Gerard Houllier in 1998/99 was largely seen as a man who had barged his way into Roy Evans’ job, managing to oust him and proceeding to take the club to one of its worst finish’s in the Premier League era. Going into the 1999/00 season, Houllier still had plenty to prove.
At the beginning of his first full season as Liverpool manager, Houllier rung the changes. Losing Steve McManaman to Real Madrid for free was a massive blow. He was replaced by Vladimir Smicer from Lens. Houllier also brought in Stephane Henchoz from Blackburn Rovers and Sami Hyypia from Willem II. Erik Meijer was signed from Bayer Leverkusen but Meijer never really got going on Merseyside. He would go on to become a cult hero with the fans, however, for his love of a post-match pint. Houllier also made three other crucial signings for that season. Firstly, Sander Westerveld was brought in from Vitesse Arnhem to replace David James, who was sold to Aston Villa. Westerveld would prove to be a much more astute proposition in goal than the English stopper. Titi Camara was signed from Marseille. Camara caused defences problems with his power and direct running. Finally, Dietmar Hamann was signed from Newcastle United in the clubs biggest piece of summer business. Hamann was a replacement for Paul Ince, who was offloaded to Middlesbrough. It was clear from the get-go that Hamann was an upgrade.
Liverpool went into the season without Michael Owen, who was still suffering from the hamstring injury he picked up at Elland Road in April. Houllier also had to pick a new club captain following the departure of Paul Ince. Jamie Redknapp was given the honour with Robbie Fowler acting as deputy. His first campaign as skipper got off to a patchy start.
After a 2-1 win at Hillsborough against Sheffield Wednesday, the Reds were beaten 1-0 at home by newly promoted Watford. We were then beaten again by Middlesbrough at the Riverside. The following week however, we were back on track with a 2-1 win away at Leeds United which was followed by a 2-0 home win against Arsenal. September though would prove be a miserable month, bookended by big defeats. Although Hull City were seen off in a 9-3 aggregate win in the League Cup, we drew 2-2 with Leicester City at Filbert Street between those games. But we started the month at home to Manchester United. United were reigning champions and came into the game as obvious favourites. Jamie Carragher gave United the lead with an own goal in the 3rd minute. Andy Cole doubled the visitors lead in the 18th minute, but Sami Hyypia pulled one back 5 minutes later after Massimo Taibi misjudged a cross which landed straight on the Finn’s head. Carragher scored his second own goal of the game just before half-time to put United 3-1 up going into the break. Patrik Berger got Liverpool back into the game after the break and Andy Cole was sent off not long after Bergers goal, but it wasn’t enough and the champions left with all three points.
At the end of September, Liverpool faced Everton at Anfield in the first Merseyside derby of the season. Everton had not been performing well in the league going into this game and critics were not happy with Walter Smiths side. However Kevin Campbell had an enjoyable end to the previous season on loan at the club and had made that loan permanent. And it was he who put the visitors ahead in the 4th minute, firing home in front of the Kop after a comedy of errors in the Liverpool backline. Liverpool pressed ahead for the remainder of the match, but an equaliser was not forthcoming. This was a game however that was more memorable for its incidents off the ball. First of all, Steven Gerrard was sent off for a nasty challenge on Campbell high on his thigh. Then a full on brawl broke out in the Liverpool area between Francis Jeffers and Sander Westerveld, for which both were shown red. Having used all three substitutions and down to nine men, Steve Staunton was forced to don the gloves and put on a heroic display for the last 10 minutes of the game. It wasn’t enough though and Everton came away from Anfield with their first league win since 1984.
October saw our consistency improve with wins over Chelsea and West Ham, and draws with Southampton and Aston Villa, although the former would knock us out the League Cup at the Dell. The West Ham game was particularly difficult for Titi Camara, who played and scored, on the day of his fathers’ death. It would prove to be an emotional night at Anfield. The Reds would also went the whole of November unbeaten, picking up wins against Bradford City, Derby County, Sunderland and West Ham again. Liverpool were now unbeaten in 8 games and would remain so until the new year.
December started off with a 4-1 home win against Sheffield Wednesday, now renowned for Steven Gerrard’s first goal for the club which came at the end of a mazy run. Victories followed against Huddersfield Town in the F.A Cup, and Newcastle United, Coventry City and Wimbledon in the league. But, the new year would get off to a poor start. First of all, our unbeaten record was ended thanks to a 1-0 defeat at White Hart Lane to Tottenham. Then we were dumped out of the F.A Cup at Anfield after Martin Dahlin scored in the 86th minute to send Division One Blackburn Rovers into the 5th round. We would beat Watford a week later at Vicarage Road, but a 0-0 home draw with Middlesbrough saw out a disappointing beginning to the new millennium.
February was much better in contrast though. After a resounding 3-1 home win against Leeds, the Reds travelled to Highbury. Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were in a title challenge and needed a win to push Manchester United all the way. Liverpool were fighting for a Champions League place and three points would have ensured we kept place with Leeds, in the days when only the top three teams qualified for Europe’s premier competition. Within 18 minutes, Liverpool were ahead. Steven Gerrard, already proving he was a wise head on such young shoulders, played a remarkable through ball to Titi Camara who slid past David Seaman to give Liverpool an early lead. Arsenal forged ahead for the rest of the game but were met continuously by Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz, who were excellent throughout. Liverpool took all three points to extend our winning streak against Arsenal to 14 games. That win was also important for another reason – it put us firmly in the title race.
March would also prove to be a strong month for Liverpool. It started with what would prove to be an unfortunate point gained away to Manchester United. Patrik Berger scored a scorching free kick from 25 yards and Liverpool looked on track to take their first victory at Old Trafford in the Premier League era. But a late equaliser by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer squashed that ambition. We would also draw the next two games against Aston Villa and Sunderland, but won the following two against Newcastle and Derby to close out March without defeat.
April would continue in the same vein, with wins against Spurs and Coventry but the away win against Wimbledon (in which new £11 million signing, Emile Heskey, would score his first goals for the club) would be our last of that season. Liverpool would finish the campaign with draws against Everton and Southampton, and losses against Chelsea, Leicester and, infamously, Bradford on the last day. It was that game which saw the reds finish the league in 4th place and start the next season in the UEFA Cup.
Although the season ended so disappointingly, it was certainly a season of progress. Houllier had bought a lot of players in the summer and was now justified in doing so. Players like Phil Babb, who had been forgotten about in the reserves, were upgraded on by Stephane Henchoz and Sami Hyypia. Short term signings like Jean Michel Ferri had made way for the likes of Didi Hamann, who had exponentially improved our midfield. Houllier had not just bought shrewdly, he had also employed the academy to full effect. Michael Owen was now a fully fledged regular and finished the campaign as top scorer for the club. Steven Gerrard, David Thompson and Danny Murphy had also become first team regulars under the Frenchman.
Gerard Houllier had certainly proven his point. Fans were now starting to see what the clubs’ board had seen in him when they had brought him to the club in the controversial “joint-manager” role. He was ensuring a bright future for the club by bringing through shining prospects and moving wisely in the transfer market. After 1999/00 though, things would only get better..