I have a confession to make. Liverpool FC isn’t the first club I supported. As a little brother to a United-supporting elder brother, I flew my Anything But United (ABU) credentials proudly. When Blackburn Rovers challenged (and eventually pipped) them for the title in 1995, I gleefully adopted them as my team to rub salt into his wounds. Little did I know that Alan Shearer was about to depart, and United would win the title another three times before the decade was over. Bad decision. As fortunes turned for Blackburn, culminating in their relegation in 98/99, it was getting increasingly difficult for 10 year-old boy in Singapore to follow their fortunes. How many times could I look out for their box scores in the back pages of the newspaper, with zero idea what the Championship Table looked like? I had no choice.
Luckily, two things made it easy for me to switch to Merseyside. My staunch anti-United stance aside, my father, like most men who grew up in the seventies, already supported Liverpool, and Gérard Houllier was in the midst of turning Liverpool FC into a force to be reckoned with again.
For many a thirty-year old-ish person (like yours truly), Gérard Houllier’s was the Liverpool team to fall in love with. Unlike the earlier teams of the nineties, which always seemed like they were playing catch-up with an old Boot Room formula in a game that had shifted tremendously in the space of a few years, Houllier’s reign was a breath of fresh air, in more ways than one. The first manager to truly represent a break from the Boot Room of old, (sure, there was that awkward co-manager thing with Roy Evans) once Houllier assumed the reigns, the club quickly shifted into top gear.
By year two under his helm, the likes of Dominic Matteo, Titi Camara, Phil Babb, and Rigobert Song were gone. In their place, a solid defensive partnership in Sami Hyypiä and Stephane Henchoz. Sander Westerveld and Markus Babbel (on a free!), and Dietmar Hamann lent some international steel to the defence. Local lads Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, and Jamie Carragher were given their chances and gladly took it. It was an exciting time to say the least.
Many tributes (including mine), will no doubt paint Gérard as the figure who pulled a somewhat reluctant Liverpool, kicking and screaming about the good ol’ days of pints and ciggies in the locker room, into the present. And well that’s mostly true, the man sure had a knack for balancing the new with the old. After all, this was a man who had a stint as a teaching assistant a couple of miles from Anfield - at Alsop Comprehensive, a grammar school. The Kop, the YNWA sing-alongs, and the friendly rivalry - he knew about it all.
This was also a man whose signature signing was 35-year-old Gary McAllister on a free. Ten year-old me was pumped that the only player I recognised from Coventry, and someone who looked like one of my dad’s friends, was suddenly thumping in goals for us. Only years later would I realise that Gary was Houllier’s way of a cultural reset for the locker room. Out went the overindulgence of the Spice Boys years. And who better for young Steven Gerrard to learn from, than a dedicated and model professional like Gary Mac?
Houllier’s reign was full of treasured moments and bragging rights against our rivals. As if the signing of Nick Barmby from Everton wasn’t controversial enough, a 94th minute free-kick winner from Gary Mac really was the cherry on top of a schadenfreude sundae. Just look at the joy on Houllier’s face! His tenure also brought out a strange trend of Danny Murphy goals beating United - including a rare win at Old Trafford against Man United in 2000/2001. Fergie’s team had been unbeaten in the Premier League at home for two years at that point. The win also broke a drought for Liverpool, they hadn’t won at the stadium since 1990.
The crowning achievement of the Houllier’s years was of course, that magical 2000/2001 treble season. Up until Liverpool’s recent Champions League and Premier League-winning seasons, I hadn’t experienced the joy of waking up to check a score of a match too late for me to stay up for, only to go “of course, they pulled off this absurd scoreline”. Clutch Gary McAllister moments, the Michael Owen Final that saw Owen at the peak of his Ballon D’or powers - Liverpool were an intoxicating mix of burgeoning potential and thrilling imperfection at its best, topped off perfectly by an utterly insane 5-4 Golden Goal win against Alaves in the UEFA Cup. That season was just... pure joy, in every sense of the word.
No discussion of Gérard Houllier can be done without mentioning the scary events of 13 October 2001. Houllier was rushed to hospital at half-time of a game against Leeds United for an emergency operation due to a heart attack. A mere five months later, he was back, and just the thunderous Anfield reception makes Liverpool-Roma one of the great European Nights. It felt like a rushed mistake then. But a part of me was just happy to see our jolly French Dad back on the sidelines again.
Things didn’t go well after. The football stagnated. Bad bets on Bruno “the next Zidane” Cheyrou, and El Hadj Diouf instead of Nicolas Anelka proved to be costly. But after Leeds and Roma, we all knew he was one of us. Beyond the sheen of footballing intellect aura that Houllier was often portrayed in, was a man who was equally fiery and stubborn... just like you and me.
A year after he had left the club, it was ironically his players - by then either maligned or completely forgotten about - such as Traore, Smicer, and Dudek who would come to the rescue as Liverpool completed a comeback for the ages. What is the legacy of Gérard Houllier’s stewardship at Liverpool? To me, the one thing that stands out above all is just how deeply he cared about the club, even beyond his own tenure. A builder by nature, Gérard Houllier’s career is full of teams (the French World Champions of 98, the Red Bull academy set ups) that bear his influence, long after his stay. Liverpool FC is no different. Even if it proved to be false dawn, for a moment in 2001, it looked like Liverpool had forged a new path forward that was a perfect balance of modern outside influences, while still balancing the hefty weight of the club’s history. When it was clear his time with the club was soon to be over, he pushed on, hoping to hand the club over in a better situation than the one he took charge of to whomever his successor was going to be. He will forever be tied to the joy that was 2000/2001. Farewell Gérard, and thank you for everything you’ve built.