Houllier back to prove he still has hunger
It is hard to exaggerate how badly Gerard Houllier -- who will be presented today as the new manager of Aston Villa -- had wanted to return to the Premier League.
Friends advised him that at 63, and still needing the regular heart check-ups that followed the acute aortic surgery which saved his life in October 2001, a second-tier job might be the best level to aim for. But Houllier was having none of it.
The other clubs who have tried to lure him out of his stiflingly dull desk job with the French Football Federation (FFF) proved resistible -- Wolfsburg approached him ahead of Steve McClaren this summer only to find the the Bundesliga didn't appeal -- but Villa did not.
And so it has come to pass that, six years after the valedictory press conference at Liverpool where he cited an early morning jog as proof that "my leaving (is) in no way health related," Houllier accepts the unenviable gauntlet of keeping Villa sixth or higher at a time when his new chairman Randy Lerner has just signalled that the spending of the O'Neill era cannot go on.
There is also the small matter of two individuals in the dressing-room being less than delighted to see Houllier's face: the Frenchman, remember, brought the curtain down on the Liverpool careers of Brad Friedel and Stephen Warnock when at Anfield.
Houllier's characteristics as Liverpool manager included his generosity, warmth and openness, and he certainly couldn't lose his temper with the same malevolence as Alex Ferguson.
But his paranoia was the less palatable part of his make-up. He was always acutely attuned to any criticism -- real or imagined.
In a league where the spotlight is trained with a brilliant intensity far beyond that of six years ago, Houllier will certainly have to live with criticism and if Villa do not start well under his tenure -- Monday's visit to the Britannia Stadium is a cruel re-baptism -- then there is also the indignation of knowing there will be no new players for four months. Doing good business in January is also a task most managers have all but given up on in the past few years.
Houllier has lost none of his appetite for challenging the status quo. While at the FFF, he controversially sacked the French U-21 manager Rene Girard after he had taken the side to a play-off for the European Championships.
Lerner and his chief executive, Paul Falconer, have found someone no less complex and challenging than O'Neill.
The sunny countenance will be back for the cameras today but expect some thunderclaps to follow in the weeks ahead. (© Independent News Service)