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Saturday 22 July 2017

Houllier paying high price for obsession

Sandy Macaskill

ASTON VILLA manager Gerard Houllier is unlikely to resume full-time managerial duties this season after being admitted to hospital complaining of chest pains.

The Midlands club, now seven points clear of the relegation zone, will not be rushed into making a decision over his future, but they have conceded that the 63-year-old needs rest in the wake of a serious health scare.

The Frenchman began feeling unwell at around 7.0 on Wednesday evening and soon afterwards chest pains forced him to visit the hospital -- scenes all too reminiscent of the heart problems he experienced in October 2001, though Houllier and his family are thought to be encouraged by the fact that he was not taken into surgery immediately on being admitted to hospital.

When Houllier, then 54, suffered a condition known as dissection of the aorta at half-time during Liverpool's 1-1 draw with Leeds in 2001. He was taken straight to surgery and had to undergo an 11-hour open heart operation, during which surgeons repaired the main aortic valve with a synthetic material called Dacron -- an operation with a success rate of just 30pc. Houllier later admitted that he was fortunate to still be alive.

Houllier arrived at Villa Park seven months ago to succeed Martin O'Neill looking bronzed and healthy, and insisting that he was completely fit for task ahead.

"When you go into this job there is pressure, hard work, you won't sleep every night, so you need to make sure that your body is ready to sustain the challenge," he said at the time. "But I would say I'm even fitter than when I was at Lyon (2005-07)."

Houllier is understood to have hesitated over accepting Villa's offer of employment in September because of his wife Isabelle's concerns about what a return to the rigours of Premier League management might mean to his health.

And there have been private concerns in recent weeks over the Frenchman's ability to withstand the strains of modern management, and especially being embroiled in a relegation battle.

Although he has looked in good spirits at the training ground even when supporters have been calling for his departure, on match days he has looked increasingly fatigued, walking slowly from the technical area to the tunnel at the final whistle, and often arriving at his post-match press conferences out of breath.

Houllier's latest scare brings the pressures experienced by modern-day managers back into focus.

They never switch off. Even in the small hours, sleep can be an elusive companion as the manager mulls over tactics, team selection, potential buys or sales and the myriad problems involved with marshalling and motivating the modern footballer.

For all the handsome remuneration, life in the dugout is a stressful occupation. Pressure grips managers like a strait-jacket. Owners and fans demand success.

A clamourous media demands answers and headlines. Every managerial decision is dissected on daily radio phone-ins and online forums. No wonder some managers appear at the end of their tether. Throw in the usual health issues that can afflict people from all walks of life and managers sip from a dangerous cocktail.

Managers know the risks -- 40pc of them suffer from high blood pressure -- but they keep going.

Houllier's passion for this Villa job, for proving himself again in English football, dominates his life.

Managers are adrenalin junkies, loving the challenge of building teams and pitting their wits against others. The money is inviting too.

But it is often a lonely existence. Arsene Wenger looks physically and emotionally drained, almost without a friend in the world.

At the final whistle at White Hart Lane on Wednesday, Wenger shook hands, in slightly perfunctory fashion, with Harry Redknapp and then disappeared straight down the tunnel, looking gaunt.

Wenger needs a good holiday. He'll probably take it watching French reserve games.

That's the nature of the beast. Even Kenny Dalglish could not keep away.

He went golfing, spent time with his family, but he always listened out for the siren call of management.

When Dalglish resigned as Liverpool manager 20 years ago citing stress, he was excoriated by Michael Parkinson.

The gist of Parkinson's argument was that real stress engulfed those living on the breadline or life at the coal mine, not wealthy managers.

Dalglish was furious, believing that stress knew no boundaries.

His case was extreme. Having helped a grieving city through Hillsborough, Dalglish soon found himself suffering from blotches, requiring regular injections. He found himself drinking, and snapping at the kids, as a post-traumatic syndrome seeped into his body.

Dalglish was soon working again, at Blackburn, and is now back at Liverpool. Last Sunday, he could be seen jousting with Wenger, loving life back in the pressure-dome. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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