Phil Thompson said it best earlier this year, as he reflected on the enduring legacy of his friend and managerial partner Gerard Houllier.
“Gerard has respect, but I don’t think the fans truly appreciate what he achieved, what he did for the club,” the former assistant boss explained, on the eve of a first title in 30 years.
“He nearly gave his life for Liverpool, he gave so much of himself to rebuild the team and the club. He transformed everything; laid incredible foundations.”
Gerard Houllier did give his life to the club. His club. A self confessed football obsessive, he acknowledged that fact in the days following his return to duty, after surviving a life-threatening dissection of a heart aorta, which saw him given only hours to live.
He won titles with PSG and Lyon, but Liverpool was always his spiritual home, after arriving at Anfield as joint manager alongside Roy Evans in 1998, before assuming full control until his eventual messy dismissal in 2004.
With news that the Frenchman has passed away, aged 73, following more heart surgery in Paris, thoughts immediately turned to that day back in 2001, when he collapsed during a game against Leeds at Anfield, and only the quick thinking of club medics – and the crucial intervention of a specialist – saved his life.
“He’ll be grateful for the years he had since he died the first time, because he died on the operating table, and they brought him back,” Danny Murphy, one of his Liverpool players that day, explained.
“We thought he’d had a minor heart attack but it was massive. What he went on to do was remarkable considering what he went through.”
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It’s been an extremely interesting start to the season for Jurgen Klopp’s men.
They got their title defence off to a shaky start as they edged out a seven-goal thriller against Leeds, before going on to conceded seven in a hammering by Aston Villa.
Virgil van Dijk’s season was ended by injury in the 2-2 draw at Everton, leaving the title favourites looking far less secure at the back – especially with Alisson’s injury worries too.
But there’s no slowing down in what is going to be a busy campaign – with Klopp ensuring his men continue at full pace as they bid for more title glory.
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What he did, was not only transform the careers of young players like Murphy, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher – as they have touchingly acknowledged – but the fortunes of Liverpool Football Club, by paving the way for what followed as Anfield’s first foreign manager.
Yet his legacy isn’t as fondly remembered as some, despite his important place in the Liverpool canon, because there wasn’t quite the affection – or blind loyalty – as with other important managers in the club’s history.
Houllier was a complex man, but he had genuine humanity. Like Jurgen Klopp, he genuinely cared for people, but unlike the present boss, wasn’t always able to translate that into his management style. There was Gerard the man, and Houllier the manager.
His relationships were often fraught, as he waged a campaign to change the culture surrounding the club, and eradicate what he saw as “a drinking environment”, and introduce “21st century discipline and attitudes”.
Yet even amidst feuds with players and press, he was capable of touching gestures – sending a card to one reporter on a mother’s death, when no other manager would have taken the time to learn of the sad occasion.
He acted with ruthless intent at the end of his first season as sole manager, selling the club captain Paul Ince, after saying privately he was a coward for coming off with an injury when 1-0 up at Old Trafford.
“My captain should only have come off on a stretcher,” he said brutally.
He introduced a team ethic, and as Murphy said, “We won trophies because of our discipline, not our talent.” But that was his downfall too – an obsessively rigid emphasis on tactical discipline, which eventually led to fear within the team, and negative football.
It led to bust ups with many players, turning off talents like Robbie Fowler, but even though they warred, the Liverpool legend is adamant Houllier was a “genuinely nice man”, and his passing is such a “sad, sad loss.”
Houllier delivered a memorable cup treble in the 2000-01 season, but his greatest achievement was, along with Arsene Wenger (and Sir Alex Ferguson), helping transform English football into a modern, scientific environment, with truly professional standards.
Where does Houllier rank among the greatest ever Liverpool managers? Have your say below.
On that emotional return in 2002 he took back control of a Liverpool team he said were “10 games from greatness”, and later admitted he said it because, as a passionate student of Anfield history, “it was something Shankly would say”.
But he wasn’t quite a Shankly despite having many of his traits, and those words brought pressure and defeats in the Champions League to a good Leverkusen side, and in the Premier League to an Arsenal team who proved to be truly great, matching their perspiration with the inspiration which Houllier’s Liverpool ultimately lacked.
He should be remembered as a pioneer though, and a remarkable, lovely man with great humanity. As a man who gave his life to Liverpool.
“You never leave this club,” he once wistfully said, and he is still there.
Without him, Liverpool would not be the club they are today.