After a return of his earlier heart troubles kept him sidelined for the final two months of the season, Gerard Houllier has now officially stepped down as manager of Aston Villa Football Club. With this latest health concern coming towards the end of a season that had already been trying at times for the former Liverpool boss, everybody expected that it was only a matter of time. And so for many it seems a small piece of news amongst all the papers and programs shouting about various unlikely transfer rumours, but it is perhaps more than that, as it will almost certainly mark the end of his career as a manager.
When it comes to remembering his time with Liverpool, he may never have gotten the club quite to where everybody wanted it to be, but nobody could ever question his commitment to finding that success and his connection to the supporters—a connection that was seen when the Kop chanted his name following his recent hospitalisation. It also can't be denied that even if he couldn't guide the club to either top European glory or the league title, he was still the man who began to return Liverpool from the wilderness and restored at least some of the pride that had been missing for much of the nineties. In that respect, his greatest accomplishment with Liverpool was ending a six year trophy drought with a completely unexpected, hugely unlikely cup treble in the 2000-2001 season, starting with a victory on penalties over Birmingham City in the League Cup.
That first taste of silverware in six years would quickly be followed by success in the FA Cup, a pair of goals by Michael Owen in the final minutes seeing Liverpool past an Arsenal side that had spent much of the match ahead but couldn't hold things together when it mattered most.
Then, a third and even more unlikely success, and one of the games of the decade: A 5-4 golden goal victory over Deportivo Alaves in the UEFA Cup final, back in the days when the UEFA Cup still meant something.
On top of those three narrow triumphs, Houllier will be remembered for being the manager who oversaw a brief but heady period for Liverpool's academy graduates, as in addition to Owen he would also be the man to bring Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard to prominence with the first team. In the end it may have turned out to be a false dawn for the academy, but no matter the case it would be these players that he helped bring through who would go on to become the face of the club for the next decade.
However, following that 2000-2001 treble winning season, Houllier found himself rushed to the hospital the following October at the half against Leeds United. A heart condition would keep him away from the sidelines for a time, but five months later he would return to managing the club full time. In his role as manager, however, neither Houllier nor Liverpool would ever seem to fully recover from the setback, and in 2004 his time came to an end as fans complained of unattractive football and his repeated insistence that the club was turning a corner despite all evidence to the contrary had begun to alienate many of his former supporters.
After a short spell with Olympique Lyon that saw his relationship with the owner quickly sour as he failed to translate the club's domestic success to the European stage, Houlier found himself out of the management game for over three years before signing on to lead Aston Villa last fall. With the fans still pining for Martin O'Neill, though, it was always going to be a hard sell, and the man who had won over supporters and silverware with Liverpool during his first spell in England spent much of his return facing a cloudy, uncertain future.
And so yesterday he stepped down by mutual consent. His new club and its fans had never really come around to him, and with a new set of health concerns there was no question that it was coming sooner or later once the season ended. It probably would have come even if he hadn't found himself hospitalised with heart troubles all over again, as earlier in March a loss to rival Wolves—the first time Villa had lost at home to them in 31 years—had seen the arrival of banners and chants demanding his departure.
The cries for change only intensified over the following weeks, until the day in April when he suffered a dissection of the descending aorta.
He's still only 63, and though hardly young any more isn't especially old in the world of football management. But when you combine his age with the return of his health problems as well as those struggles to settle fully at Aston Villa, it seems likely that this marks not only the end of this time at Villa Park but in management as a whole. If that is indeed the case and today's mild, mutually agreed upon press release does in fact signal the end of his career, he will always be remembered with fondness by those who follow Liverpool. He may not have been the club's saviour, but he had a deep connection to it and for a time gave the fans something to cheer about when they had gone a long time with little to celebrate. Hopefully, wherever else he may find himself, the coming years will see him in good health once again.