier’s physical work with the players. Another problem with Michael Owen was his weak hamstrings, emanating from a problem in his lower back; in 1999 he missed five months of football after a serious tear appeared at Elland Road. The injury had been treated, but not the cause. Houllier sent Owen to Germany to see Hans Müller-Wolfhart, Bayern Munich’s club doctor, and a man who’d treated Jürgen Klinsmann and Brazil’s Ronaldo, as well as sporting stars José María Olazábal, Paula Radcliffe, Kelly Holmes and Maurice Greene. Owen was still dogged by various injuries after leaving Liverpool in 2004, but Müller-Wolfhart’s work meant that his hamstrings were rarely a problem.
Meanwhile, it’s easy to forget how injury prone Steven Gerrard was as a youngster, before Houllier sent him to France to see osteopath Philippe Boixel. Maybe Houllier wasn’t the best tactician and was an imperfect judge of players, but he ensured Gerrard would be free of problems for years to come with methods that would not have been sought by many other managers at the time. So many players get into a destructive cycle of injuries, and some never recover; whatever happens after 2008, Gerrard was able to enjoy at least six years of almost constant football thanks to the osteopath.
“Boixel changed my back into a better shape,” Gerrard explained. “I was struggling to repeat games because it was making other parts of my body get niggling injuries. When I know I’m not going to get injured, that’s when I play my best stuff. Before, I was going on to the pitch and just thinking about what minute I was going to come off, and not that I was going to finish the game.” In January 2002, Boixel, who also treated Zinedine Zidane, gave Gerrard a clean bill of health — one that was presciently accurate. “You can say he is cured of that trouble. He can now play as often as Liverpool wish him to. These players are like Formula One cars. They need constant attention to ensure they deliver peak performance. The repetition and high intensity of matches means their bodies must always be under review.”
At first, Houllier seemed a canny operator. He made Liverpool harder to beat, and masterminded numerous victories against Everton and Manchester United, with the latter often achieved through defending deep and hitting on the break. The ball was moved swiftly from back to front, at times bypassing the midfield. When the ball was kept on the ground, the counter-attacking was fast and effective, although a tendency to hit too many long balls placed a big onus on the front two.
But as time wore on, it became apparent that there was no Plan B. There was no real development of other strategies, no variations to the play. Liverpool’s new style had initially surprised teams used to setting up against a possession-based outfit, but in time it became predictable. The aim was to get Michael Owen in on goal, and what had been an excellent weapon became, to all intents and purposes, the only weapon. The tactics were limited; there wasn’t enough flair in the final third, not enough movement between defence and midfield, or midfield and attack. It all got very one-dimensional. If Owen didn’t score, often only Heskey was well-placed on the pitch to chip in with goals, but aside from the treble season, that was something he failed to do often enough.
Despite not often moving from his rigid tactics, Houllier did employ a good system against teams who played with three centre-backs, often putting Danny Murphy, Vladimir Smicer or Jari Litmanen in a free role behind two strikers; but in like-for-like 4-4-2 match-ups — which was most games — there was a lack of playing ‘between the lines’.
A big problem with Houllier’s 4-4-2 was the defence sat deep and the midfield were positioned almost on top of it. The reliance on direct forward balls made it was harder for midfielders to get goals from open play. Gary McAllister scored six times in the treble season, but three were penalties and the other three were direct free-kicks. Steven Gerrard scored ten, but it was far and away his best season for goals under Houllier; he tended to average around six, compared with the 18 he has averaged since 2004. Danny Murphy also scraped into double figures on a couple of occasions, but again, his best season came when McAllister had moved on and he took direct free-kicks and penalties; almost 20% of his Liverpool goals came from spot-kicks.
At times Houllier tried to change the personnel and add flair players, introducing first El Hadji Diouf and Bruno Cheyrou, and then Harry Kewell. But the team failed to flourish, with Kewell fading after a bright start, and the other two offering nothing of any note. Smicer was another flair player who impressed only in fits and starts.
Perhaps another failing of Houllier’s was placing too much blame on players making mistakes; famously, David Ginola still feels Houllier called him a ‘criminal’ after his sloppy pass ended up costing Houllier’s France a place at the 1994 World Cup; Houllier had said making such a pass was criminal, which is clearly different, but perhaps as a result of that night, he became famed for a safety-first style. Getting the balance between cutting out mistakes by playing ‘percentages’ and trying to keep possession — and taking risks in the final third, in order to unlock defences — is key to success. Any defender can find Row Z, but while that’s appropriate at times, at others it’s not — ultimately, it’s conceding possession. Liverpool simply stopped playing the ball out from defence in any way, shape or form; Hyypia and Biscan made attempts early in their days at centre-back, but both soon cut out the dribbling. Everything started going long, even though neither Hyypia nor Henchoz were passers of the calibre of Ruddock and Agger. Players stopped leaving their set positions, making play more rigid and predictable. For instance, when Emile Heskey played on the wing — something he’d done at Leicester and with England — he tended to still be out wide when the ball was with Liverpool on the opposite flank. It was as if, rather than get into the box and gamble as any wide player should, he was staying in position for when the move broke down. Maybe this was a failing of the player, in that he was never the most proactive, but compare it with how Dirk Kuyt, a less naturally gifted player, would bust a gut to get into the box to become an additional striker.
Historical Context — Strength of Rivals and League
Gérard Houllier arrived in England when Arsenal were starting to emerge as a force under Arsène Wenger, and Manchester United were still in a position to challenge for the league title. Wenger had arrived in 1996, and by the time Houllier was appointed, Arsenal had just won the league and FA Cup double.
But Wenger’s path to a first league title was in part down to the weakness of the opposition. The managers of the day were Gianluca Vialli, an unproven player-manager, who had replaced another unproven manager, Ruud Gullit, at Chelsea halfway through the 1997/98 season; and at Liverpool, Roy Evans, a great servant for the club, but a rookie manager who was perhaps better suited to a support role. None of these managers went on to have successful careers. Meanwhile, two powerful teams of the mid-’90s, Newcastle and Blackburn, had lost important managers and swiftly imploded.
Leeds United started to emerge as a force in 1998/99, managed by another rookie, David O’Leary, whose managerial career now looks more of an illusion based around Leeds’ chronic overspending. The Yorkshire club began to spend massively at the turn of the millennium, but within a handful of years would find themselves in the lower divisions. Newcastle were revived under the canny leadership of Bobby Robson, as some experience returned to the pack challenging Manchester United and Arsenal. United, meanwhile, grew incredibly strong in Houllier’s first season in charge, as Ferguson won the treble with his expensively-assembled new team.
Chelsea, who gained strength from the mid-’90s onwards, only emerged as an über-force in 2003 with the arrival of Roman Abramovich as the new owner; before that, Claudio Ranieri had been doing a fairly decent job as manager since his appointment in 2000. But Ranieri had always been a bit of a ‘nearly man’; someone who won the occasional cup and got teams to 4th in the table, but never beyond. In 2003/04 he finally took a team higher, but was promptly replaced after Chelsea finished 2nd; in the years since, he has managed one 3rd-placed finish, with Juventus, but failed spectacularly after succeeding Rafa Benítez at Valencia.
Unlike other Liverpool managers, Houllier’s bête noire was not a rival manager. He had a good record against most other clubs, winning his fair share of games against Everton, Arsenal, Manchester United and, at home at least, Chelsea. Houllier’s bête noire was one of his own players.
His relationship with Robbie Fowler started on a rocky footing, and deteriorated rapidly from there. Fowler helped Houllier land the treble of 2001, scoring in two finals, two semi-finals and bagging a brace in the final ‘final’ at The Valley to belatedly end the Reds’ Champions League exile, and the manager had earlier made him the club’s vice-captain. But the two became staunch enemies. Fowler was absolutely stinging in his attacks on Houllier in his autobiography, detailing the story of a man he saw as forcing him out of his beloved Anfield. It had been known well before its publication that Houllier used young local journalist Chris Bascombe, new to a role covering the club for the Liverpool Echo, as a way to publicly criticise the player. Bascombe was forbidden from praising Fowler, even when he played brilliantly; more bizarrely, Houllier adopted the same tactic with Michael Owen years later, by which time Bascombe had wised up to the manager’s motives.
The most controversial of all Houllier’s moves was the sale of Fowler in October 2001. At the time it was a shock to all Kopites; Fowler was unquestionably the player they most adored, despite the fact that Owen had been more effective and prolific for four years and Gerrard was emerging as a world-class midfield force. It was even harder to take as ‘God’ was sold to Leeds United, at the time one of Liverpool’s closest rivals in the league. The £11m fee was pretty sizeable for a player plagued by injuries in the previous half-decade, but Kopites wanted the player, not the cash. Hindsight proves Houllier right in certain aspects of the sale; Fowler, while still possessing massive natural talent, was past his best due to the curse of injuries, and it was a good price for a player who had become third-choice at Anfield. The problem was that the manager spent virtually every penny on El Hadji Diouf –– which was like getting a large cheque for your ageing BMW, which could still get you from A to B in at least some style, and buying an overpriced, faulty Fiat Uno, complete with wobbly wheels and more than a few loose screws.
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.
At the point when he joined Liverpool, Houllier had been away from the club scene for ten years. He had suffered a torrid time as the manager of the French for their 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign, having joined the national set-up in 1988 as technical director and assistant-manager. He took over from Michel Platini as team manager in 1992, but with qualification for USA ‘94 looking assured — France needed just one point from matches against Bulgaria and Israel — the wheels fell off. Drawing in the final minute against Israel, David Ginola lost the ball, and Les Bleus lost a goal. Houllier resigned, and returned to a technical role with the French FA; he was later commended for his contribution to the country’s success at the 1998 World Cup.
Never a professional player, Houllier had served a thorough apprenticeship in the dugout, starting at the age of 26, in 1973, as player-manager of Le Touquet. It was with Noeux-les-Mines, whom he joined three years later, that he started making waves, taking the small northern club into the French Second Division with two consecutive promotions. He moved to Lens in 1982, again winning promotion, and sealing qualification for the UEFA Cup. Paris Saint-Germain was his next destination in 1985, and PSG won the French title the following year — his only league championship prior to 2006.
After a year out of the game, Houllier took charge of Lyon in 2005, succeeding Paul Le Guen. The club had been French champions for the previous four seasons, so Houllier’s two further titles in his 24-month spell at the club are hard to judge; he added nothing new to the equation, but at the same time he maintained success. His brief was to make the club a European force, so strong were they domestically when he arrived. The club had been threatening to take the Champions League by storm, but never quite made that final step. Houllier failed to change that, although Lyon made it to the quarter-finals in 2007, losing to AC Milan; a year later they were defeated in the last 16 by Roma. Lyon won the league yet again after Houllier resigned, which either proves that Houllier did a good job in helping things along, or that the club were far too dominant in a league where no real challengers existed.
The ruptured aorta suffered by Houllier during a home match against Leeds United can be used to define a ‘before’ and ‘after’. He was able to cleverly manage the situation at first, so that his return several months later was a boost to the team and the fans as he unexpectedly made his way to the dugout for the crucial Champions League game against Roma. But a handful of months later, when the season was over, things began to go very wrong. It may all be coincidental, but the team hit a swift decline, dropping from 2nd place in 2001/02 to 5th a year later.
Then there was the substitution of Didi Hamann in the Champions League quarter-final against Bayer Leverkusen in April 2002, replacing the defensive midfielder with Vladimir Smicer. Liverpool were being overrun in midfield, and replacing the man protecting the back four was an odd move; however, there can sometimes be merit in bringing on a more attacking player who can keep hold of the ball and take the game to the opposition. Liverpool needed to hang on to an away goal advantage, but the German team continued to flood forward, and the Reds lost 4-3 on aggregate. This is often seen as a key moment in Houllier’s reign, and while that’s undeniable, it also gets overplayed, as does the performance of Hamann — it wasn’t one of his better nights, yet his display has been retrospectively described as “masterful” by one newspaper, as the myth of Houllier’s grand folly expands. It should not be forgotten that it was just one moment in one game when the Reds, despite leading the tie, were under the cosh.
The summer of 2002 was almost certainly a more defining moment in the history of modern Liverpool –– a crossroads where the right path had to be taken. Houllier spent fairly big, as he had in 1999, but this time the quality of his signings was woefully lacking. This is illustrated by the decision not to permanently sign the on-loan Nicolas Anelka, and instead buy El-Hadji Diouf. To compound matters, Houllier had shown interest in Cristiano Ronaldo, but a deal could not be struck. It’s easy to think that Ronaldo and Anelka would have given Liverpool the necessary pace, skill and cutting edge, while handling the pressure, but it wasn’t to be.
Subsequent history suggests that this was the summer in which there was no margin for error. Spending reasonably big in 2002 also left insufficient funds in 2003, at which point the Frenchman’s budget for 2004 was also partly allocated, with the prearranged deal to bring in Djibril Cissé from France. Houllier might have called time on the trio of Diouf, Diao and Cheyrou in 2003, but he was intent on sticking with his failing crop of Ligue Une imports. Between the summers of 2002 and 2004, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea added the following players: Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Gael Clichy, Kolo Toure, Joe Cole, Luis Saha, Damien Duff, Claude Makelele, Didier Drogba, Arjen Robben and Petr Cech.
Liverpool added only one successful player: Steve Finnan, a very reliable full-back, but not a match-winner.
The treble achieved by Houllier’s men in 2001 means it will always remain one of the better seasons in Liverpool’s history, although its true value as an achievement is hard to ascertain. Do people remember Arsenal’s 1993 vintage, when the FA and League cups were won, or 1989, when ‘just’ the league trophy was secured? Clearly it’s the latter. Can you combine a number of cups to equal the feat of one league campaign? After all, Liverpool played two-thirds of the amount of games that the Premiership entails — so almost a season in itself — and didn’t lose a single tie across those 25 games (although some individual matches were lost). On the other hand, plenty of teams — Stoke, Slovan Liberec, Rapid Bucharest, Rotherham, Crystal Palace, Tranmere, Wycombe and Birmingham — were not on a par with top-division teams from England or from Europe’s other major leagues. Those inferior teams counted for eleven of the cup games that season. For all the weak teams faced, the remainder of the games involved some high-level opposition: Roma, Barcelona, Chelsea, Leeds United and Arsenal, spread across all three competitions.
Ultimately, it will always fall short of the greatest achievements in the club’s history. But it was still a very unique success: the Reds becoming the first English club to play every single cup game possible in a season. After the lean years of the ‘90s, it felt extra-special, as three trophies were won in the space of three months, when the previous three were attained over a period of eleven years. For that, Houllier deserves credit and respect.
In Houllier’s eyes, he was heavily responsible for the Reds’ success in Istanbul in 2005. From his perspective, it’s easy to see why: seven of those starting against AC Milan were players he had purchased, and a further two he’d helped nurture; not to mention squad players like Biscan and Sinama-Pongolle, who had made telling contributions en route to the final, and, of course, Didi Hamann, who came on to help change the game. However, some of them were playing far better by then than they had under the Frenchman’s guidance. Clearly the experience gained through the treble of 2001 benefited some of those who played in Istanbul four years later; but from that success, only Gerrard, Carragher, Hyypia and Traoré were in the starting line up in 2005, while Smicer and Hamann came on as subs. So while there was an element of Benítez benefiting from the three trophies won in that landmark season, it was a team that included several players with no great experience of cup finals. Furthermore, two of the most important players had been Benítez signings: Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia.
Above all else, it was the tactical acumen of Benítez that saw the team through to the final, as he set up the limited players at his disposal in a way that would allow them to stop the opposition, and provide a platform for the better Liverpool players to flourish. Once Benítez had cleared out many of those players, they found themselves struggling to hold down first-team places at far inferior clubs.
As with his overall record –– and therefore perhaps it is no coincidence –– Houllier’s transfers can be broadly split into two sections. It’s fair to say that his dealings as sole manager had an inauspicious start, with the £1.5m capture of 30-year-old former French international, Jean Michel Ferri, from Turkish football. Rumoured to be Houllier’s ‘mole’ because he was almost never seen on the pitch (perhaps because he was tunnelling under it?), the midfielder was sold to Sochaux for the same fee soon after, following just two substitute appearances.
Frode Kippe, a £700,000 signing in January 1999 from Lillestrøm, was a 21-year-old defender with promise, but more of a gamble for the future than a sure thing. He returned to Lillestrøm in 2002 after two substitute appearances, and won the Norwegian league’s Defender of the Year award in 2007. More successful was the signing of Djimi Traoré, for £550,000 in February 1999. Traoré never developed into the Thuram-like centre-back hoped for, but the investment was still shrewd. Prone to errors, he was still a very handy squad player over a number of seasons –– quick, good in the air, and with the best recovery tackle in the league (due to his extra-long legs), but he caused a lot of problems for himself with his poor control and lack of concentration. Benítez sold him to Charlton for £2m in 2006, meaning a nice profit was chalked up on a player who never quite made the grade.
Houllier’s raft of investment in 1999 was significant, as he set about putting his stamp on the club by signing a number of players. Two of those to arrive in 1999 –– Sami Hyypia and Didi Hamann –– went on to reach a kind of legend status at the club and win every trophy available with the exception of the Premiership, while two more –– Vladimir Smicer and Traoré –– would win as many medals as the more celebrated duo, and also feature in Istanbul in 2005.
Hyypia, who had been on trial at Newcastle in 1995, proved the imposing centre-back the Reds had lacked since 1990, as he spent the next decade shoring up the defence. Lacking any real pace, his game was about anticipation and positioning, while he instantly cured what had been a weak point in the Liverpool team for a number of years –– a lack of aerial ability. Composed on the ball, his passing from the back was usually good, unless forced to look long. His days in Dutch football as a holding midfielder with Willem II had ensured he was calm in possession, something often seen when at the other end of the pitch.
Didi Hamann, already regarded as an impressive talent after stints with Bayern Munich and Newcastle, matured into one of the world’s top midfield shielders, with only Claude Makelele, of Real Madrid and subsequently Chelsea, arguably more respected in the role during the German’s peak years. It took Hamann, who cost £8m in July, a while to make his influence felt at Liverpool, where his lack of goals and all-action style failed to catch the eye in the manner that might be expected from such an expensive player. But in time his simple but hugely effective style would come to be greatly appreciated during his seven years at the club. Hamann scored eleven goals in 283 games, but it will be his defensive work that lives longest in the memory. He was released in 2006, whereby he joined Bolton but, sensing he’d made a mistake, was transferred to Manchester City just 24 hours later. Where Liverpool had handed him a free transfer, Bolton were able to make a £400,000 profit; but Liverpool had already got good value for money from the German.
In July, Vladimir Smicer was signed for £3.75m from Lens in France. A clever player who specialised in playing behind the main striker –– a role in which he ultimately scored 27 international goals –– he spent much of his Liverpool career on the wings or on the bench. The fact that the Czech midfielder-cum-striker holds the record for highest number of substitute appearances for Liverpool, totalling 74, tells the story of his time at the club: a nearly player, with lots of ability, but not a lot of consistency, no doubt hindered by a proneness to injury. However, the Czech saved his best for last: helping Liverpool win the 2005 Champions League as an early substitute, popping up with a stunning goal (his 19th in 184 games) to bring the score back to 3-2, followed later by a coolly taken penalty. It had been a largely frustrating time for Smicer at Liverpool, and he was already set to leave on a free transfer, but the popular player ended with the biggest smile possible as he smoked a fat cigar in Taksim Square following the game.
Of the six remaining signings from 1999, Stephane Henchoz was the most successful, performing very well as a mainstay of Houllier’s back-line. There were few better players at defending their own box than the Swiss centre-back, who would throw himself in front of any shot and excel at desperate lunging tackles when the cause looked lost. But lacking pace, he was far less assured defending a higher line, and aware of this, he was prone to dropping too deep. This made it harder to play good football from the back, and invited the opposition to play in front of the Reds’ box. After 205 appearances, Henchoz was released by Rafa Benítez in 2005, for whom he never played a competitive game.
At times Sander Westerveld and Titi Camara looked like good signings during their brief times at the club, but neither lasted as long at Liverpool as expected. Westerveld, the promising young Dutch keeper who joined from Vitesse Arnhem for £4m, had just played his part in the winning of five trophies (three ‘proper’, two ceremonial), and been Man of the Match when defeating Manchester United in the recent Community Shield when, at the start of September 2001, his future was made clear as Houllier signed two goalkeepers on the same day. Westerveld, who played 103 times for the Reds, was an excellent shot-stopper, but also prone to a few too many mistakes, most memorably punching an own-goal at Stamford Bridge and fumbling a Dean Holdsworth shot at the Reebok Stadium –– an error that, as far as Houllier was concerned, was the final straw. Westerveld also tended to stay rooted to his line at corners and free-kicks, perhaps in order to avoid making obvious errors (such as, say, punching a cross into his own net), but this meant he stopped commanding his area.
Meanwhile Camara, a maverick figure signed for £2.6m, had scored a few goals in his first season (nine in 33 league games) and looked a clever player capable of breaking down defences with his skill and movement. He famously played for Liverpool just hours after his father died, scoring the winning goal against West Ham (the team he’d soon join), before sinking to his knees in tears at the Anfield Road end. But he fell out with Houllier at the start of the following season, after slipping down the pecking order, and ended up at Upton Park with Liverpool recouping their money.
Another African, Rigobert Song, was, like Camara, bought in 1999 and sold a year later to West Ham for a fee in the region of £2.6m. Song had some fine moments, without ever being totally convincing in his 38 appearances. He came back from the 2000 African Nations Cup with a poor attitude, and played like his mind was still back on his native continent, and as such was promptly offloaded.
There’s not a lot that can be said about Erik Meijer, a free signing from Bayer Leverkusen, other than, in true rhyming fashion, he was a trier. Better at rousing the crowd than scoring goals (none in the league in 24 outings, with his only two strikes coming at lowly Hull City in the League Cup), he gave his all in his hugely limited fashion, and was warmly appreciated for his efforts. The fact that he cost nothing, and didn’t outstay his welcome, meant he could be loved in a cult-idol kind of way, rather than become an annoyance.
Much more was expected of Emile Heskey following his arrival in March 2000. The Leicester City striker was seen as a key signing, as attested to by his £10.5m fee, a new club record. Having linked well with Michael Owen for the England U21 team in a game against Greece, Houllier, a spectator that night, sought to reunite the pair. The immediate effect wasn’t as expected: the Reds failed to score a single goal in the final five league games, and missed out on the Champions League to Leeds as a result. But the following season the pair combined to excellent effect, as the club landed a trio of cups and finally qualified for the Champions League. Heskey’s goals dried up somewhat towards the end of the season, but he still bagged 22, to go with Owen’s 24. Heskey’s form was inconsistent from then on — at times unplayable, at others unbearable — and he was sold by Houllier for £6.5m in 2004, after scoring 60 goals in 223 games.
One very exciting and controversial signing was that of Christian Ziege, brought in from Middlesborough for £5.5m, but with the Reds accused of tapping up the German. Liverpool were fined £20,000 by The Football Association for making an illegal approach. It was reported that as a result of the ruling the eventual fee was closer to the £8m ‘Boro had been holding out for. Ziege had ability in abundance, but he was most accustomed to being a wing-back. He was marginalised after a mistake at Elland Road cost the Reds victory, and only started 20 games in his one season at Anfield, before being sold to Spurs in 2001 for £4m.
Nick Barmby was another controversial signing, the first Evertonian since 1959 to make the Blue-to-Red switch across Stanley Park, as Liverpool agreed a £5.75m fee with their neighbours in July 2000. Barmby duly obliged with a goal against his former club in the first Mersey derby of the season, and hit eight in total in his first year. He lost his way in his second season –– a problem which started at the end of the first, when he missed the final ten games due to injury, during which Danny Murphy came to the fore. In 2001/02, with Murphy continuing to do well and Barmby struggling with injuries, the former Evertonian, whose busy, clever style was never really seen to its best effect at Anfield, was sold to Leeds United for £2.75 million.
Still, at least something was seen of Barmby; something that can barely be said of Bernard Diomède, a World Cup winner with France just two years earlier. In his three seasons at the club, the £3m signing from Auxerre played just four times. Perhaps things might have been different had his spectacular overhead kick on his debut at home to Sunderland been allowed to stand; the ball crossed the line, but the officials did not award the goal. Had the French winger got off to a flying start, he might have been able to build on it; instead, he disappeared into virtual anonymity.
In September 2000 19-year-old French full-back Gregory Vignal was signed from Montpellier for £500,000. The youngster was soon in the first team, impressing on his league debut at home to West Ham. Perhaps he felt he had ‘made it’, and got cocky –– but clearly he had not. He promised so much, but as with Houllier’s other young French signings, he didn’t amount to what was expected at Anfield; to a degree this is natural, with precious few promising teenagers developing into top-class first team pros at any club, but the law of averages suggests maybe one or two should go on to thrive. He was released by Liverpool upon Benítez’s arrival, after 20 games.
Two of the very best bits of business undertaken by Houllier came that summer, and as Bosman deals, neither cost a penny. Both Gary McAllister and Markus Babbel helped take Liverpool up a level the following season, and had a large impact on the winning of three trophies in 2001. Alas, neither player would last long in the first team, for very different reasons. Babbel had a superb first season after arriving from Bayern Munich at the age of 28. Although he could play at centre-back, he spent the season in the right-back position. A fine overlapping full-back, he wasn’t especially gifted on the ball in technical terms, but had enough intelligence to use it wisely. He popped up with six goals, and really thrived as the season reached the business end. But then things quickly changed, as the right-back slot started to look cursed. Like Rob Jones and Vegard Heggem before him, Babbel’s career was under threat before he was 30. The German defender fell ill with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a potentially deadly neurological condition, which left him completely debilitated. He spent the rest of the next season having to learn to walk again. While he made what could be termed a full recovery with regard to the illness itself, he was never able to find the levels of fitness needed to be a top-class Premiership player. He then fell out with Houllier, who was angry at the player’s attitude in the reserves; in fairness to Babbel, he appeared to be frustrated at a lack of his old strength and stamina. He went on loan to Blackburn in 2003/04 and played 25 league games at centre-back, and ended up breaking Milan Baros’ ankle in an accidental collision. After that moderately successful loan spell he was released by Liverpool in 2004, and ended his career with Stuttgart in the Bundesliga.
If the early demise of Babbel was unforeseen, no-one could argue the same of Gary McAllister, given that he was already 35 when he arrived. Houllier said Liverpool would have won a lot more trophies had the Scottish central midfielder arrived at Anfield a decade earlier. It was something of a shock when he signed, having been at lowly Coventry City, a side he would help condemn to relegation in his first season at Liverpool with a trademark precision free-kick. McAllister had scored 13 goals in his final season at Highfield Road, and was a consummate professional; as such, there was life in the old dog yet. While he didn’t start his Liverpool career too impressively, he improved as the season went on, and just when things began to reach boiling point in a remarkable campaign, he came into his own. The following campaign saw McAllister’s influence wane, but having turned 37 on 25th December 2001, his decline was inevitable. He returned to Coventry after 87 appearances for the Reds, playing a further 55 times in the First Division, before retiring. Few players have been as warmly appreciated in such a short spell at Anfield.
Having had great success with two free transfers, Houllier showed that he found it harder when the fees got bigger; very few of his expensive signings paid off, and certainly not to the degree expected. Many of his best signings –– McAllister, Hyypia, Babbel, Finnan and Nicolas Anelka (on loan) –- were either cheap or free. Only Didi Hamann bucked the trend.
Central midfielder Igor Biscan arrived at the tail end of 2000, costing a fairly hefty £5.5m from Dinamo Zagreb. The tall Croatian had been compared with Ruud Gullit by Osvaldo Ardiles; alas, at times he played more like Rudy Giuliani. After a disappointing first three years at the club, Biscan managed a rebirth of sorts, as a centre-back –– offering the pace that neither Hyypia or Henchoz possessed, but not the consistency. Following the arrival of Rafa Benítez, Biscan cemented his cult-hero status. Getting to play in his favoured central midfield berth, where his ability to run with the ball was more evident than had been seen under Houllier, he was a very handy option for the Spaniard, particularly when Xabi Alonso was out with a broken ankle. Ultimately, Biscan’s future, after a very mixed time on Merseyside, was always going to lie elsewhere. With his contract up he was released, having played 118 games and scored three goals.
Having already done exceptionally well with two free transfers, Houllier went for the hat-trick in the 2000/01 season when, in January 2001, he signed Jari Litmanen, a world-class talent in his pomp, from Barcelona. It was shortly before the Finnish forward’s 30th birthday, but his game had always been about intelligence, not pace or hard running. The recent doubts about Litmanen had always been with regard to fitness, and he was soon injured at Liverpool too, resulting in him missing the crucial run-in to the season. There’s no doubt he was a disappointment of sorts, in that he never produced his old Ajax form, but all the same he scored nine goals in 43 games for the Reds, finding some good form in his only full season at the club in 2001/02, particularly in Liverpool’s inaugural Champions League campaign –– a competition he’d won seven years earlier. His arrival was perhaps indicative of Houllier trying to go for more technical strikers, but in the end Owen and Heskey were still the preferred choices.
One of the most stunning days of transfer activity in Liverpool’s history took place on Friday August 31st 2001, when, with the deadline hours away, Jerzy Dudek and Chris Kirkland were signed from Feyenoord and Coventry City respectively. Dudek, a 28-year-old Polish international described by legendary Dutch coach Leo Beenhakker as the best keeper he’d seen in 30 years, cost £4.85m, while the 20-year-old rookie Englishman cost £6m, with the potential to rise to £9m. There were rumours that one of the keepers was signed by mistake; that, in a game of brinkmanship, Houllier had wanted either one or the other, but inadvertently ended up with both. Clearly, this is a little hard to believe, given that the raw Kirkland had yet to prove he was ready for the pressure of being a first-team regular at a big club. As a result of the new arrivals, Sander Westerveld quickly went from first choice to sitting in the stands, and five months later was sold to Real Sociedad, who, with a certain young Xabi Alonso in their ranks, finished 2nd in La Liga in 2003. Kirkland promised much, but played only 45 times in four years, and left as a disappointment of sorts. He was 6’ 6” as a teenager, but was far from athletic and slow off his line. A great shot stopper, and imposing when commanding his area, his main problem was an inability to stay fit for longer than a few matches at a time. At the age of 24, he was sold to Wigan Athletic for £3m.
Dudek had been pretty much impeccable in his inaugural season, making his first mistake in the final weeks of the season at home to Blackburn. Not the tallest or broadest, his agility was that of a gymnast –– cat-like seems to be the usual goalkeeping epithet. But no goalkeeper can be judged until he comes through his first really tough period. The key is how they deal with costly mistakes, which are sooner or later made by even the very best. And in Dudek’s case, it was not good. In his second season he started to drop a few clangers, which escalated into howlers. While Dudek’s fate was sealed when Benítez moved to sign Pepe Reina in the summer of 2005, the Pole at least got to savour one great high. Winning a Champions League medal is one thing, but to do so as the hero is something special. Dudek made one absolutely incredible point-blank double save from AC Milan’s Andrei Shevchenko, and then denied him, and his team-mates, in the penalty shootout that ensued. He moved to Real Madrid on a free transfer in 2007, after 186 games, to continue life as a bench-warmer.
Another signing from the summer of 2001 was John Arne Riise, the promising young left-sided Norwegian. Riise, who cost £3.7m from Monaco, had been deployed as a central midfielder in France, but it was on the flank where he made his mark at Liverpool. His tenacity, indefatigable stamina and thunderous shooting initially made him a firm favourite with fans. Despite his limitations –– anatomists have yet to confirm the existence of his right foot, while he has no trickery whatsoever when it comes to beating a man –– he managed to remain in Benítez’s plans for four years, despite his style being more suited to Houllier’s counter-attacking approach. Possibly one of the most one-footed players ever to play the game, he did however score a stunning goal with his right foot in the Nou Camp to consign Barcelona to a home defeat; however, he will also be remembered for a last-minute own-goal in the semi-final against Chelsea in April 2008, that ultimately cost Liverpool a place in the final, when he refused to use his right foot to clear. Two months later he was sold to Roma for £4m, after 31 goals in 348 games.
The young Czech striker Milan Baros arrived in December 2001 from Banik Ostrava for £3.2m. At first considered overweight and out of shape, not a great deal was seen of the new talent for the remainder of that season. But eventually he forced his way into the first team picture, starting 22 times in ‘02/03, and making a further 20 substitute appearances, registering 12 goals in the process. The year between June 2004 and 2005 was an absolute dream for the striker. In Euro ‘2004 he won the Golden Boot as top scorer, although his side crashed out at the semi-final stage. He started the new season — Benítez’s first –– in fine fettle, and while his league form fell away in the new year, and he failed to score in all but one of the post-group Champions League games, he ended the season as a European Cup winner. Ultimately a lack of goals, and a tendency to play with his head down, running into blind alleys with little awareness of team-mates, meant that Benítez was inclined to look elsewhere. Baros started the following season at Anfield, but was soon sold to Aston Villa for £6.5m, as Liverpool doubled their money. He left having scored 27 goals in 109 games, but only 66 of which were starts.
Another shock signing was that of French enfant terrible Nicolas Anelka, in a loan deal from Paris Saint-Germain that included the option of the Reds making it permanent at the end of the season. It didn’t help that he was in no way match fit when he arrived, having been frozen out in Paris, and it took him ten games to break his duck –– albeit against Everton, which is always worth more in the eyes of the fans. He gradually improved as he found his sharpness, and produced a quite glorious display as the Reds routed Newcastle 3-0 at Anfield in a game delayed by floodlight failure. It seemed he’d done enough to make the move permanent. But just as Anelka’s arrival was a shock, so too was Houllier’s decision to instead opt for the less-proven El Hadji Diouf.
Defender Abel Xavier arrived in January 2002 from Everton, costing £800,000. He scored on his debut, in a 6-0 win at Ipswich, but only played a further 20 times for the Reds, with very mixed results. With a white beard, the Portuguese international possessed more than a passing resemblance to King Neptune, and at times played like a 2,000-year-old man who had just dragged himself from the bottom of the sea.
Which brings us to the point where Houllier really started to mess up; the summer where it all went horribly wrong. In what he would later admit to being his biggest mistake, Houllier signed El Hadji Diouf from Lens for £10m. If Anelka was tarred with a bad reputation, Diouf’s was arguably worse, after a tearaway teenage existence; something which, on top of inferior ability, made the signing all the more baffling when hindsight is applied. While he’d end up having some good games on the wing at Liverpool, most notably in the 2003 League Cup Final victory over Manchester United, he was ultimately a big failure, particularly in his time as a striker; three league goals in almost 60 games tells its own story. Snarling, spitting and pouting, Diouf quickly became an embarrassment to the club. He never played for the first team under Benítez, and after a successful loan spell at Bolton, where he scored nine times in 27 league games, the Trotters made the deal permanent, for a fee of around £4m.
With Diouf arrived another Senegalese who’d done well at the 2002 World Cup, 25-year-old Salif Diao. The tall midfielder cost £5m when signing from Sedan; after a decent start, the word sedan summed up his later years: sat on the bench, getting splinters. If Diouf was skilful but possessed of a bad attitude, Diao was the opposite: a solid, likeable character and fine athlete, but not a great footballer. At the time it was remarked from a high-ranking French coach that Diao was the ‘new Vieira’, but in truth he was little more than the new Robbie Savage. The £5m investment dwindled away to nothing when he was released at the end of his contract, to play his football in the lower divisions with Stoke City.
Having got the new Savage instead of the new Vieira, Houllier swiftly captured not the ‘new Zidane’ he promised but, rather painfully, the new Bernard Diomède. In truth, the comparison with the greatest player in the world at the time did nothing to help Bruno Cheyrou, although fans at Anfield for the pre-season game against Lazio, in getting their first proper glimpse, thought the comparison might have been valid. Cheyrou, a goalscoring midfielder who cost £4.5m from Lille, had talent, but absolutely no conviction in the rough and tumble of Premiership life. A propensity towards injuries didn’t help him either. He is a prime example of a young player doing well in an environment where he has had time and space to blossom and develop, but who cannot cope once thrust into a new arena with the burden of a relatively large price tag (and in his case, a needless comparison). He moved back to France after 48 games for the Reds, having scored five goals.
One interesting signing was that of Bayern Munich’s French teenage midfielder, Alou Diarra, on a free transfer. While Diarra was totally unsuccessful at Liverpool in playing terms –– he spent his entire three years out on loan, even becoming a French international in the process –– he was sold for £2m in 2005 by Benítez when the superior Sissoko was lined up. As a bit of business, and that alone, it was successful.
Back in 2001, Liverpool had announced they would be signing young French duo, Anthony Le Tallec and Florent Sinama-Pongolle, from Le Havre. The pair had excelled at the World Under-17 Championships that year. Le Tallec was awarded the Silver Ball as the second-best player, while Sinama-Pongolle, his cousin, won the Gold Ball as France won the tournament. Both players, aged only 16 at the time, would stay at Le Harve until 2003, when they were deemed ready to bring over to England, for a combined fee of £6m. Le Tallec played some steady games in his inaugural season, but as a thinking striker in the Teddy Sheringham mould, he was always likely to blossom later in life; by contrast, Sinama-Pongolle, who was also skilful and clever, had the pace to make more of an immediate impact, something he did in the final months of 2003. Neither was totally convincing, but given their age and the fact that they’d just arrived in England, it was a very promising first season for both. But then Houllier was sacked, and everything changed. Having failed to settle at St Etienne when loaned at his own request, Le Tallec found himself back in the Liverpool squad, and would feature in seven games during ‘04/05. Most surprisingly, he was put into the starting line-up for the crucial game against Juventus at Anfield, which the Reds won 2-1, with the young Frenchman having a hand in Luis Garcia’s stunning goal that made it 2-0. But that was about as good as it got for Le Tallec; more loan spells followed, before he was sold to Le Mans for £1.1m in 2008. Sinama-Pongolle was faring much better during Benítez’s first year, until he suffered a serious knee injury, which curtailed his season at the mid-point. It was a bitter blow for a player starting to show some real form. Sold to La Liga’s Recreativo Huelva for £2.7m in 2007 after a very successful year on loan (before a move to Atletico Madrid in 2008), his time in England will be best remembered for two crucial contributions as a substitute in games that looked lost — against Olympiakos and Luton Town — but which, thanks to his goals, would start a run that led to silverware. For these contributions, and a few more special moments, Sinama-Pongolle will be fondly remembered, but not without a sense of regret about how much more he might have delivered.
Having had his fingers badly burned by his foray into the French market for major signings in 2002, Houllier turned his attention to proven home-grown talents who were ready to go straight into his first team. While Steve Finnan and Harry Kewell were born outside of the UK, in Ireland and Australia respectively, both had come through the youth systems of English clubs. Finnan had established himself as one of the Premiership’s best full-backs: a very steady defender who, at the other end of the pitch, could also put in a telling cross with either foot. The Irish international cost £3.5m from Fulham, but he initially struggled to find his best form. It was only in his second season, with the arrival of Rafa Benítez, that Finnan began to hit his stride. He maintained those standards for the next two seasons, with remarkable consistency; it was only in 2007/08, whilst struggling with niggling injuries that contributed to a loss of form, that his performances grew patchy. Meanwhile, some really tough competition for his place meant he was no longer a shoo-in –– Alvaro Arbeloa impressed, and Jamie Carragher, the player Finnan had replaced at right-back, switched to the position in certain games.
Kewell, meanwhile, experienced the opposite trajectory to his Liverpool career. The Australian, signed for a bargain £5m from cash-starved Leeds United, started in superb goalscoring form, hitting double figures halfway through his first campaign. But in terms of performances and fitness, that was as good as it got. Kewell was involved in all of Liverpool’s landmark occasions over the next three years, but suffered injury problems that consigned him to the periphery of each. He had the faith of Benítez, but without a miracle worker to help the winger stay fit and sharp, he was always fighting an uphill battle to stay in the team. He limped out of the first three finals under Benítez –– League Cup, Champions League and FA Cup –– and, following yet more injury woes, was only fit to enter the fray as a sub in the fourth, another Champions League Final. He managed to stay fit for two-thirds of 2005/06, and played very well at times, particularly in the FA Cup semi-final as Chelsea were beaten 2-1, but another injury, this time picked up at the 2006 World Cup after an effervescent display against Croatia, meant that he would barely be seen again in the next 18 months. Benítez gave him plenty of chances in ‘07/08, but Kewell couldn’t find his best form. What was in theory an excellent signing by Houllier turned out to be a massive disappointment. In 2008 Kewell signed for Galatasaray.
A case could be made for both Gary McAllister and Didi Hamann, two central midfielders with contrasting styles and with a chasm in transfer fees. But the clear winner has to be Sami Hyypia, a bargain £2.6m capture from Willem II in 1999. Without any pace to lose, he has endured due to sheer defensive nous, and at the age of 34 in 2007/08 enjoyed one of his best seasons, featuring in almost 50 games when he was expecting closer to 15. Covering for the injured Daniel Agger, it was a sign of how well he was doing at the start of 2008 that the arrival and impressive form of Martin Skrtel did not consign the Finn to the reserves, but instead saw Jamie Carragher shift to right-back on several occasions, so that all three could feature. In April 2008 Pepe Reina sang the praises of the big Finn: “People say that he is not quick, but did Emmanuel Adebayor get past him with speed very often in three games against him? I don’t remember it if he did.” While it looks unlikely that Hyypia will reach the 500-game brigade (he is on 445 going into 2008/09), he still stands in the top 20 appearance makers for the Reds, and a one-year contract extension will see him complete at least a decade at the club. Incredibly, the centre-back played every minute of 57 consecutive European games for the Reds from November 2001 to February 2006, and passed the 100 European appearances mark soon after. Given his many towering performances in Europe, he will be remembered as one of Liverpool’s best-ever centre-backs –– praise indeed considering those who have gone before him. Never was he better than on the way to the club winning its fifth European Cup in 2005.
It’s hard to know how Djibril Cissé would have fared had he ever got to play for the manager who had coveted him for two years, and who agreed to pay a club record £14.2m for his services. More suited to Houllier’s tactics, and as a fellow Frenchman, there would have been a lot less uncertainty surrounding Cissé, and a lot more faith from the manager. Then there was the horrific broken leg suffered at Blackburn early in Benítez’s tenure, followed by an almost identical injury just before the 2006 World Cup –– at a time when Liverpool were set to recoup £8m from his sale back to France; in the end, the player departed to Marseilles for £6m a year later, after a loan spell that was part of his recuperation. Tall and explosively quick, the Frenchman had an excellent goalscoring record in France (and has scored a lot of goals there since his return), but lacked game intelligence and was forever running offside. Without the confidence he’d built up over a number of years at Auxerre, and with the weight of being Liverpool’s record transfer, he never found his stride. He also seemed to take Benítez’s rotation of strikers personally, although in 2008 he remarked that he had no ill feeling towards the Spaniard over his sale.
But Cissé was not Houllier’s biggest mistake. For all his faults, Cissé made some telling contributions, scoring a penalty in the Champions League Final, as well as a crucial and technically adroit goal in the FA Cup Final, not to mention 19 in total during 2005/06, when he played many games on the wing. Cissé also had some undeniably bad luck that made it harder for him to shine. El Hadji Diouf may have cost £4m less than Cissé, but he delivered nowhere near as much, in far less extenuating circumstances. Both players left Liverpool for £6m less than they cost, but at least Cissé left behind some warm memories, unlike the unpopular Diouf.
One Who Got Away
Like a man who thinks he has caught a moth rather than a Red Admiral, Nicolas Anelka was the player who was most firmly within Houllier’s grasp, only to be carelessly released. But there was perhaps an even greater mistake made a year later, albeit one for which the club’s hierarchy must share the blame. In his autobiography, Phil Thompson admitted that Liverpool were offered Cristiano Ronaldo for £4m at the end of the 2002/03 season, shortly before he eventually joined Manchester United for £12m. Thompson had been very impressed the first time he’d seen the youngster, but less so on a return visit. While interested, Liverpool were shocked by the player’s demands of a yearly salary of £1m tax-free. Thompson explained: “We had just signed Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Anthony Le Tallec, both on far less than Ronaldo’s aspirations. And we would have had anarchy if the other players had found out how much we were considering paying for an 18-year-old kid.” While trying to work out a compromise with the player’s agent, Ronaldo excelled against United in a friendly, and Alex Ferguson’s players said that they simply had to sign the youngster. Thompson explained that he was sitting in a lounge at Anfield having some lunch and looking at the big TV screen when he heard of the development. “Up came the news United had signed Ronaldo from Lisbon for £12.2m. Gérard and myself nearly choked on our food.” It was a massive missed opportunity, and even if Ronaldo had failed to find his feet at Liverpool, it would at least have stopped United possessing someone who would develop into one of their best-ever players by the age of 23.
Of course, the less said about Houllier’s apparent desire to recruit an ageing Dion Dublin in 2004 the better.
Budget — Historical Context
In 1998, Liverpool were still relatively cash rich, but times were changing. Houllier arrived just three years after the transfer record was last held by the club, and within a year had purchased Dietmar Hamann for £8m (53%), and nine months later, Emile Heskey for almost £11m. Heskey, who cost 73% of the English transfer record, was the closest the Frenchman would get to the spending of the rivals at Old Trafford; his other two expensive strikers, El Hadji Diouf and Djibril Cissé, cost 34% and 49% respectively.
Manchester United’s spending went up a level in 1999 from where it had been the previous decade — ever since Ferguson had bought several expensive players between ‘86 and ‘89. In the new millennium the United manager broke the English transfer record three times: paying £19m for Ruud van Nistlerooy in 2001, £28.1m for Juan Sebastian Verón in 2002 and £29m for Rio Ferdinand later that same year. The starting XI defeated 2-0 by Liverpool in the 2003 League Cup Final had five home-grown players, but also four who had at one time broken the English transfer record (the other being Roy Keane). The average cost was 42%, compared with Liverpool’s 24%. Unfortunately for the Reds, that victory was achieved with a 5th-place Premiership finish, while United won the league.
Leeds United also overtook Liverpool in terms of spending. Their squad from 2001/02 had three players — Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Fowler and Robbie Keane — who cost more than any Liverpool purchase until 2004. Youth team graduates Harry Kewell, Ian Harte, Gary Kelly, Paul Robinson, Stephen McPhail and Alan Smith helped keep down the average cost of the 16, but there was also a litany of mid-range signings — Olivier Dacourt, Lee Bowyer, David Batty, Nigel Martyn, Mark Viduka, Michael Duberry, Seth Johnson and former-Red Dominic Matteo — dating back to 1996 in the ranks. On average, the 2001/02 16-man squad cost 30.6% of the English record, which, in 2000, they themselves had set with the capture of Ferdinand. By contrast, Liverpool’s strongest XI in 2001/02 cost only 23%, while substitutes like Anelka, McAllister and Litmanen took the cost of the 16 down to 19.7%. Leeds’ overspending became legendary. Jobbing full-back Gary Kelly was given a contract worth £40,000 a week following their run to the Champions League semi-final at the start of the millennium, a figure he was still earning when the club was relegated to the third tier of English football. Then there is the apocryphal tale, which may actually be true, of Seth Johnson being advised by his agent to hold out for £13,000 a week from the Elland Road club — who promptly made their opening offer at £30,000 a week; in the end, Johnson’s agent said “Okay, make it £37,000 a week and he’ll sign”. Leeds won nothing, and never finished above Houllier’s Liverpool after 2000. Leeds were living the dream, but soon experiencing a nightmare.
But as soon as Leeds fell from grace, Roman Abramovich was on the scene, pitching up ominously in west London.
League Cup, 2001, 2003
FA Cup, 2001
UEFA Cup, 2001
Community Shield, 2001
European Super Cup, 2001
Champions League Qualification 2001, 2004
It seems certain that fans will always remain split over the contribution of Gérard Houllier. Between 2000 and 2002, Liverpool were a very strong team, formed from a squad brimming with talent and experience. The Reds won three major and two minor trophies in 2001, and finished 2nd in the league a year later — the highest since 1990. It’s just either side of this period where the problems existed. Beforehand, there was the joint-managership farce with Roy Evans — according to David James, “When the two systems clashed it was like Halley’s Comet hitting the earth.” And afterwards there was the final two years of his reign, when the football grew ever more predictable and league results faltered to the point where the Champions League was missed in 2003/04, and only narrowly guaranteed for the following season. The team was now struggling in the UEFA Cup, and aside from the League Cup victory over Manchester United in 2003, the domestic cups were not providing much respite either.
Unfortunately for Houllier, the good and the bad will be remembered in equal measure. You cannot analyse one without acknowledging the other, and as such, Houllier’s time will be considered a mixed affair: success and failure sit snugly side-by-side.
More on Houllier’s transfer dealings will be covered in my new book, Pay As You Play:The True Spending of Clubs & Managers in the Premier League Era, which will be released in November.