Last night, I had a dream (excuse the M. L. King impersonation). Aston Villa, under the management of newly appointed Gerard Houllier, took to Wembley stadium to compete in the F.A Cup final – and were successful. So real was this dream that I, in a state of semi-conscious delusion, text a Liverpool fan, who had sneered at Villa’s new recruit, to say, 😉
(Not my wittiest text message).
But silverware aside, the “day out” ignored; with all the infested water that has gone under the crumbling bridge in recent times, the most pleasing thing about this “dream” was that we were, once again, a force. We were fighting. We were, once again, Aston Villa.
And after Houllier’s press conference at Villa Park today, I couldn’t help but think that one day soon this vision could become a reality – in the same style Liverpool’s fortunes were rejuvenated throughout his time in charge.
For 6 years, prior to Gerard’s reign, Liverpool, the most successful club in English football, had just one League Cup to their name. But after clinching the club’s first European trophy for 17 years, their first FA Cup in 9 years, along with a further 3 competitive trophies, Houllier served to reinstall the pride of Liverpool Football Club and what it is all about – winning.
I was looking to create a balanced argument with this piece. Yes, he has won silverware in England (a feat which has evaded us for 15 years), in fact he has been remarkably successful in every managerial role within his unblemished career – but can he cope with the Premier League? Can he cope in the transfer market?
One glance at his decision to reject the chance to sign loanee Nicolas Anelka in favour of splashing £10m on the erratic El Hadjii Diouf would suggest that we have just recruited an extremely risqué manager. Yes, Diouf is an extremely talented footballer but managed to flop extraordinarily at Liverpool. Now, he is a good player for Blackburn Rovers; Anelka is a world beater. And £14m for Cisse? Okay, he scores goals and Houllier never got a chance to use him in his Liverpool reign – but again, what an expensive mistake for someone who is now spending his best footballing years in Greece.
Throughout his stint on Merseyside, Houllier averaged 65 points in the league; whereas Villa achieved 64 last year. More worryingly, the 3 years preceding his tenure at Anfield (the first years of 38 games per season), Liverpool, without Houllier, were averaging 68 points each season and thus went downhill under the Frenchman. And with fewer Champions League spots available in the 90s, Liverpool weren’t rewarded for top 4 or top 3 finishes pre-Gerard. Maybe he had the benefit of these new places.
However, it would be unfair to leave this article as it is. Because after sharing over 3 months of his first season with Roy Evans, Houllier’s arrival only served to oversee a 7th place finish after an uninspiring 54 points were achieved. Crucially, this was the key factor in the decline in average points for the Reds. And after undergoing an overhaul of the club’s internal and external structure, its staff, personnel and facilities, this year wasn’t even wasted as Liverpool shot right back into the top 4 the following season with 67 points – before winning a top 3 Champions League position amidst their “treble” winning season.
Our new manager also led The Pool in their first title challenge for 12 years, securing 80 points. In fact, if we ignore his first season (which was shared with a joint manager, and which is recommended in a lot of research to abandon as it should simply be the season the manager is testing the water) in the Premier League, Houllier secured overall consistency with Liverpool’s past league form and matched an average of 68 points – but added silverware on top. Moreover, his ability to rally high points tallies (albeit in an inconsistent manner) brought about a 21st century Champions League legacy to Liverpool (3 qualifications) which eventually led to THAT final in 2005. Now, I’m not suggesting that he built the best team in Europe (far from it), but what cannot be denied is that 12 out of the 14 players who competed in the Istanbul victory over AC Milan were all members of the Houllier era. Benitez clearly did remarkably, remarkably well to turn them into Champions League winners, but they were still players who were proven to be a team capable of such a feat – a team built by the French man.
His former players seem to kneel at his feet, and coming highly recommended by one of the best players in the world and national captain Steven Gerrard, Houllier certainly has this writer’s full backing. Working at all levels of football (club and country), equipped with experience of every type of club, Houllier has adapted to create success wherever he goes – in the French lower divisions, with Lens, with PSG, with Liverpool, with Lyon. He has proved his worth – so much so that it has quashed an article which I wanted to remain neutral. And so much so that I believe those mistakes he has made in the past have had ample time to be learned from.
Today, he spoke of a “new era” in Aston Villa Football Club. He admitted that success cannot come overnight, that the Champions League positions are a stretch, that the January transfer window is a tough one. But he also said, “I am hungry…”
And just like he overturned the apathy of Liverpool 10 years ago, just like his achievements elsewhere, Houllier can now very well be the remedy to awaken Aston Villa from its deep coma.
HOU’s With Me?
“When he comes in, he knows what he wants and he knows how to get a winning team” (Steven Gerrard)