It was March 2002 and Liverpool were flying high. As the 2001/02 Premier League season entered its closing stretch, manager Gérard Houllier made a grandiose declaration about his team’s future; they were, he said, “10 games from greatness” as they entered April a point off the top of the league and preparing to do battle in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. “This team have already written history,” declared the Frenchman, “but they are destined for greatness, and will achieve much higher performances.”
At the time, it seemed anything but a fanciful claim. Despite the enforced absence of the hospitalised Houllier for much of the season, Liverpool had continued their stunning renaissance of the previous two years, blazing a trail through Europe and challenging Arsenal at the top of the table.
Michael Owen cemented his reputation as one of the deadliest marksmen in Europe, coming away with the 2001 Ballon d’Or; Stéphane Henchoz and Sami Hyypiä, two Houllier signings, marshalled England’s most watertight defence; and the star of a young Steven Gerrard, the PFA Young Player of the Year for 2001, continued to rise and rise. Houllier’s rapturous return to the dugout in March, as Liverpool swept Fabio Capello’s Italian champions Roma aside on a famous European night at Anfield, hinted at limitless possibilities for the resurgent Reds.
Yet little did anyone realise that this was Houllier’s Liverpool at its zenith, and the coming months would mark the terminal decline of a team that had been forecast for great things. The final two years of Houllier’s tenure were a stark contrast to the success and opportunity that preceded them. Characterised by paranoia, recriminations and stunning lapses of judgement in the transfer market, they culminated in the once-unassailable Frenchman’s meek exit from the job in 2004. This is the story of how Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool dream collapsed.
Houllier’s premonitions of greatness proved premature: Liverpool ended the 2001/02 season in second place behind Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal and exited the Champions League to an unfancied Bayer Leverkusen side led by Michael Ballack. Yet even the anticlimactic conclusion to the season failed to dampen the enthusiasm of Liverpool fans as they looked to the future.
The second-place finish was another step on the club’s upward trajectory since Houllier took the reins, and the well-balanced squad appeared to reflect the Frenchman’s ability to carefully craft a team without spending lavish amounts of money on expensive recruits. After winning an unprecedented treble in the 2000/01 season – the UEFA Cup, FA Cup and League Cup – Houllier had set about methodically identifying and rectifying Liverpool’s deficiencies.
Erratic goalkeeper Sander Westerveld, widely perceived as a weak link in the defence, was replaced by Feyenoord’s Pole Jerzy Dudek. The inconsistent left-back Christian Ziege was offloaded to Tottenham, making way for promising Monaco marauder John Arne Riise – a steal at £4m. Even the fans’ chagrin at the mid-season departure of club icon Robbie Fowler to Leeds was assuaged somewhat by the loan arrival of mercurial French striker Nicolas Anelka from Paris Saint-Germain.
Earlier signings like Hyypiä, Gary McAllister and Markus Babbel, meanwhile, had proven invaluable assets to Liverpool’s trophy glut in 2001. A couple of exceptions aside, Houllier’s acumen in the transfer market seemed astute, and as the 2001/02 season wound up, the club appeared a couple of good signings away from ending their long wait for the title.
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Houllier had returned to the dugout as a gaunter, more stooping figure than he had appeared before his illness, yet he had perhaps never been surer of his own judgment as he prepared to make the final flourishes on his Liverpool project in the summer of 2002. Buoyed by the support of the board and inspired by his deafening welcome at Anfield upon his return, the Frenchman set about the process of strengthening a side pinpointed in the media as strong title challengers for the coming season.
His first big decision was whether to make the transfer of Anelka, who had impressed despite an average goalscoring return, permanent. Houllier opted against the deal. He thought he had identified a better option for the club in Lens forward El-Hadji Diouf, a player he described as a “warrior”, who was earmarked for a promising future and also coveted by Rafael Benítez’s Valencia.
The initial fee agreed for the 21-year-old nearly doubled, to around £10m, after the combative striker impressed for overachieving Senegal at the 2002 World Cup. Nevertheless, Houllier remained enthusiastic. Brash, headstrong and fearless, Houllier thought he had unearthed a rough diamond in Diouf, who was just the type of raw but talented player the Liverpool manager relished bringing under his tutelage.
Accompanying Diouf was his compatriot Salif Diao, also arriving from France, in a transfer worth around £4.5m. Another of Senegal’s heroes during the 2002 World Cup, Diao came with a reputation as a tenacious and hardworking midfielder whose industry, Houllier hoped, would complement an already strong midfield that included the likes of Steven Gerrard, Didi Hamann and Danny Murphy. “He has the same qualities as Patrick Vieira,” declared Houllier. The appetite of Liverpool fans was whetted for a tough-tackling, hard-hitting, explosive midfield general.
Completing the triumvirate of new recruits from France was Bruno Cheyrou, an attacking midfielder signed for his vision and creativity. Houllier, whose penchant for grand pronouncements seemed at its peak that summer, compared the former Lille player to France icon Zinedine Zidane. “I don’t make comparisons with Zidane lightly, and I believe he can become an important player for Liverpool,” the Reds manager opined at Cheyrou’s unveiling. “Bruno has the same kind of touch and style that Zidane has. There’s a lot of similarities between the two when they’re on the ball.”
The final piece of Houllier’s summer transfer business, a £9m move for Leeds midfielder Lee Bowyer, fell through as doubts arose about the 25-year old’s commitment and suitability to play for the club. No matter – the Liverpool manager had identified and secured his other key targets, burnishing the side that had finished second the previous season and strengthening the team’s depth in crucial areas.
The final pieces were in place, after 12 long years in exile, for Liverpool to finally reclaim their rightful position at the summit of the English game.
The season began in stunning fashion for Liverpool as they overcame the disappointment of an early Community Shield defeat to Arsenal by setting a lightning pace in the league. They stormed out of the traps with a superb 12-game unbeaten run, including a spirited defeat of Tottenham that many felt underlined the Reds’ status as title favourites. “Liverpool showed the true mettle of prospective champions yesterday,” reflected The Telegraph’s Colin Malam after a late salvo secured a 2-1 win.
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Liverpool’s sensational start to the season, however, was as misleading as their subsequent slump suggests. Houllier’s side enjoyed an extremely favourable fixture list in those opening games, and the scoring form of Michael Owen diverted attention from the comparatively barren openings of Diouf and Emile Heskey. More worryingly for Liverpool fans, the winning streak was mainly powered by the team’s mainstays of previous seasons. Houllier’s new acquisitions had made a less than promising start to their time in England.
Things came unstuck for Liverpool after a wretched 1-0 loss in Middlesbrough in early November. It would have seemed inconceivable at the time for the leaders suffering their first league defeat of the season, but it was the beginning of a freefall that would see them go winless in the Premier League for over two months, until 18 January 2003.
Confidence, form and morale utterly deserted Gérard Houllier’s charges as they also made a meek exit from the Champions League, their fate secured by a 3-3 draw against Basel. Meanwhile, for Houllier’s bright new summer signings, things continued to go from bad to worse. Far from the warrior Houllier had promised, Liverpool fans were soon to discover that in Diouf, they had in fact acquired an expensive dud whose wayward attitude, petulance and unprofessionalism would ultimately make him one of the most unpopular players of all time on Merseyside.
Houllier’s £10m outlay on the striker looked all the more questionable given the fact that he arrived in England with a distinctly average scoring record; Diouf’s Senegal teammate Sylvain N’Diaye had questioned that fee shortly after the move. “Liverpool fans are expecting 20 goals a season from him?” N’Diaye remarked in June. “They won’t get them – he’s not a goalscorer. He certainly didn’t score that many in France this season.”
Diao, despite a reasonable start, found it nigh impossible to usurp Liverpool’s trusted Gerrard-Hamann central midfield axis, and Houllier’s early comparisons between the Senegal midfielder and Patrick Vieira proved woefully misjudged. Cheyrou, meanwhile, was an anonymous figure, incapable of asserting himself in the maelstrom of the Premier League midfield battle. Once more, Houllier’s comparisons of his new signing with a world-class French midfielder came back to haunt him.
Tellingly, all three players were included in a This is Anfield countdown in 2015 of the 10 worst Liverpool signings of the 21st century, with Diouf unsurprisingly coming in at number one. Now presiding over Liverpool’s worst run of form for 80 years, Houllier found himself in an unfamiliar position at Anfield: under pressure and on the back foot. The previous year, when predicting great things for his team, he had described the Liverpool players as “my heroes”. Such lavish praise was suddenly nowhere to be found as Liverpool slalomed from one defeat to the next.
After a shocking 2-0 defeat by Division One side Crystal Palace in the FA Cup, Houllier laid the blame squarely at the feet of his players, particularly misfiring strikers Owen and Heskey. “Michael Owen missed chances, Emile did, so did lots of the players.” ‘Is Houllier losing the plot?’ wondered an article on BBC Sport.
Liverpool managed to arrest their decline somewhat by winning seven out of eight games from early March to the end of April 2003, giving a slight shot in the arm to what had become a miserable season at Anfield. Nevertheless, the sole defeat in that cycle had been a 4-0 humbling at the hands of bitter rivals Manchester United, and consecutive losses to Manchester City and Chelsea in the final two games of the season signalled a death knell for Liverpool’s chances of qualifying for the Champions League. Such a scenario would have seemed impossible in November.
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Meanwhile, an insipid UEFA Cup exit to Celtic was further marred by the behaviour of Diouf, who faced disciplinary proceedings for spitting at a Celtic fan. Liverpool’s season continued to plumb new depths.
Suddenly for Houllier, it seemed to be a case of the emperor having no clothes. Past accusations that he expounded a conservative and lifeless brand of football had always been silenced by the enviable haul of trophies he amassed at Liverpool, but the team’s limited style wrought little but dreadful football throughout the 2002/03 season. Nor did the warm glow of the League Cup final triumph over United in March 2003 last for long; supporters were becoming increasingly frustrated by the inability to mount a concerted push for the trophy that mattered the most to them, the Premier League.
Despite the fans’ chagrin, the Liverpool board persevered with Houllier for the 2003/04 season – a decision made more of loyalty, it seemed, than confidence in the manager. After all, here was a man who had steered the club to six trophies since the turn of the new millennium, who had rebuilt the team after the mediocrity of the late 1990s, and who had ushered bright young prospects like Gerrard, Heskey and Danny Murphy into the Liverpool side. Ruthlessly casting him aside after one poor season was not the way Liverpool did things.
Charges of turgid, sterile football were addressed in the summer of 2003 with the signing of Harry Kewell from Leeds, with both Houllier and the Liverpool board acclaiming the addition of a player who had also been linked with Arsenal and Manchester United. The reality, though, was that Kewell had been plagued by recurring injuries for years and had not shown his best form at Leeds for a long time; the £5m transfer fee reflected the player’s frailty and injury woes as much as Leeds’ financial problems.
The signing of Kewell, a player Houllier promised would “get fans out of their seats”, was to no avail. The season that followed proved that 2002/03 had not been a blip or aberration, but rather the beginning of Liverpool’s gradual and irreversible decline under Houllier. Results and performances remained lacklustre, and a three-game losing streak, to Charlton, Arsenal and Portsmouth in September and October, seemed to confirm that it was only a matter of time before Houllier either jumped or was pushed off Liverpool’s slowly sinking ship.
In public, the Frenchman continued to cling desperately to power, his outlook becoming increasingly more deluded and his approach to the press more paranoid and strained as the season progressed. After losing at home to Southampton in December 2003, Houllier angrily chastised the media for linking other managers with his job: “OK, the supporters might not appreciate that we have players missing,” he fumed, “but instead of just putting Martin O’Neill back in the picture, you in the media can portray properly what is happening.”
He began to lose the dressing room, too, turning on his own players and singling individuals out for criticism; Jerzy Dudek, in his autobiography, revealed a manager in those later days whose paranoia even seeped into the dressing room. “ I know what you’re up to,” he allegedly said while addressing his team. “You’re waiting for me to be sacked. You’re playing badly to get rid of me.”
Privately, he must have realised that the game was up. As Liverpool lurched from one inconsistent result to the next, their rivals in the elite of English football were leaving them well and truly in their wake. Wenger’s Arsenal were at their peak, playing fluid, mesmerising football and storming clear at the top of the league; they twice accounted for Liverpool with ease in 2003/04.
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Newly-minted Chelsea, awash with Roman Abramovich’s riches, were the coming force in English football – and what’s more, they were fluttering their eyelashes at Liverpool’s unsettled Gerrard. Houllier’s position was becoming untenable. As Liverpool’s prospects of challenging for honours faded, the club’s best players would surely give short shrift to the idea of staying around to help them out of their quagmire.
Owen already seemed to have his mind on Spain, where Real Madrid wanted to take him, and Gerrard’s future also appeared uncertain with some of Europe’s elite clubs circling. How long would Liverpool’s star players continue to tolerate the club’s malaise?
The defensiveness and delusion that shrouded Houllier’s last ever press conference as Liverpool manager were a far cry from his ebullience, barely two years before, as he confidently predicted greatness for his team. The Frenchman defiantly produced a statistics sheet totalling Liverpool’s shots on target and possession figures for recent games, using them to defend himself against accusations that results had not been up to standard.
As bizarre as Rafa Benítez’s infamous ‘facts’ press conference years later, Houllier’s obsession with irrelevant statistics seemed to confirm his desperation to cling to any means to salvage his Liverpool reign. Yet the writing was on the wall, for all to see.
A late flourish in the 2003/04 season salvaged fourth place, and Champions League qualification, for Liverpool, but the board’s mind had long been made up. On 24 May, with the season barely over, Houllier was quietly but swiftly ushered out the door. Thanking the Frenchman for his years of service, Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry noted: “Although we have reached the Champions League, that is a minimum standard and not a goal.” The message was clear: Liverpool’s rivals were all strengthening, and the club simply couldn’t afford to stand still.
As his position at Liverpool became increasingly untenable, Gérard Houllier clung to the idea that there was a wider conspiracy at play, intent on usurping him from his position at the club he loved and handing the reins to another man. It was an absurd notion that ignored his team’s poor results and inconsistent performances over the previous two seasons.
As his grip on power loosened further, Houllier continued to find new external forces at work against him: the press, former Liverpool players, even his own team. The descent into paranoia and recrimination was a sad end to the tenure of a manager whose leadership had once looked capable of guiding the famous club back to the peak of English football.
Yet as he packed his bags and left his office at Melwood for the last time, Houllier may have felt entitled to be a victim of sorts; not of a conspiracy as he so brazenly suggested, but of the lavish success he brought to the club in those stunning early years of his tenure. The string of trophies he chalked up early in his Liverpool career would prove an impossible task to emulate after his return from surgery.
That raucous night in Rome had felt like the beginning of something special at Anfield. Instead, it proved to be the beginning of the end.
By Fergal Joseph McAlinden @fmca90