Here’s a question for all you fans of derivative, blockbuster, pulp science fiction films and hard-hitting, society-indicting drama documentaries. What is the link between Star Wars and Jimmy McGovern’s television documentary Hillsborough? The answer is the actor Ian McDiarmid. I’ve always felt it was no coincidence that when it came to casting the role of the coroner at the Hillsborough inquest, McGovern chose the man who played the role of Senator/Emperor Palpatine, perhaps the most evil figure ever to grace popular culture.
It was with much relief that the DVD version of The Phantom Menace came out recently, because I definitely needed something to distract me from the problems facing Le Boss. When I heard that Houllier was struck down by a dissection of the aorta, I was surprised to find myself suppressing a sob of anguish. My uncle was struck down with the same condition a couple of years ago, and the memories of that vigorous man laid up in a hospital bed, with less strength than an asthmatic flea, the image of Gerard similarly stricken was enough to strike fear into this healthy young heart. I’ve largely eschewed hero worship of Liverpool players recently, viewing them all as temperamental mercenaries who should spend their days thanking the fans for providing them with the greatest stage in which to play. Such cynicism makes it all the more remarkable that the possible – potentially terminal – loss of Houllier should upset me so much. What is it that Ged brings to the game that he could burrow his way into my system like a dose of anthrax?
The most obvious thing is success. Half a generation of Reds have grown up knowing nothing but failure and, in the case of European failure, abject humiliation. I’ve said it before but the danger of boring anyone has never stopped me before, so I’ll repeat myself: winning the Uefa Cup was the greatest triumph I ever experienced as a Red. Even our best seasons in Europe since our return after the Heysel ban – Uefa Cup quarter-finalists in 1992, Cup Winners Cup semi-finalists in 1997 – ended in being respectively embarrassed by the mediocre talents of Genoa (two defeats, 4-1 on aggregate) and Paris St Germain (beaten 3-0 away with a performance with less balls than a tree.) Add in the premature-ejaculation-inducing glory of Cardiff and you have a legacy that would make you want to throw your cloak on any puddles that might get in GH’s path.
I must hasten to add that I kept my own pants stain-free in the aftermath of Michael Owen scoring those goals, hallelujah. But I’m reliably informed that a Red of my acquaintance suffered an alarming case of ‘following through’ as he performed a triple somersault with pike in the Millennium Stadium. I know I’ve described that event as an orgasmic moment, but it was meant to be a metaphor. Truly a case of life imitating art.
Winning cups is not enough to explain the levels of trauma suffered by multitudes of Reds in the aftermath of the discovery of the full extent of Gerard’s illness. In the aftermath of the catastrophic loss of life in America last month, it was considered tasteless to care about sport or the fate of individuals. And even putting aside the post-September 11 zeitgeist, the club is meant to be bigger than one person, right?
It’s not just the football side of things that have made us feel an affinity with Gerard Houllier. We look at all aspects of our club and the general feeling of happiness can be almost entirely laid at his feet. We turn in a wretched performance against Villa, but never mind, we’ll bury the Blueslime in their pigsty of a ground and all will be right with the world again. After each of our cup finals victories last season, the players mobbed each other with a delirium born of a happy bunch of campers. The surreal sight of Vladimir Smicer and Markus Babbel singing YNWA with the fans in the heady atmosphere of Cardiff, what was that all about? They love being at this club, that’s what, because ours is a club where everyone works for each other, where there are no inflated egos. If you step out of line you get your arse well and truly leathered, and that’s the way we like it. And it’s all down to Houllier.
And then there is the man himself. I know that what happens on the pitch is what matters, and if we were consistently successful we wouldn’t care if our manager spoke in the fork-tongued mumble of Demento…um, maybe not him. You know what I mean. But Gerard exudes a sense that he knows the game and what Liverpool FC means to us all. In the immediate aftermath of Dortmund, Houllier almost fell over himself in the interview with the BBC to praise the fans. A pious platitude, perhaps, but there is definitely a pattern of this kind of thing. When we beat Arsenal at Highbury two seasons ago, a truly stunning result which typified the Houllier way, his first reaction after the final whistle was to throw a clenched fist in the direction of the assembled Reds in the stands. Clearly a man who knows who his ultimate employers are.
And it’s not just the fans that feels this way. No one would question the level of commitment to our club of Phil Thompson – actually, now that I think about it, there are a few goons on the message board who might, but let’s pretend they don’t exist for a moment or two hundred thousand. It’s clear, not only from his pronouncements but also his body language, that Phil Thompson worships the very ground that Ged walks on. Witness his very Gallic planting of a kiss on his master’s cheek after the FA Cup final. I don’t know Phil Thompson, but coming from the generation of footballers that he does, I’d imagine he would lamp anyone who suggested he was a puff. But homophobia takes a back seat when it comes to expressing his respect and affection for the man who has restored his beloved club to its rightful place in the stratosphere of football achievement.
There’s very little about Gerard Houllier that I don’t find laudable. Even his idiosyncrasies, such as pronouncing players ‘pliers’ or sticking his hands in his jacket pocket after jumping up to celebrate a goal make me smile every time I see or hear them. The immediate fear that his illness engendered has receded, helped in no small way by the confident manner in which Phil Thompson has taken the reins. And a part of me still fears that Gerard Houllier will not be able to take charge again. But the message we must send is clear: get well soon, Gerard. Not so you can get back to managing the club, but simply so that you can return to living a full and healthy life. We can ask no more of you than that.