Evening Standard

Gerard Houllier could not be happier for his close friend Roy Hodgson. The two men got to know each other while serving on several UEFA and FIFA technical committees, and now they also have Liverpool Football Club in common.

There have been suggestions that Hodgson might bring Houllier to Anfield following his appointment as Liverpool manager and it is clear from talking to the 63-year-old Frenchman that the bright lights of the Premier League still beckon.

Houllier is careful not to bad-mouth Liverpool over the way they got rid of him in 2004 but the incident still clearly irritates him.

After winning six trophies he felt he was building a legacy on Merseyside — one, he believes, has been destroyed by Rafael Benitez.

According to Houllier, it is now down to Hodgson to restore the Boot Room mentality that made Liverpool the force they were in the Seventies and Eighties. Bringing in English talent like Joe Cole will only be the start of what Houllier hopes is a successful revolution.

“After Rafa Benitez left this summer, one of the players sent me a message,” Houllier tells me. “He said, Boss, he hasn’t beaten you.’”

Houllier refuses to name the player concerned but relishes telling another story that emphasises the respect his old squad had for him.

It came in the aftermath of Benitez’s greatest moment of glory in winning the Champions League in 2005 against AC Milan, coming back from 3-0 down at half-time to win on penalties.

Houllier takes up the story. “When I came into the changing room in Istanbul some of the players said: Boss it’s your team.’

“Twelve out of 14 in Istanbul were players I had signed or developed. I left Liverpool with a team and in the Champions League. But when you finish seventh with Torres and Gerrard . . .”

His voice tails off. Houllier does not need to spell out the very different legacy Benitez has left Hodgson.

“Before I arrived Liverpool had a Boot Room tradition,” Houllier adds. “Bill Shankly was followed by his assistant Bob Paisley, then Joe Fagan, then Kenny Dalglish, then Graeme Souness, then Roy Evans. My arrival was greeted with, Gerard who?’”

It was Peter Robinson, then Liverpool chief executive, who broke with tradition. “Robinson came to see me in Paris in 1997. We went to a restaurant. But it was not possible for me to leave my job as technical director of the French FA one year before the World Cup.”

But after France ’98 he was able to move and, initially, he was put in joint charge with Roy Evans. “I insisted on joint management with Roy,” he says.

“I was coming from outside and thought that it was good to work together. It didn’t work for many reasons. Roy was too soft, nice but weak and, when there was a decision to take he would, well, Peter Robinson will tell you, leave me with a hot potato.

“Roy would have been a fantastic number two, not a number one.”

Although Houllier will not be drawn on this, one of the problems was the freedom Paul Ince, the captain, was given by Evans as to when he could train. When, after a year, Houllier got rid of Ince, the first call he received was from Sir Alex Ferguson. The United boss had experienced his own problems with Ince and was quick to congratulate Houllier. By then the Frenchman was in sole charge and he still believes his pioneering tenure made it easy for Benitez to follow.

“One, the pattern of getting a foreign coach was already accepted. Two, he had a Champions League-winning team. Three, the team were already in the Champions League. Four, we had built new facilities. And five, it was a different training routine, different attitude and mentality.

“I claim that we — Phil Thompson, Sammy Lee and the staff — definitely turned it round. The chairman, when I left, said: You put the club into the 21st century.’” So why did Liverpool get rid of him and the fans applaud his departure? “Because they wanted the title,” he confesses.

Houllier’s best finish in the League was second — something Hodgson will have to improve upon. Keeping Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres will be key but so will the signings he makes.

Houllier admits that after he had a heart problem during Liverpool’s match with Leeds in October 2001, some of the transfers that followed were not good. “The recruitment the year I was ill, with El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao, were not up to standard in terms of attitude. I regret that.”

Regrets have also been plentiful this summer as Houllier has overseen one of his country’s worst World Cup campaigns in another spell as the French Federation’s technical director.

Failure to progress past the group stages was one thing, the manner of their exit another as Nicolas Anelka was sent home and the squad refused to train for coach Raymond Domenech.

“The attitude of the players was a disgrace and practically an insult to the competition,” claims Houllier. “Anelka’s outburst was definitely unacceptable. That is why the last game [against South Africa] was practically lost before it started. I was not totally surprised by the results because I knew that we had good players but we didn’t have a team. The team were not working properly and I was not happy with their preparation.”

So why did the French Federation not remove Domenech before the World Cup? “Yeah, we have to say the coach should have gone earlier. We probably made a mistake in keeping him. I had a role but I’m not the only one who decides.

“After the 2008 European Championship we were one month and a half before starting a new campaign. The players liked him, even said, We want to keep him.’

“Michel Platini was in favour of him staying, so was the Federation chairman, Jean-Pierre Escalettes. We didn’t have anyone available so we thought we’d go with him. And we qualified.

“It’s probably after that the doubts were raised about his organisation, his management. His attitude was not right.”

However, Houllier does not accept Ferguson’s criticism that the French Federation did not help by announcing before the World Cup that Laurent Blanc would replace Domenech.

“It’s a good job we announced it beforehand,” he says. “What would we do now? Laurent would not have come as Domenech’s assistant and Domenech would never have accepted him.”

However, if France had management problems then Houllier feels the African failure — of six African teams only Ghana qualified out of their group — was due to wretched leadership by the African Federation.

“The Africans held their Nations’ Cup months before the World Cup. Imagine if we did that in Europe? They should never have asked their players to play two tournaments in one year.

“The next African Nations’ Cup is in 2012 and the one after that would be 2013 not 2014, not the same year as the World Cup. They had to make this change.”

England, too, need to learn from the World Cup. Injuries and the non-performance of Wayne Rooney affected them but Houllier feels the Football Association need to address the issue created by the influx of foreigners.

“The recruitment of overseas players has not damaged English football. But it’s true that you’re losing some positions. Goalkeepers for instance. England needs to have a school for goalkeepers. You need to train them a different way because, out of the 20 teams in the Premier League, you don’t have five English goalkeepers.”

That is not a problem champions Spain have and their victory did not surprise Houllier. “I always thought the team that would win would be the team that attacked,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a counter-attacking team like Holland but the whole tournament showed that a team like Spain, that played positively, would go a long way.

“At the halfway stage Argentina were the best side I’d seen and I thought they could win it. They’ve got so many good players. And in Maradona they had a different kind of coach. There’s kind of psychological intensity of love between him and his players. Very emotional.

“But their defeat by Germany was an amazing match. For Germany to score four goals was exceptional.”

If Maradona wants to emulate Franz Beckenbauer and win the World Cup as a player and a coach, Houllier is clear what he must do first. “He must win a league title,” the Frenchman says.

It would be difficult to see a Premier League club putting Maradona in charge. Houllier, though, is still in demand and would love another crack at managing in England. “I’d love to manage the right club,” he adds. “There’s one I thought I would go to. But they [Newcastle] took Kevin Keegan.”

He nearly went to Blackburn in 2004 and before he took over at Liverpool there was talk of going to Tottenham. So with Martin Jol seemingly out of the frame, Fulham could do worse than give Houllier a call.


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