By TTT Subscriber Anthony Stanley.
Part Eight: Heartbreak.
October 13th 2001: Liverpool Football Club faced Leeds United at Anfield in what would turn out to be a fairly uneventful 1-1 draw. Events off the pitch, however, were anything but uneventful. Gerard Houllier, the Reds’ new messiah, the man who had brought back the glory days a few short months ago, was about to have a date with destiny that had nothing to do with football. That cold afternoon, as his side came back from a goal down against the then league leaders, the Reds manager diced with mortality and came out the other end…but only just. The impact of the aortic dissection that Houllier suffered and the severity of it should not be underplayed. Perhaps, close to a subconscious level, we have all understated what struck that Saturday but, for the record, here’s what a heart surgeon had to say on the matter at the time:
‘Death can occur at any time from the moment the tear occurs: it could be hours, days, weeks or months. It can also lead to heart attacks and stroke, and to a cutoff in the supply of blood to limbs which can be fatal, too…During surgery, the patient is kept on a heart-lung machine which their blood goes into. Here it is oxygenated and put back into the patient.The machine takes over from the heart and lungs, so that we can stop the heart beating and the patient stays alive…In order to do that, we cool the patient down to 14 or 15 degrees C (normal body temperature is 37 C). It takes about one to two hours to do this, and an hour more to warm them again after surgery. In these hypothermic temperatures when the brain is asleep, the body’s demand for oxygen is reduced so that it can tolerate a period of about 20 minutes when it has no blood supply at all.That is enough time for us to do the work that we need to.’
The Grim Reaper was not so much knocking at Houllier’s door, as breaking and entering. The Liverpool manager went through an eleven hour operation with much of the footballing world unaware of just how serious the problem was. By Sunday morning however, it became very clear that if the French manager was ever to return, it would be months and not weeks.
Liverpool fans were reeling but there was more drama and angst in store for us: six weeks later, Robbie Fowler left for Leeds United, in a move that was sanctioned by Houllier from his hospital bed. But if the manager’s heart problems were a veritable bolt from the blue, the sale of God – though heart-breaking in itself – was a slow burner. Quite simply, this eventuality had been coming from the moment the Liverpool manager first walked into Anfield. In November 2001 Houllier, fresh from delivering three trophies and a return to the promised land of Champions League football, would never have a better opportunity to rid himself of a player who, though he may have admired, ultimately was a source of huge frustration. The manager’s flirtation with death – and the fact that this heightened our affection for him – added to the sense of ‘now or never’ for the Reds’ sometimes wayward striker.
Even before the season kicked off, there had been a sense of inevitability about Fowler’s eventual transfer. A training ground spat between the striker and Phil Thompson a few days before the Charity Shield match with Manchester United had resulted in Robbie being banished from the first team. In their respective autobiographies, the two predictably have different accounts of what happened on the training pitch but Jamie Carragher, speaking to Four Four Two in 2010 said:
‘Robbie was having some shots at the goal, and Phil was getting some balls out. Robbie wasn’t trying to hit him but wanted to give him a scare and got very close. Robbie was laughing and Phil went mad. Robbie wasn’t in the team and was probably up for a fight with anybody at the time. Both went toe-to-toe for a bit but soon calmed down.’
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