Born on the 3rd of September 1947, Gérard Houllier originally trained as a schoolteacher. His work took him to England, working as an assistant in the Liverpool school of Alsop Comprehensive. It was whilst there that he first attended matches at Anfield, watching the Reds thrash Irish team Dundalk 10-0 on the 16th of September 1969.
It was not the last time that he watched Liverpool enjoy success during his life, in no small part thanks to his own ability as a manager. Originally arriving at the club to be joint-manager with Roy Evans, he eventually took sole charge of the club.
In terms of the modern era of Liverpool Football Club, few seasons can live up to the 2000-2001 campaign. Under the Frenchman the club won a treble of the FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup. They weren’t the only trophies the manager won during his time with the club, but the fact that they came as part of a treble meant that they were very much remembered fondly by Liverpool fans.
The man himself left as manager in 2004, passing away on the 14th of December 2020 at the age of 73. His accomplishments as Liverpool manager mean he very much deserves to be thought of as a Reds legend.
The Early Years
Born in the French district of Thérouanne, Gérard Houllier decided to go to Lille University in order to pursue a degree in English. In the first year of his studies, however, his father was seriously ill and this caused the youngster to drop out of full-time study in order to begin work. Eventually he became a school teacher, working to complete his degree in his spare time.
As part of his degree work he chose to spent a year working in Liverpool, heading there between 1969 and 1970. He worked as an assistant at Alsop Comprehensive School, attending his first Liverpool match.
As well as working as a teaching assistant, Houllier also played football for an amateur team in Alsop. An enthusiastic player, he never quite had the skill to threaten the world of professional players. When he returned to France, he became the Deputy Headmaster of École Normale d’Arras, remaining there until he turned 26 in 1973.
At that point, he became the player-manager of Le Touquet, the French club that he had been playing for alongside his teaching work since 1971. He left Le Touquet as manager in 1976, although he kept playing for them until 1980.
Houllier the Manager
In 1976, Houllier left his role as manager of Le Touquet in order to become the manager of amateur French team Nœux-les-Mines. In spite of the limited resources available to the club, Houllier managed to get them promoted into the French Division 2. This caught the eye of those in charge of Lens, who brought him in as their manager in 1982.
He helped them earn promotion into the top division in France, as well as getting them to qualify for the UEFA Cup. This was enough to capture the attention of Paris Saint-Germain, a team that had only been created a little over a decade earlier.
Houllier became PSG’s manager in 1985, leading them to the top-flight title at the end of the 1985-1986 season. Two years later and Houllier was appointed to the position of Technical Director and Assistant to Michel Platini for the France national side. He became manager of the French team in his own right in 1992, but when the country failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup Finals towards the end of 1993, he resigned.
He remained as Technical Director of the French team until 1998, which was a role that included the management of the junior sides. Under Houllier’s management France won the 1996 Under-18s European Championship.
Joint-Manager of Liverpool
Roy Evans had been appointed as Liverpool manager on the 28th of January 1994 after Graeme Souness had quit. They were mid-table at the time and not in contention for any major trophies, but Evans worked hard to get the Reds playing exciting football and once again competing with the best. He did win the League Cup with Liverpool in 1994-1995, but was never quite able to get the club the thing that everyone had craved: the Premier League title. In 1998, Liverpool legend Ronnie Moran retired, with the plan being that Frenchman Gérard Houllier would replace him in the Boot Room.
Instead, it was decided that it would make sense for Houllier to work alongside Evans as joint-manager. The pair were introduced to the press that way in the July of 1998, with Houllier being praised for his work as the Technical Director of France that had seen the club win the World Cup just weeks before his arrival at Anfield.
Houllier was respected in the wider football world as a talented coach and footballing mind, but in England he was mostly known as the man who failed to get France qualified for the World Cup and the press therefore had little time for him.
Evans had been employed by Liverpool for 35 years by the summer of 1998 and there was, perhaps, a reluctance to sack him after such long and distinguished service. It is perhaps this that led the board to decide upon a joint-managers role for the pair, with the hope maybe being that the Frenchman could add some steeliness in defence to the exciting attacking play that had been developed under his Scouse counterpart.
It was a concept that had rarely been successful and it wasn’t at Liverpool, with some players playing the managers off against one another and mixed messages being sent.
Houllier Takes Sole Charge
On a flight home from a UEFA Cup match against Valencia on the third of November 1998, Evans realised that things couldn’t go on like that. David Moores and Tom Saunders begged Evans to change his mind in the wake of his decision to resign, but he resisted their calls and said in his resignation letter that he didn’t want to end up as a ‘ghost on the wall‘.
Instead, he felt he had to walk away in order to ‘give Gérard a real chance’. The first thing that the Frenchman did was to announce a ‘five-year plan’ to get Liverpool back to the top of English football, where they belong.
He wanted to instil some discipline in the group that had become known as the ‘Spice Boys’. He took a more continental approach in terms of the personnel that he wanted to work with and his tactics. The likes of Paul Ince, Jason McAteer and Steve Harkness were all sold, with Steve McManaman leaving on a free transfer.
They were replaced with names such as Sami Hyypiä, Dietmar Hamann and Sander Westerveld. Meanwhile, Houllier did what he’d done with the France squad and looked to promote youth, with Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher all being promoted out of the Academy.
Houllier looked to revamp Liverpool from top to bottom, with the training facilities at Melwood being overhauled almost as much as the squad. Meanwhile, more departures of old-hats such as Brad Friedel, Steven Staunton and Phil Babb created room for some new arrivals, with Grégory Vignal, Emile Heskey and Igor Bišćan coming in alongside mature player Gary McAllister.
Houllier’s main aim was make the squad more professional, changing the diets and introducing heart monitors during training. It was a method that began to pay dividends in the 2000-2001 campaign.
Houllier had waited for three years to bring silverware back to Merseyside, so it is perhaps fitting that it was three trophies that his squad ended up winning. The first trophy was the League Cup, which was won thanks to a 1-1 draw with Birmingham City that led to a penalty shootout that the Reds won 5-4.
It was the first of the major finals to be played at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, with Wembley being shut for a rebuild. The 12th of May saw the Reds playing Arsenal in the FA Cup final, with the Gunners being far the better team but a late double from Michael Owen winning it for Liverpool.
The final competition that the Reds had progressed in was the UEFA Cup, with a tricky game against Spanish side Alavés to be played at Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion. Liverpool went 3-1 up before being pegged back to 3-3, then it went to 4-3 prior to an equaliser sending the game into extra-time.
The ‘Golden Goal’ rule was in play for the final, with an own goal from Delfí Geli to make the score 5-4 to Liverpool and see them complete their unique treble for the season. The club also finished third in the Premier League, qualifying for the next season’s Champions League.
Having beaten Manchester United in the Charity Shield and then won the UEFA Super Cup against Bayern Munich, there was a feeling that Liverpool were on top of the world. In the October of 2001, however, Houllier fell ill at half-time in the game against Leeds United. He was rushed into hospital and had to have emergency heart surgery over an 11-hour period, with the quick thinking of the club doctor and others helping to save his life.
Phil Thompson took control of the Reds for the period of time that Houllier was recovering, taking the Reds to second place in the Premier League.
Houllier ended up being sidelined for five months, with his return to the dugout being an emotional one. Rumours had swirled around Anfield that the Frenchman was going to be back for the Champions League game against Roma in the March of 2002, but when he actually appeared on the sidelines the atmosphere went through the roof.
The surgery had made him look weaker and less imposing, with his tactical work on the pitch also lacking. On top of that, Houllier’s eye for a transfer seemed to have deserted him too, with names like Bruno Cheyrou and El Hadji Diouf being disasters.
Life After Liverpool
In Gérard Houllier’s penultimate season in charge of the Reds he saw them win the League Cup for the second time under his management, defeating Manchester United 2-0. He also appointed Steven Gerrard as the club captain in place of Sami Hyypiä. His time on Merseyside was coming to a close, however, and his five-year plan had failed to see us win the Premier League.
In spite of significant investment, there had been no title challenge in either of his final two seasons and so it was agreed by mutual consent that he would leave his post. The crucial thing was, though, that he had got us into the Champions League in 2004-2005….
His first job after Liverpool was to return to his native France as the manager of Lyon, with the hope being that he could convert the club’s domestic dominance into European success. He won the Ligue 1 title with them for two successful seasons, but failures in the Champions League meant that his days at Lyon were numbered.
In September 2007, Houllier took over as the Technical Director of the French national team, which proved to be unsuccessful. In 2010, he returned to the Premier League with Aston Villa, leading them to ninth place in his only season at the club.
His time at Villa Park was brought to a close thanks to illness, which was something of a problem that had dogged him throughout his professional career. In the end, it was his heart that took Houllier’s life. He died on the 14th of December 2020 at the age of 73 following a heart operation.
Tributes for him poured in, with the man he’d made Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard, declaring that he’d made him a ‘better player, a better person, a better leader’. There is no question that he was one of the club’s genuine greats, quite rightly being thought of as a legend.
Gérard Houllier’s Honours List
As sole manager of Liverpool, Gérard Houllier won 158 of the 307 matches that he took charge of. He ended up with a win percentage of 51.50%, which is more than respectable. Here is a look at what he won during his managerial career:
- Division 3 Group North: 1
- Ligue 1: 3
- FA Cup: 1
- League Cup: 2
- UEFA Cup: 1
- UEFA Super Cup: 1