Gerard Houllier: The New Man at Villa Park
With Gerard Houllier announced as the new manager of Aston Villa, there has been a mixed reaction from Villa fans. Some fans believe that he is too old and out of touch with the English game to succeed Martin O’Neill at Villa Park, whilst others believe that he is an excellent coup for the club, given his previous experience and success. Regardless, if he is to be the next manager, he should be backed by the fans. As General Krulak said, “Whatever anyone thinks of him, he deserves respect from the fans of this club.”
He achieved early success in his managerial career, working his way up the ladder in France, first with minnows Noeux-les-Mines, who he led to consecutive promotions, before moving to Lens, who he led to promotion to Ligue 1 and a UEFA Cup spot. Following that, he moved to Paris St-Germain, where he led them to the French title in his first full season. His success in France led him to be named the technical director of the French national side under Michel Platini—a role that he returned to following his departure from Lyon.
However, it is his time at Liverpool that he is best known for. Appointed in July 1998 as a joint manager with Roy Evans, he took over in sole control in November, and remained in the post for six years. The standout highlight of his spell at Anfield is the 2001 treble that he won—the FA Cup, League Cup, and UEFA Cup. Whilst he was not able to bring the league title back to Liverpool, he did deliver the silverware that had been noticeably absent for the previous decade.
One area that he is generally questioned about was his ability in the transfer market. His reign was marked by a number of dubious signings, particularly in the later years. El-Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao, and Bruno Cheyrou are often picked out as three of the bigger failures. However, there are arguments that these came in the period following his heart bypass surgery, during which time his judgement could have been impaired whilst he was fully recovering.
He did make a number of excellent value signings during his tenure as well though. Sami Hyypia for only £2.6 million was a real coup, considering he went on to become a top player for the club for a decade. Similarly, the likes of Stephane Henchoz, Dietmar Hamann, John Arne Riise, Vladimir Smicer, and Milan Baros were all solid, if not spectacular signings. He also made some impressive signings during his spell at Lyon, bringing in Fred, Carew, and Baros in attack, Tiago, Kallstrom, and Toulalan in midfield, and Muller and Squillaci at the back.
He was also responsible for bringing a number of younger players into the starting 11 at both Liverpool and Lyon. Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, and Danny Murphy secured their places under Houllier at Liverpool, whilst Karim Benzema, Loic Remy, and Hatem Ben Arfa broke into the first team at Lyon. This willingness to blood the younger players will encourage the likes of Marc Albrighton, Nathan Delfouneso, and Fabian Delph at Villa Park.
Whilst many Villa fans are unhappy with Houllier, when compared to the other realistic candidates, his record stands up to scrutiny. Fans would have loved David Moyes, but Everton rejected Villa’s approach to speak with him, whilst Martin Jol was never a possibility once Ajax sealed their qualification for the Champions League group stages. Alan Curbishley was highly tipped, as was Sven Goran Eriksson and Bob Bradley, and Houllier’s CV stands favourably against any of those. He has won multiple titles in France, and won trophies at Liverpool, as well as laying the groundwork for Liverpool’s Champions League success under Rafa Benitez. He also has vast experience, and has contacts within the game that rival the best.
However, one of his strongest assets is building the infrastructure at teams. He was a major influence behind the French set-up at Clairefontaine, which was recognised as one of the main reasons behind the successes in 1998 and 2000. He also oversaw the complete overhaul of Liverpool’s training complex, turning it into a state-of-the-art modern complex that is the envy of many a club. Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training ground is already amongst the best, but Houllier is likely to improve it further with the support of Randy Lerner.
Amongst the other criticisms being levelled at him is that he is too old. He is currently 63 years old. Whilst he is no spring chicken, he is the same age as Liverpool’s Roy Hodgson, and one year younger than England boss, Fabio Capello. He is also only three years older than Arsene Wenger, and is younger than Sir Alex Ferguson. I can’t see that this accusation would be levelled at any of them if they were to be brought in at Villa Park.
People are also worried that he has been away from the Premiership for six years. Again, this strikes me as simply looking for reasons to dislike his appointment. Just because he has not managed in the Premiership does not mean that he has ignored it for the past six years. As technical director of the French Football Federation, he would surely have to have been following the Premiership given the number of French players playing over here. The suggestion that he is out-of-touch with the current climate in England is frankly ridiculous.
He has accepted the job, despite the transfer window being closed, and presumably still a demand to try to reduce the wage bill either in January or next summer. The mere fact that he has taken the job suggests that he believes that there is something in the squad that he can work with. He inherits a squad that has three consecutive sixth-place finishes, and reached the Carling Cup final and FA Cup semifinal last year. Whilst they have lost James Milner, Stephen Ireland has been brought in as a like-for-like replacement, and he has a good squad to work with.
Whether Villa fans agree with his appointment or not, he is now the manager of Aston Villa Football Club. The fans should get behind him and give him their full support, at least until he has had a chance to prove himself. He builds solid, if not flamboyant, teams, and unlike O’Neill, he is likely to look to the continent for many of his prospective signings. This is the beginning of a new era for Villa, and only time will tell whether Randy Lerner has made the right decision.