Remembering Houllier’s secret Anfield return that led to Liverpool beating Roma

You wouldn’t have been able to keep it a secret these days. Quite how he did it back then remains a mystery.

It was Liverpool vs Roma, March 2002, and back in that brief period when the Champions League had two group stages.

The Reds had sailed through the first one, but they were winless after five games of the second, drawing four of those to at least stay in with a shout. A muted shout, but a shout all the same.

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Enter Fabio Capello’s Roma, the Italian champions and a side that looked to have wrapped up qualification when they beat Barcelona 3-0 earlier in the group.

All that Capello, Gabriel Batistuta, Francesco Totti and the Romans had to do was avoid losing by two clear goals at Anfield and they’d be through. And well, yeah, you know what came next. We wouldn’t be talking about here it if it didn’t.

Houllier received a hug from Capello as he returned to the dugout

But while now all of that ‘famous Anfield European night’ stuff might be tried, tested and a little bit tiresome to some given the recent successes under Jurgen Klopp, it was still pretty fresh for a new generation of Liverpool supporters at the start of this century.

Prior to the 2000/01 season the European successes had all been in books, but when Gerard Houllier’s team won the UEFA Cup to add it to a League Cup, FA Cup and eventual top three finish then something stirred.

Then it threatened to crash down in the most devastating manner.

The news that Houllier had been taken to hospital with a serious heart problem at half-time of a match against Leeds in October 2001 ripped through Anfield. At a time when the only thing you could do on your phone other than make calls was play Snake, misinformation spread rapidly.

Houllier’s side needed to beat Roma 2-0 to progress

Thankfully the Liverpool manager’s life was saved following a complex operation, and so began a period of convalescence in which he was regularly in touch with his assistant, Phil Thompson, who had taken over the reins.

Houllier spent much of his time away being desperate to come back, but Thompson performed admirably in his stead, even if a sticky run of results in the December and January severely dented title hopes.

Things began to get on track in the New Year, and the Reds were on a good run going into Roma’s visit, but many expected the superior experience of the Italians to win through, especially as star forward Michael Owen was out.

Then it happened.

Just prior to kick-off there was a stirring over by the tunnel, and there was Houllier emerging to be greeted by a genuinely warm embrace from a beaming Capello.

The Liverpool manager had life-saving heart surgery in October 2001

It took all four sides of Anfield a while to fully realise it was him, but soon his name was bouncing off the walls. He was back after five months away.

Looking thinner, and a little overcome at times, Houllier was in his manor. A sense that Liverpool would surely now do the decent thing washed over everyone, including Roma.

And it took just seven minutes.

Danny Murphy had been tripped in the box allowing for Jari Litmanen to stroke home from the penalty spot, with Houllier remaining calm in the dugout as bedlam swirled around him.

The second arrived just after the hour mark, with Murphy’s swirling free-kick met by the most emphatic of headers from Emile Heskey at the Kop end.

Emile Heskey’s header made it 2-0

Two-nil. Exactly the scoreline Liverpool needed. Exactly the impact Houllier had wanted.

“If I had let people know two days before that I was back, all the articles would’ve been about me and my illness, my comeback – I didn’t want that,” said Houllier earlier this year.

“I wanted everybody to be really focused on the Roma game because we needed to win 2-0.”

And that they did.

Liverpool saw it out to advance to the quarter-finals, with a reserved Houllier left beaming at the full-time whistle.

Houllier had returned to guide the Reds through to the last eight

Was the decision to come back made a little hastily? Was he really healthy enough? In truth it had probably got to the point where no-one was going to stop him.

“All I remember is that when I went on the pitch, nobody knew but Capello saw me and he hugged me for a long time,” continued Houllier.

“He said later on, ‘I knew that when you came back that it would be difficult.'”

Difficult for him, spine-tingling for those who were there.

Houllier’s secret return will never be forgotten.

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