The second the rumours about Gerard Houllier being the next Villa manager went from conjecture to confirmation I was asked by a friend of mine what I – as a Villa fan – thought about it. Well he’s got a great record I said, but still…..and that’s the thing about Gerard Houllier, he has got an excellent CV, but there is still a faint whiff of failure (read: ridicule) hanging over his sunken, Gallic head.
Perhaps my view has been marred by the unchecked and – at the time, especially – unrealistic demand of the Liverpool fans who were complicit in his departure, or the tabloid press for whom humiliation and derision represent the sine que non of their pestiferous modus operandi, or even by the man himself, who occasionally speaks with a morbidity that makes Uncle Fester look like Dick Van Dyke.
But again, is that really fair? Liverpool won a treble under the auspices of the Frenchman in 2001, and during his reign, he signed several players who are fondly remembered on the Kop, the likes of Jari Litmanen and Gary McAllister, and others who played an integral part of their Champions League success in 2005 – think Dietmar Hamann, Stephane Henchoz, Sami Hyypia, and even the perpetually injured Vladimir Smicer.
Of course, as has been repeatedly pointed out in the last few days, he signed some bad players too – step forward Djimi Traore, Eric Meijer, Salif Dao, Pegguy Arphexad, Grégory Vignal, and Igor Biscan. But say what you like about those players, at least he won trophies – and name me a manager who hasn’t made mistakes in the transfer market? Even Arsene Wenger’s Midas touch deserted him when he lavished £10 million on Francis Jeffers. And Fergie? Don’t get me started. So it seems misleading and somehow spurious to judge him purely on the basis of those transfers that didn’t work out.
It’s interesting that in the aftermath of the announcement about the Villa job, both Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard have spoken publically, even glowingly, of their respect and affection for Gerard Houllier. Those Villa fans concerned that Houllier might try to call forth a whirlwind revolution in January akin to that which heralded his arrival at Anfield, all at the expense of the talented youngsters at Villa Park, will do well to remember that Gerard Houllier was the man who gave Steven Gerrard his chance and nurtured his early promise. He also oversaw the nascent careers of Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema at Lyon, even if, in Ben Arfa’s case, he struggled with their personalities.
He doesn’t need to parade 5 new signings with the gusto he evinced back then; Aston Villa is not in a state of disarray anything like the crisis of infrastructure and identity symptomatic of Liverpool in 1999, and some of the youngsters at the club, players such as Fabian Delph, Nathan Delfouneso and Marc Albrighton, are more than just merely promising.
There were, in my mind, only a couple of things lacking in Martin O’Neill. One was his insistence on a counter attacking style that meant we often faltered when the emphasis was on us to take the game to opponents (i.e. matches at home) – a style that was more about hitting the wingers quickly than keeping possession of the ball – and the other was his reluctance to take a chance on foreign flair; the kind of technique and style that would have given us a bit extra in the final third.
Perhaps Houllier can deliver that. With his experience and contacts in France at the academy, perhaps he can identify the next French superstar and bed him in with the spirit and resilience fostered in the primarily English speaking group carefully built by Martin O’Neill, perhaps he can get us playing – at times- in a more measured and cultured way.
Perhaps. But Liverpool’s style under him was not always consistent, in fact they were often accused of being too negative, and their results were sometimes distorted by the early brilliance of Michael Owen (although in truth, in nearly every successful team you could highlight players without whom that success may not have happened. Think Man United without Ronaldo, or Barcelona without Lionel Messi – Chelsea without Drogba). But it will be a crying shame if he restricts the natural attacking impetus of players like Ashley Young, Marc Albrighton, and Stewart Downing. And in the formers case particularly, if a bad spell precipitates a January move to Tottenham.
So we wait with baited breath: Anfield style overhaul or careful and considered tweak? Both Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard have worked with some big names in football, and it should speak volumes that they both praise him, even if their utterances may be slightly sepia-tinged.
It’s not hard to see, dear reader, that I am clinging to their words and a dispassionate diagnosis of his career like a man on a precipice, I’ll readily admit that, because for all the analysis of his relative success and failures, I still fear his occasionally hapless mien; that post match, post defeat interview where a red-eyed Houllier looks like he’s been told to sit through a 24 hour marathon session of Eastenders, been slapped about, buried underground, dug up and shovelled in front of Geoff Shreeves, only to give a Gallic shrug of the shoulders and say – as he did so often towards the end of his tenure at Liverpool – we are ‘turning corners.’ But Villa fans don’t cry just yet – there has been one beaming, iridescent, lightning strike of good news across the clear blue sky: Ol’ big nose himself, Phil Thompson has turned down the assistant manager’s role.