The Leaving of Liverpool

Now under Gerard Houllier
The glory days are here to stay
With Robbie Fowler / Michael Owen in attack
The Championship is coming back!

When I was a regular in The Albert, Liverbird was a staple of the real hardcore singers. Some guys – they were always guys – stayed behind for ages in the hope that the day-trippers, with their feeble two-line chants, would quit the scene and leave the Albert Ultras alone to sing some real Liverpool songs, Liverbird being the real test. Getting the order of the verses wrong (the uninitiated should note that they follow no discernable pattern, zigzagging illogically from 1965 to 1988 then back to 1974) was a crime on a par with the Holocaust, so staying late was not for the cowardly.

Now in recent years, some had the habit of tagging the above verse on at the end. The words changed smoothly from Robbie to Michael without embarrassment, but some refused point blank to indulge this verse at all. The words of Liverbird were the equivalent of the Ten Commandments, unchangeable once set into stone, and the danger, however unlikely it seemed at the time, that the championship might not return under Gerard Houllier put this particular verse off-limits. The rest of us dismissed them as a group of boring old farts and sang away to our hearts content.

Sadly events have proven the caution of the boring old farts to be well-founded. I’ve being writing this column for over four years now, and it will be shocking to have to write about a manager other than Gerard Houllier. One message board contributor made the point that in six months time, it will be as if he never existed. This is true – if the club could move on from Shankly, it can certainly move on from Houllier – but there was no sign as recently as a week before that fateful day that the axe was about to fall. And the biggest surprise of the lot is that the board have played an absolute blinder.

I can hear the splutters as dandelion & burdock heads down the wrong way. The board that has spurned the blessed Steve Morgan, the board that dithered for months over Ged’s future, the board that left the man dangling for a week before finally putting him out of his misery – how can they be labelled as anything other than being unfit to run a tuck shop, let alone the Mighty Reds?

Because, oh stunned reader, in an era so many lies and distortions turn up in the media that every possibility in an infinite universe must be reported at least twice a week in some organ, the board played the most immaculate poker face imaginable. It was, in retrospect, obvious that they had decided several months ago to dispense with Le Boss’ services. Rick Parry’s comment to the effect that Ged’s survival was not dependent on Champions League qualification was universally interpreted as meaning that even finishing sixth or seventh wouldn’t automatically result in la guillotine. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we can now see it meant that even finishing fourth wouldn’t be good enough, but they’d dangle the carrot of survival to keep people trying for that fourth place before lashing out with the stick of change when it had been secured. Then to put the cherry of cynicism on the icing of awkwardly mixed metaphors, they gave Gerard a few days to get used to the fact before releasing the news to an unsurprised world that would have been utterly astonished only days before. The landing was as soft as possible for all concerned, not least Houllier, which was nice. In short, they played their cards close to their chest, which augers well for the future management of the club.

Does this make one confident of the Thai deal? That’s another day’s work.

So what will the legacy of M. Gerard Houllier be? It’s hard to credit today, but two years ago we were looking better than a compendium of glorious Anfield nights. Each season brought an improvement in our fortunes. The first season was a complete dead loss and barely one bit of Ged’s making. It was a difficult time as everyone attached to the club, including the fans, struggled to adjust to the fact that the philosophy of promoting from within wasn’t working. What had been a sound policy of keeping knowledge in the family was descending into inbreeding. Again, it seems obvious in hindsight that a clean break was needed. But perhaps this would have been too great a shock to the system, so it could be said that easing Gerard Houllier in alongside Roy Evans made that transition less painful.

Few managers have as good a starting point then as Houllier did in August 1999. It was as if he had been given two Liverpool’s, one he could mess around for a short time before learning from those mistakes and moving onto the new model. It didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts either, the first home game of the season against Watford seeing Sami Hyypia – who he? – being memorably stitched up by the mighty Tommy Mooney. But the almost accidental partnership of Henchoz and Hyypia began to bear fruit, and Liverpool finished the season on the charge, picking up a most respectable 52 points out of 75 midseason, and seeming destined for the Champions League.

Many accusations have been levelled against Ged. One thing his teams could never be accused of was lacking bottle in the crunch situations. Liverpool’s record in finals under Houllier would attest to that. But in April 2000, the Reds underwent an implosion that could reasonably be put down to the alignment or the planets or the players all sampling a bad pan of Scouse. Four points ahead of Leeds with five games to go, it would transpire that Leeds would pick up only seven points from their remaining five games. Had we been told that, we’d have bet our kidneys on Liverpool securing the four points needed from those remaining matches. As it happened, they got two. It was going to need something pretty special to make up for that cock-up . . .

I’ve no doubt that I wrote at the time that, whatever happened to Gerard Houllier’s reign as Liverpool supremo, the three cups won in 2001 would make any subsequent failures seem quite modest when compared to the glory that was heaped on our grateful heads that year. Nothing has happened to change that view. Merely thinking about the totality of those heady weeks at the end of that season spread a warm glow through the innards, so let’s go over them in excruciatingly delightful detail.

It all started on a horrendous Good Friday, when Leeds put us to the sword at Anfield, putting them in position A for the third Champions League slot. It’s not impossible to envisage a scenario where Leeds did it to us again, allowed them to bathe in the CL crock of gold while we were locked out in perpetuity, condemned to an eternal cycle of failure while Peter Ridsdale was lauded as a financial genius – goldfish in the chairman’s office? Get yourself a shark! That was the situation staring us in the face when Gary McAllister stood over the ball 44 yards from the Everton goal. There are eight million stories in the naked city, and there are at least that many to describe people’s reactions to what happened next. In fact, I’ve made a hobby of collecting them so feel free to send yours to the address at the bottom of the page. The one that will resonate with most people is probably not true, but when the legend is better than the truth, print the legend. It comes from one J Carragher, the only person in the world, other than the great bald one, who realised what Gary Mac was about to do. “No, Gary, don’t!” he yelled with despair at the madness of throwing away our last chance of victory on such a long shot. The ball left his right boot, traversed a drunken arc towards the goal, bounced once before gliding remorselessly past the futile dive of Paul Gerrard and nestling in the back of the net.

In that moment, Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool legacy was transformed more dramatically than his facial expression – the slow-motion footage of his and Sammy Lee’s stupefied reaction should be spoon-fed to future generations of Reds. Horsewhipped towards the finishing line by reborn McAllister, Liverpool turned in a string of stellar performances which culminated in the mugging of Arsenal, the glory that was Alaves and the second-half hammering of Charlton to secure the FA Cup, the Uefa Cup and Champions League qualification in eight helter-skelter days. The point has been made repeatedly since that it wasn’t the league title and it wasn’t the European Cup. But for the sheer intoxication of high piled upon high, it took some beating.

It has become fashionable to be dismissive of the treble season. It supposedly set the bar too high, raised expectations unreasonably, lulled us into a false sense of security regarding our state of health. Surely though it wasn’t unreasonable for us to expect our upward trajectory to continue, and for most of 2001/2 this is exactly what happened. There was the minor matter of his 11-hour stint on the operating table, but the long-term significance of this event is overplayed, in my heretical opinion. It was traumatic for Gerard and his family, no doubt about that. But apart from the convalescence period, where Thommo and the team kept the show admirably on the road, there seems to be no firm evidence that Gerard scaled back his autocratic control of the club. The hysteria surrounding his return against Roma demonstrated that the bond had waxed between the club, as represented by the fans, and the manager. As a result, it could be said with a straight face that Houllier’s illness made the eventuality of his total triumph as Liverpool manager more likely, not less.

Where does the Liverpool-supporting deiseach end and the rest of me begin? The trite but truthful answer is that so much of my id is shot through with red streaks that it’s impossible to separate them. At no time in my life did this become more palpable than the fortnight around the Roma match, bookended by the draw in Barcelona and the last-gasp victory over Chelsea in the league. Going to Barcelona for my first (and so far only) European tour was a memorable event, and the tumult surrounding that win over Chelsea will stay with me long after the game itself, which was filed away in the dustiest recess of the brain long ago. The Roma game however, 19 March 2002, was of a magnitude that will be impossible to replicate. Quite apart from the seismic personal episode that took place that night, and which I will self-indulgently return to in a few weeks time, the emotional overload that night at Anfield was more than any person should be permitted to experience. It would not have been anywhere near as intense but for the return of Le Boss. No amount of corn or cliché could do justice to the exhilaration that coursed through 42,000 people that night, and to downplay Houllier’s contribution to Liverpool FC is to wilfully ignore that experience.

The rest of the season was bound to be a letdown if we didn’t add the league or European Cup, although it was still a time of spine-tingling anticipation as the Reds looked to be maintaining their upward curve. Now, some will interject with queries about Bayer Leverkusen, the night it all supposedly went wrong. In a sense it did. Had we overcome Leverkusen then the European Cup would have been close enough to smell the silver polish so over-zealously applied by Uefa’s cleaning staff. Still – and this is another heretical point – I don’t accept that That Substitution was the beginning of the end of for Gerard Houllier. It was a mistake, and a most grievous one. It was surely born of hubris, as Ged, more concerned with public opinion than he would like to admit, pondered the possibility of ripping Leverkusen apart and stuffing the ‘boring, boring Liverpool’ jibes down the throats of his detractors. Liverpool were still only three minutes away from squeaking through, so it almost worked. And it was only one mistake. Everyone’s entitled to the odd lapse of judgement, and the swashbuckling ease with which Liverpool rounded off that season suggested that it would not prove fatal.

The real mistakes were made that summer, as a series of turkeys gobbled their way through the Shankly Gates. The failure of Diao, Cheyrou and – most fatally, seeing as we spurned Anelka for him – Diouf to raise Liverpool another notch would haunt Houllier for the remaining two years of his time at Anfield. These men were meant to be the final injection of turbo boost into the Liverpool engine, but as they flitted in and out of the team, they acted more like a parachute deployed on a drag racer.

It is ironic, given the speculation linking us to Rafael Benitez, that it was Valencia, not Leverkusen, who administered the cold shower of reality to Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool. They gave us a right hiding in Spain, but that was mitigated by injuries. It was the caning they administered at Anfield that reminded us just how far we still had to travel. Anyone not present, when we only lost 1-0 to a deflected goal, could not appreciate the depths of the humiliation inflicted on Liverpool that night. Valencia milked the bladder for ninety gruesome minutes. The contrast between their players, each of them with two feet and complementing each other like Bailey’s and ice cubes, and our crew was an utter revelation. There was only one topic on the lips of everyone leaving the ground after that game – if Valencia were atop the Everest of European football, then Liverpool were still stuck down at base camp. Or words to that effect.

If the fans were talking of our relative ineptitude, imagine how the players and management must have felt. It would not surprise me if Gerard went home to his plush pad in Sefton Park and had a quiet cry at the distance his team would still have to travel to reach the levels demanded by the fans. It’s all very Freudian, but the malaise set in after that. The worst league run endured in half a century drove the point home like a nail gun. Things recovered sufficiently to pilfer the Worthington Cup, a triumph made all the sweeter by whom we had defeated. But as we crowed at the Mancs that day, chanting “you’re gonna win f*ck all”, little did we know that they were indeed going to win that oh-so-precious league title, and we were to slump back down to fifth. The collapse had been epic. Had we won the league the season before, no one would have been too upset. Arsene Wenger endured finishing second three years on the bounce between 1999 and 2001, winning no trophies and losing two finals in the process, because the double in 1998 had made him impervious to accusations of not being able to make that final step. Gerard Houllier had no such safety net.

It was right to give him one more year. The signings of the summer of 2002 could come good and, allied with a few choice acquisitions, things might turn around. But it was going to require a spectacular reversal in fortune, and when Harry Kewell’s impressive early form petered out, the writing was on the wall. The most poignant demonstration of Ged’s desperation came in his public pronouncements. It was down to bad luck and injuries. His refusal to blame anyone but himself was one of the early GH model’s most laudable characteristics, yet here he was lambasting the referee against Southampton for a dubious offside decision and how he might lose his job because of one refereeing decision spread over 3,420 minutes of football. Because we think our club is just the most splendid example of the genre that has ever graced the game, we tend not to see how absurd our agents can look to the rest of humanity. To get a flavour of how frenzied Ged must have looked in those grim winter months, look at Bobby Robson’s repeated comments regarding luck and injuries in fag end of the season just gone. While we put on a remarkable spurt, inspired by yet another Danny Murphy winner at Old Trafford, Bobby was making comments along the lines of “I don’t want to blame injuries, but [proceed to blame injuries]”. We all had a good guffaw at Bobby’s puny attempts at self-exoneration, but we weren’t buying. No one was buying Gerard’s excuses either.

It all came back to last Monday. The board had indeed played a blinder, selling the dummy of Gerard staying – and causing a few coronaries among the more venomous Ged-baiters – while secretly greasing the exit hatch. They even conjured up the ‘parted company’ euphemism so we can rock ourselves to sleep in the knowledge that we don’t sack managers (and if you believe that, far be it from me to puncture your balloon of self-delusion). It was dignified and it was about as painless as it could possibly be. It was astonishingly final, the man dropkicked out of Anfield so effectively that the crevice left in his chair by his backside has probably rebounded back to the regular shape. There were many outrageously good time, but things ended on a sour note. What consolation is there left to Gerard Houllier? While I’ve downplayed it here, perhaps he has the ultimate consolation. Enoch Powell said that all political careers, unless cut short by death, end in failure. While Gerard’s career ended in failure, the alternative might well have come true.

Au revoir, Gerard, and thanks for the memories.