It was March 2002 and Liverpool have been flying excessive. Because the 2001/02 Premier League season entered its closing stretch, supervisor Gérard Houllier made a grandiose declaration about his workforce’s future; they have been, he stated, “10 games from greatness” as they entered April some extent off the highest of the league and getting ready to do battle within 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.”
On the time, it appeared something however a fantastic declare. Regardless of the enforced absence of the hospitalised Houllier for a lot of the season, Liverpool had continued their beautiful renaissance of the earlier two years, blazing a path by means of Europe and difficult Arsenal on the prime of the desk.
Michael Owen cemented his fame 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 younger Steven Gerrard, the PFA Younger Participant of the Yr 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 apart on a well-known European night time at Anfield, hinted at limitless prospects for the resurgent Reds.
But little did anybody realise that this was Houllier’s Liverpool at its zenith, and the approaching months would mark the terminal decline of a staff that had been forecast for nice issues. The ultimate two years of Houllier’s tenure have been a stark distinction to the success and alternative that preceded them. Characterised by paranoia, recriminations and beautiful lapses of judgement within the switch market, they culminated within the once-unassailable Frenchman’s meek exit from the job in 2004. That is the story of how Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool dream collapsed.
Houllier’s premonitions of greatness proved untimely: Liverpool ended the 2001/02 season in second place behind Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal and exited the Champions League to an unfancied Bayer Leverkusen aspect led by Michael Ballack. But even the anticlimactic conclusion to the season did not dampen the keenness of Liverpool followers as they seemed to the longer term.
The second-place end was one other step on the membership’s upward trajectory since Houllier took the reins, and the well-balanced squad appeared to mirror the Frenchman’s capacity to rigorously craft a workforce with out spending lavish quantities of cash on costly recruits. After profitable an unprecedented treble within the 2000/01 season – the UEFA Cup, FA Cup and League Cup – Houllier had set about methodically figuring out and rectifying Liverpool’s deficiencies.
Erratic goalkeeper Sander Westerveld, extensively perceived as a weak hyperlink within the defence, was changed by Feyenoord’s Pole Jerzy Dudek. The inconsistent left-back Christian Ziege was offloaded to Tottenham, making means for promising Monaco marauder John Arne Riise – a steal at £4m. Even the followers’ chagrin on the mid-season departure of membership icon Robbie Fowler to Leeds was assuaged considerably by the mortgage arrival of mercurial French striker Nicolas Anelka from Paris Saint-Germain.
Earlier signings like Hyypiä, Gary McAllister and Markus Babbel, in the meantime, had confirmed invaluable belongings to Liverpool’s trophy glut in 2001. A pair of exceptions apart, Houllier’s acumen within the switch market appeared astute, and because the 2001/02 season wound up, the membership appeared a pair of good signings away from ending their lengthy watch for the title.
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Houllier had returned to the dugout as a gaunter, extra stooping determine than he had appeared earlier than his sickness, but he had maybe by no means been surer of his personal judgment as he ready to make the ultimate thrives on his Liverpool undertaking in the summertime of 2002. Buoyed by the help of the board and impressed by his deafening welcome at Anfield upon his return, the Frenchman set concerning the course of of strengthening a aspect pinpointed within the media as robust title challengers for the approaching season.
His first massive determination was whether or not to make the switch of Anelka, who had impressed regardless of a mean goalscoring return, everlasting. Houllier opted towards the deal. He thought he had recognized a greater choice for the membership in Lens ahead El-Hadji Diouf, a participant he described as a “warrior”, who was earmarked for a promising future and in addition coveted by Rafael Benítez’s Valencia.
The preliminary charge agreed for the 21-year-old almost doubled, to round £10m, after the combative striker impressed for overachieving Senegal on the 2002 World Cup. However, Houllier remained enthusiastic. Brash, headstrong and fearless, Houllier thought he had unearthed a tough diamond in Diouf, who was simply the sort of uncooked however gifted participant the Liverpool supervisor relished bringing underneath his tutelage.
Accompanying Diouf was his compatriot Salif Diao, additionally arriving from France, in a switch value round £Four.5m. One other of Senegal’s heroes through the 2002 World Cup, Diao got here with a popularity as a tenacious and hardworking midfielder whose business, Houllier hoped, would complement an already robust midfield that included the likes of Steven Gerrard, Didi Hamann and Danny Murphy. “He has the same qualities as Patrick Vieira,” declared Houllier. The urge for food of Liverpool followers was whetted for a tough-tackling, hard-hitting, explosive midfield basic.
Finishing the triumvirate of new recruits from France was Bruno Cheyrou, an attacking midfielder signed for his imaginative and prescient and creativity. Houllier, whose penchant for grand pronouncements appeared at its peak that summer time, in contrast the previous Lille participant 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 supervisor 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 ultimate piece of Houllier’s summer time switch enterprise, a £9m transfer for Leeds midfielder Lee Bowyer, fell by way of as doubts arose concerning the 25-year previous’s dedication and suitability to play for the membership. Regardless of – the Liverpool supervisor had recognized and secured his different key targets, burnishing the aspect that had completed second the earlier season and strengthening the group’s depth in essential areas.
The ultimate items have been in place, after 12 lengthy years in exile, for Liverpool to lastly reclaim their rightful place on the summit of the English recreation.
The season started in beautiful trend for Liverpool as they overcame the frustration of an early Group Defend defeat to Arsenal by setting a lightning tempo within the league. They stormed out of the traps with an outstanding 12-game unbeaten run, together with a spirited defeat of Tottenham that many felt underlined the Reds’ standing as title favourites. “Liverpool showed the true mettle of prospective champions yesterday,” mirrored The Telegraph’s Colin Malam after a late salvo secured a 2-1 win.
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Liverpool’s sensational begin to the season, nevertheless, was as deceptive as their subsequent stoop suggests. Houllier’s aspect loved a particularly beneficial fixture listing in these opening video games, and the scoring type of Michael Owen diverted consideration from the comparatively barren openings of Diouf and Emile Heskey. Extra worryingly for Liverpool followers, the profitable streak was primarily powered by the staff’s mainstays of earlier seasons. Houllier’s new acquisitions had made a lower than promising begin to their time in England.
Issues got here unstuck for Liverpool after a wretched 1-Zero loss in Middlesbrough in early November. It might have appeared inconceivable on the time for the leaders struggling their first league defeat of the season, however it was the start of a freefall that may see them go winless within the Premier League for over two months, till 18 January 2003.
Confidence, type and morale completely abandoned Gérard Houllier’s costs as additionally they made a meek exit from the Champions League, their destiny secured by a Three-Three draw towards Basel. In the meantime, for Houllier’s brilliant new summer time signings, issues continued to go from dangerous to worse. Removed from the warrior Houllier had promised, Liverpool followers have been quickly to find that in Diouf, that they had in truth acquired an costly dud whose wayward angle, petulance and unprofessionalism would finally make him one of probably the most unpopular gamers of all time on Merseyside.
Houllier’s £10m outlay on the striker appeared all of the extra questionable given the truth that he arrived in England with a distinctly common scoring report; Diouf’s Senegal teammate Sylvain N’Diaye had questioned that payment shortly after the transfer. “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, regardless of an inexpensive begin, discovered it nigh unattainable 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, in the meantime, was an nameless determine, incapable of asserting himself within the maelstrom of the Premier League midfield battle. As soon as extra, Houllier’s comparisons of his new signing with a world-class French midfielder got here again to hang-out him.
Tellingly, all three gamers have been included in a That is Anfield countdown in 2015 of the 10 worst Liverpool signings of the 21st century, with Diouf unsurprisingly coming in at primary. Now presiding over Liverpool’s worst run of type for 80 years, Houllier discovered himself in an unfamiliar place at Anfield: underneath strain and on the again foot. The earlier yr, when predicting nice issues for his workforce, he had described the Liverpool gamers as “my heroes”. Such lavish reward was out of the blue nowhere to be discovered as Liverpool slalomed from one defeat to the subsequent.
After a surprising 2-Zero defeat by Division One aspect Crystal Palace within the FA Cup, Houllier laid the blame squarely on the ft of his gamers, notably misfiring strikers Owen and Heskey. “Michael Owen missed chances, Emile did, so did lots of the players.” ‘Is Houllier losing the plot?’ questioned an article on BBC Sport.
Liverpool managed to arrest their decline considerably by profitable seven out of eight video games from early March to the top of April 2003, giving a slight shot within the arm to what had develop into a depressing season at Anfield. However, the only defeat in that cycle had been a Four-Zero humbling by the hands of bitter rivals Manchester United, and consecutive losses to Manchester Metropolis and Chelsea within the remaining two video games of the season signalled a demise knell for Liverpool’s possibilities of qualifying for the Champions League. Such a state of affairs would have appeared inconceivable in November.
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In the meantime, an insipid UEFA Cup exit to Celtic was additional marred by the behaviour of Diouf, who confronted disciplinary proceedings for spitting at a Celtic fan. Liverpool’s season continued to plumb new depths.
All of the sudden for Houllier, it appeared to be a case of the emperor having no garments. Previous accusations that he expounded a conservative and lifeless model of soccer had all the time been silenced by the enviable haul of trophies he amassed at Liverpool, however the workforce’s restricted fashion wrought little however dreadful soccer all through the 2002/03 season. Nor did the nice and cozy glow of the League Cup ultimate conquer United in March 2003 final for lengthy; supporters have been turning into more and more annoyed by the lack to mount a concerted push for the trophy that mattered probably the most to them, the Premier League.
Regardless of the followers’ chagrin, the Liverpool board persevered with Houllier for the 2003/04 season – a choice made extra of loyalty, it appeared, than confidence within the supervisor. In any case, right here was a person who had steered the membership to 6 trophies because the flip of the brand new millennium, who had rebuilt the staff after the mediocrity of the late 1990s, and who had ushered brilliant younger prospects like Gerrard, Heskey and Danny Murphy into the Liverpool aspect. Ruthlessly casting him apart after one poor season was not the best way Liverpool did issues.
Costs of turgid, sterile soccer have been addressed in the summertime of 2003 with the signing of Harry Kewell from Leeds, with each Houllier and the Liverpool board acclaiming the addition of a participant who had additionally been linked with Arsenal and Manchester United. The actuality, although, was that Kewell had been suffering from recurring accidents for years and had not proven his greatest type at Leeds for a very long time; the £5m switch payment mirrored the participant’s frailty and damage woes as a lot as Leeds’ monetary issues.
The signing of Kewell, a participant Houllier promised would “get fans out of their seats”, was to no avail. The season that adopted proved that 2002/03 had not been a blip or aberration, however somewhat the start of Liverpool’s gradual and irreversible decline underneath Houllier. Outcomes and performances remained lacklustre, and a three-game dropping streak, to Charlton, Arsenal and Portsmouth in September and October, appeared to verify that it was solely a matter of time earlier than Houllier both jumped or was pushed off Liverpool’s slowly sinking ship.
In public, the Frenchman continued to cling desperately to energy, his outlook turning into more and more extra deluded and his strategy to the press extra paranoid and strained because the season progressed. After dropping at residence to Southampton in December 2003, Houllier angrily chastised the media for linking different managers together 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 started to lose the dressing room, too, turning on his personal gamers and singling people out for criticism; Jerzy Dudek, in his autobiography, revealed a supervisor in these later days whose paranoia even seeped into the dressing room. “ I know what you’re up to,” he allegedly stated whereas addressing his workforce. “You’re waiting for me to be sacked. You’re playing badly to get rid of me.”
Privately, he should have realised that the sport was up. As Liverpool lurched from one inconsistent outcome to the subsequent, their rivals within the elite of English soccer have been leaving them nicely and really of their wake. Wenger’s Arsenal have been at their peak, enjoying fluid, mesmerising soccer and storming clear on the prime 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, have been the approaching pressure in English soccer – and what’s extra, they have been fluttering their eyelashes at Liverpool’s unsettled Gerrard. Houllier’s place was turning into untenable. As Liverpool’s prospects of difficult for honours pale, the membership’s greatest gamers would certainly give brief shrift to the thought of staying round to assist them out of their quagmire.
Owen already appeared to have his thoughts on Spain, the place Actual Madrid needed to take him, and Gerrard’s future additionally appeared unsure with some of Europe’s elite golf equipment circling. How lengthy would Liverpool’s star gamers proceed to tolerate the membership’s malaise?
The defensiveness and delusion that shrouded Houllier’s final ever press convention as Liverpool supervisor have been a far cry from his ebullience, barely two years earlier than, as he confidently predicted greatness for his workforce. The Frenchman defiantly produced a statistics sheet totalling Liverpool’s photographs on course and possession figures for current video games, utilizing them to defend himself towards accusations that outcomes had not been as much as normal.
As weird as Rafa Benítez’s notorious ‘facts’ press convention years later, Houllier’s obsession with irrelevant statistics appeared to verify his desperation to cling to any means to salvage his Liverpool reign. But the writing was on the wall, for all to see.
A late flourish within the 2003/04 season salvaged fourth place, and Champions League qualification, for Liverpool, however the board’s thoughts had lengthy been made up. On 24 Might, with the season barely over, Houllier was quietly however swiftly ushered out the door. Thanking the Frenchman for his years of service, Liverpool chief government Rick Parry famous: “Although we have reached the Champions League, that is a minimum standard and not a goal.” The message was clear: Liverpool’s rivals have been all strengthening, and the membership merely couldn’t afford to face nonetheless.
As his place at Liverpool turned more and more untenable, Gérard Houllier clung to the concept there was a wider conspiracy at play, intent on usurping him from his place on the membership he beloved and handing the reins to a different man. It was an absurd notion that ignored his staff’s poor outcomes and inconsistent performances over the earlier two seasons.
As his grip on energy loosened additional, Houllier continued to seek out new exterior forces at work towards him: the press, former Liverpool gamers, even his personal group. The descent into paranoia and recrimination was a tragic finish to the tenure of a supervisor whose management had as soon as appeared succesful of guiding the well-known membership again to the height of English soccer.
But as he packed his luggage and left his workplace at Melwood for the final time, Houllier might have felt entitled to be a sufferer of types; not of a conspiracy as he so overtly prompt, however of the lavish success he delivered to the membership in these beautiful early years of his tenure. The string of trophies he chalked up early in his Liverpool profession would show an inconceivable activity to emulate after his return from surgical procedure.
That raucous night time in Rome had felt like the start of one thing particular at Anfield. As an alternative, it proved to be the starting of the top.
By Fergal Joseph McAlinden @fmca90