Title is Anfield's only measure
Sorry Gerard -- you and every manager since Dalglish failed
Published 06/12/2010 | 05:00
Under normal circumstances, a manager is judged on results, the players he brings in and the way his sides play. Gerard Houllier argues it is on whether they have achieved what he sees as the three missions of a manager: to win silverware, to leave a legacy, and to improve his players.
Liverpool is not an ordinary club, though, and ultimately it is their record of league titles and European Cups that Liverpool managers live or die by, and that applies to everyone, be it Rafa Benitez, Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan or Kenny Dalglish.
With Liverpool, Gerard Houllier won the treble of the FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup in 2001, and finished second in the Premier League in 2002. At other clubs, three trophies in a single season would earn you legendary status. But this is Liverpool, where first is first, and second nowhere. The criteria for any Liverpool manager is league titles
Houllier's treble would, categorically, be considered second to the Champions League or the league. Benitez won the former, and had the chance of winning another -- better than Houllier achieved -- but he failed because he fell short in the league. You would have to say that every one of the club's managers since Dalglish, who last won the title, have failed. You could cite every one of them contributing to the club's current demise.
In fairness and with the benefit of hindsight, Houllier was distinctly unlucky. Just when he had won the three trophies in a single season, and we thought that the team would go from strength to strength, he suffered serious heart problems in October 2001. To have those kind of health issues is incredibly unfortunate in the first place, but his came just as the team was in the ascendancy. It was never the same afterwards, even if they did finish second to Arsenal in 2002.
Although you can draw comparisons between the final days of Houllier's tenure and the last days of Benitez's, there is no denying that the Frenchman left Liverpool in a better place than the Spaniard.
In a comparison between the two teams they left, I would favour Houllier's. After all, they qualified for the Champions League by finishing fourth in the league in 2004, and went on to win it, but it is worth remembering that they finished 15 points behind Manchester United in third place, and 30 points behind champions Arsenal. That is a long way back if you are aiming to be the best.
I have heard that Houllier likes to say the Champions League in 2005 was won with his team -- that the trophy is, in some way, his legacy, that after the final in Istanbul, the players invited him into the dressing-room to share the celebrations.
But even in victory it was clear that it was average side with plenty of average players, and which sooner or later needed breaking up.
Houllier left Liverpool with a nucleus of a side -- Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia, Steven Gerrard -- but little strength in depth. For 25-30 years, Liverpool's signings were unbelievable.
For past 20 years, there have been the occasional smatterings of great signings, but the club's recent history is overloaded with players who were not Liverpool standard. There is a magic formula and Houllier, like a lot of them, never had it. He just never had the quality in the squad to compete.
While you could never say Houllier was a failure, he certainly didn't bring Liverpool back to where everyone who is connected with the club would say they should be. The major factor in his downfall was the caution in his approach. He was playing at Anfield with seven or eight men behind the ball, even against lesser clubs, and the supporters got fed up.
Because of the 2001 treble, he comes out on the plus side, but the proof of the pudding is that he did not leave of his own volition. The board did not get rid of him because he was ill. It was because of the results, the style of play and the disenchantment of the fans.
Of course, it is all very well analysing Houllier's time at Liverpool, but he finished in 2004. There have only been six years since, so it is far too early to talk about legacies, and what stamp he made on Liverpool. There are more important matters to consider, not least that the current team under Roy Hodgson are so desperate for a result.
But so are Villa under Houllier.
I was surprised to see him back in English football, firstly because of his heart problems, and secondly because it was with Villa, a difficult club to go into. It's no Liverpool, admittedly, but it is a hard job nevertheless, especially as it looked like Martin O'Neill had taken the club as far as he could without more investment.
I would have been happy out in France as director of French football, but Houllier is obviously a different animal.
Now he is back, it is refreshing to see him play with a different style. Going for broke by playing with a couple of youngsters in the centre of midfield against Manchester United last month was unbelievable. Liverpool supporters who will remember his caution would not believe that a team of his could play that way. But then you look at the league table, and just as he was too cautious at Liverpool, many might now say he is now too adventurous at Villa.
If Liverpool win tonight then Villa are in a perilous position indeed.
Much has changed in football over the years, but the one thing that will always remain constant is that the game is about results. Win first, worry about the way you play later, that was the great Paisley line. The priority is not style, or what Houllier did at Liverpool. It is the result tonight. (© Daily Telegraph, London)