Gerard Houllier who sadly passed away this week is credited as the manager who set the foundations for a return to glory for the Reds following a bleak decade in which Liverpool lost their mantle as the all-conquering side of the 70s & 80s. In this article Gavin Cox (@gavthegaffer) offers a personal account of his time supporting the Reds under Le Boss
It was the first game of the season and I got into Anfield earlier than usual ahead of our first game of the 1998/99 season against league champions Arsenal. Liverpool had long fallen away from their position of title favourites they’d carried for the previous 20 years and had seen the title change hands between Arsenal, Leeds, Man Utd and even Blackburn Rovers throughout a decade in which clubs jostled to take the Reds crown as the dominant force of English football.
The 1990s was a tough decade for the club with only an FA Cup win in 1992 and a League Cup win in 1994 as the understandable mourning following the Hillsborough disaster and Kenny Dalglish’s subsequent shock resignation a couple of years later took its toll. The loss to arch-rivals Manchester United in the 1996 FA Cup final was one of the bitterest pills to swallow and especially difficult for me as a student living in Manchester at the time. Indeed United had started winning leagues after a drought stretching back to the late 1960s and their victory in a dour final gave the Mancs their second double in 3 seasons, a feat Liverpool had achieved just once in 1986.
Roy Evans side promised so much in the mid to late 90s with stars such as Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman joining veterans John Barnes and Ian Rush, without ever managing to pick up that coveted league winners medal. And the fact that our rivals from the wrong end of the East Lancs Road were seemingly picking up trophies for fun meant our relative lack of success was even harder to take.
Floundering the following seasons, even finishing 4th in a two-horse race in 1996/97, meant we had now gone 7 years without winning the title and now with no 1990 championship-winning players remaining in the squad the title seemed further away than ever before. Season 1997/98 saw Michael Owen break into the side, as Robbie Fowler spent time on the sidelines suffering a break to his leg. And although a league challenge was on the cards, the Reds didn’t have enough to compete with United and eventual league winners Arsenal. Another season without a trophy left many of the Anfield faithful questioning the direction of the club. Evans was the last of Shankly’s boot room boys and if he couldn’t bring the magic back to Anfield using the tried and trusted methods of his predecessors, many now wondered who could.
A French Affair
So the announcement in the summer of 1998 that Liverpool was to appoint a French coach credited with building that superb French World Cup winning side, as technical director, created much-needed anticipation and a buzz around Anfield as the team prepared for the 1998/99 season. The arrival of Arsenal’s own Frenchman in Arsene Wenger, and his ability to bring the title back to Highbury meant that French football was enjoying a renaissance and had now invaded the British Isles. The future seemingly belonged to France and Liverpool wanted a part of it.
So there I was sat in my usual seat on the front row of The Paddock in line with the 12-yard box, Kop end, an hour before kick-off along with an assortment of day-trippers, tourists and excited kids here to enjoy their first Anfield experience and accompanied by proud parents. I was there as a 28-year-old adult buzzing with an anxiety that went beyond new season pre-match nerves. I was there for one reason only, to analyse the team warm-up, to see if there were any differences in the pre-match routine, to try and work out from admittedly very little information how we’d line up for the new season looking for signs, however small, that there could be a successful challenge for the league title. Gerard Houllier’s arrival promised so much.
Houllier arrived and immediately announced himself as a lifelong Red: he’d lived and taught in schools on Merseyside, he’d stood on The Kop. The connection was immediate. As the team ran out at Anfield in their training gear to a ripple of applause from the smattering of fans who shared my eagerness, I edged towards the dugout and towards the ageing fella with a long nose who stood alone, hand in chin and looking a bit lost. I smiled and offered my hand which he accepted while handing over a copy of Through the Wind & Rain – one of a handful of fanzines available to purchase in the days before internet forums and fan channels and the only means available to supporters that offered an insight into fan culture. “Patrice” announced the confused looking guy in an accent this uncultured Scouser had only heard before on the set of Ello Ello. I nodded awkwardly and offered up a pen for his autograph, which he duly obliged. Patrice Bergues was Gerard Houllier’s right-hand man and had arrived at Anfield as his assistant. Roy Evans was still in situ, the joint manager approach was a new thing, not only for Liverpool but for the English top flight. No one knew how this would work out going forward as Roy’s time at the club had seemingly be driven down a cul-de-sac and although he retained his position in the Anfield driving seat, Houllier had been drafted in to manoeuvre the club back into pole position.
A French revolution was already underway in other parts of the country. Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager who would be bringing his team to Anfield that afternoon, was credited for changing the English game and bringing in modern approaches to training and player diets that had rewarded The Gunners with a title the previous season and at the time, appeared to be leading his side into a period of dominance. While fellow Frenchman Eric Cantona was viewed by others as the catalyst behind Man Utd’s resurgence. With Arsenal arriving at Anfield that afternoon as League Champions, they were the team to beat. Although the game ended in a 0-0 draw and unsurprisingly didn’t remain long in the memory, a home draw against the Champions was looked on as progress as the new era got underway.
The Houllier-Evans partnership began well. An away win at Southampton on the opening day, followed by the Arsenal home draw, a thumping 4-1 win at Newcastle and a comfortable 2-0 victory against Coventry City at Anfield had the media talking once more about Liverpool. And for a short while, as the summer gave way to autumn in 1998 it felt good. Then came a 2-1 loss away to West Ham in which the management faced their first real criticism for changing the winning side of previous games, which led to a disjointed match where an ageing Karl Heinz Riedle scored a consolation goal for the Reds in the last minute to give the score a more flattering scoreline than perhaps the match itself deserved.
Next up at Anfield were relegation fodder Charlton Athletic and I was drafted into a Radio City fan discussion outside the ground before kick-off where the talk was not just of a Reds victory but of the size of that victory and how many trophies Liverpool would collect that season. Optimism remained high. As the mic was thrust towards my chest for me to voice my opinion you could hear a pin drop when I suggested that this game was a potential banana skin, pointing to the change in the system at Upton Park that led to defeat 7 days earlier. I didn’t enjoy being proven right but the 3-3 draw was a major downer and left fans with a feeling that the new coaching honeymoon period had ground to a shuddering halt before September was out. Six games later, with only a 2-0 home victory against Man Utd to talk about, a tearful Roy Evans would sit in front of the TV cameras and associated media hacks announcing his departure from Anfield after a 33-year association with the club, leaving Houllier in sole charge. The joint management approach was over.
Gerard Houllier’s first game as the manager of Liverpool Football Club was a dire 3-1 loss to Leeds with the visitors scoring 3 times in the last 11 minutes. Little did I know it at the time but this game would be my last visit to Anfield for 15 years. A new job in Cardiff, which included weekend work, would take me miles away from Liverpool and render it incredibly difficult and certainly unaffordable at the time to maintain my home and away support of The Reds in person and I took to life watching Liverpool from afar for the first time in 20 years.
Put the champagne on ice, we’re going to Cardiff twice!
Season 2000/01 will live long in the memory of Liverpool fans around the world as Gerard Houllier led the Reds to 3 trophies in quite dramatic fashion. And with Wembley Stadium under renovation, the first 2 trophies came in finals that were played in my new home town, Cardiff.
The League Cup Final against Birmingham City was memorable, not only for Robbie Fowler’s opening goal and the resulting penalty shoot-out win that brought Gerard Houllier his first trophy as Liverpool boss but on a personal level as I found myself alongside my brother in the players’ area underneath Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium after the match. Quite how we managed this is still a talking point. For the unaware, Wales national stadium sits in the heart of the city centre and Cardiff is a great place to be when a big event is held there. Unable to get tickets for the game, we’d watched it in a pub quite literally outside the ground. And after the game went outside to mingle with the Reds fans as they left the stadium in a joyous mood. We thought we’d hang around to see the team bus leave the ground and noticed the gates of the tunnel underneath the stadium were not only open but unmanned. It was the first game of this size to be held in Cardiff and security was lax. We simply walked freely into the players’ area. There stood Robbie Fowler’s parents, proud as punch clutching his Man of the Match trophy. His dad was happy to welcome us as his own. Jamie Redknapp’s wife Louise, a celebrity in her own right, stood alongside us waiting for the players to come out to the team bus that sat idling. As the players slowly came out of the depths of their dressing room we mingled and chatted and stood amazed at the height of Sami Hyypia. There were no smartphones in 2001 to capture this moment but the memories live large today.
Ten weeks later and the Reds were back in Cardiff to face Arsenal in the FA Cup final and this time security was tighter so there would be no repeat of the freedom of the Millennium Stadium my brother and I experienced in February. Try as I might I couldn’t get a ticket for the game. I’d exhausted my usual connections so it was back to the same pub where we watched the League Cup final. The game of course is now firmly part of Liverpool FC folklore, with Michael Owen rescuing the game for us in the dying minutes having been outplayed for most of the match. Luck was on our side that day and Cardiff was draped in red as Scousers took over the city. I admit to shedding a tear at the final whistle. It felt like Liverpool were finally back. It was a fine moment as the crowded streets around the stadium parted to allow the team bus to leave the city. Sat upfront with a smile as wide as the Mersey was Gerard himself clutching the FA Cup, dark blue and gold ribbons still attached as hundreds of Liverpool fans launched into a chant of “Hou let the Reds out” that echoed around Cardiff city centre from its castle right up to the train station and along the banks of the River Taff.
We won’t be home for tea, we’re going to Germany
Next up was a relatively unknown team from Spain who we’d face in the UEFA Cup Final to be held in Dortmund. There was no chance of a ticket for that game either, so we were now in our lucky Cardiff boozer and the rest as they say is history. The game should’ve been won inside 90 minutes. Stevie Gerrard came of age that night, while Robbie Fowler’s strike in the 72nd minute was a goal worthy of winning any game. Just as against Birmingham the game went to extra time, only this time was settled by a ‘golden goal’ which was an experiment imposed on the football world for about 5 years at the turn of the century. Liverpool were now treble winners and close to being back on their perch as Houllier mixed youth with experience and built a squad capable of challenging the very best.
An appearance at the Community Shield in August, where the Reds were again outplayed and ended up losing to Arsenal in a game that this time I had managed to get a ticket for meant that Cardiff was fast becoming Liverpool’s second home, just as it was mine. Yet in the autumn of 2001, as Liverpool began a season with hope and optimism not witnessed for almost a decade, Gerard Houllier was taken ill and underwent an emergency heart operation. Phil Thompson took over as caretaker manager as Gerard recovered. He was back in the dugout in 5 months but it was clear to most observers that he had returned too soon. And so it proved.
One last time
Liverpool finished 2nd in the 2001/02 season, their best finish in the Premiesh League to date. But it would be March 2003 before Cardiff was draped in red again, when Liverpool beat Man Utd in the League Cup Final to become the team with the record amount of wins in the competition, lifting the trophy for the seventh time.
Again there was no chance of a ticket for the game and so my lucky pub was frequented. Little did we know it at the time but that game would be Gerrard Houllier’s last appearance managing Liverpool in a final, and the last time he would be in charge of the Reds in Cardiff. He left Liverpool in May 2004 following a disappointing season in the Premier League with deep concern expressed by the club hierarchy for the man’s health.
Houllier’s legacy at Liverpool is one of returning a team to its former glories. He failed to win the league title and this ultimately cost him his job. Yet he’d rejuvenated Anfield and Melwood, introduced strict diets and training regimes and moved the team away from the laddish culture of the 1990s to help create elite athletes capable of challenging for the top honours in the game. His death this week should remind Reds fans of a certain age of his time in charge and the changes he brought about to drag Liverpool into the 21st century. A look at the many flags that adorn The Kop of a matchday today and one thing is missing: recognition of Gerard Houllier’s time in charge and what he did for the club he remained emotionally attached to right up until his dying day. For me at least, the man is a legend.
Gerard Houllier died on 14 December 2020 from a heart condition aged 73
Gavin Cox @gavthegaffer is a freelance writer and journalist from the UK