On Monday morning the footballing world woke up to the tragic news that Gerard Houllier had passed away, aged 73. Most renowned for his time at Liverpool, he was adored by those in Merseyside. Regarded by many as one of the most instrumental figures in Liverpool's recent history, as he lay the foundations for those who followed him to succeed. It epitomised him, a selfless man.
His love for football was gripping, so gripping that he was willing to risk his health in order to continue his crusade and achieve his ultimate goal of putting Liverpool back to where they belonged, rubbing shoulders with Europe's most feared sides.
He was a footballing genius, someone who possessed a great footballing mind and enhanced the experiences of so many with his success over the years, none more notable than the 2000/2001 season. Liverpool had been drifting aimlessly in the Premier League for far too long, many had tried to resuscitate the fallen giant that Liverpool had become during the late 1990’s, but many failed.
As Mr Houllier stepped into the Anfield hot seat for the first time in 1998, he was not alone. He had been tasked with taking Liverpool back to the great heights that they had been so used to in the 80’s, alongside Roy Evans. It was ultimately a double appointment, that would soon be abandoned. Houllier was instructed to lead the crusade by himself, as Evans was released of his duties in November 1998.
As he was finally given free reign of management at Liverpool, success soon followed, and a lot of it.
Ask any match going Liverpool fans of a certain age, which season they enjoyed most, the majority will respond with 2000/2001. Birmingham City, Arsenal, Alavés. Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion. Destinations where dreams came true.
Liverpool were back winning trophies again on a regular basis. Watching those in red, was once again enjoyable. Houllier’s Liverpool had become a force in Europe again, and they weren’t to be taken lightly.
People travelled the length of the continent to see the ‘boss’ lift these gleaming trophies above his head. He made the people happy. He allowed them to dream, they all bought into his philosophy, religiously.
The masterplan that should’ve been, was never to be. As Liverpool would never get their much sought after league title over the line during Houllier’s reign, the title that many believed was so close.
But for many it was much more than that, the man sacrificed nearly everything in his power to transform this club, he nearly paid the ultimate sacrifice, life itself, just to be able to manage in the Anfield dugout once more. In the autumn of 2001 Houllier was taken ill, after suffering with heart complications during a game against Leeds at Anfield. Many never thought they’d see the Frenchman in the dugout, that would never have been the case, especially if Gerard had a say on it.
Football was his life, he lived and breathed it.
In March 2002, as Anfield geared up to see Liverpool battle their way through to the quarter finals of the Champions League, Liverpool faced a team rich in European pedigree, AS Roma. The challenge ahead was steep, only two clear goals would see them through. As the players and fans alike soaked up one of football most iconic anthems, there was a multitude of photographs gathering at the entrance of Anfield’s old, tapered tunnel, a figure surfaced from the depth. Houiller was back. As he emerged, he became Anfield’s focal point. The noise was electrifying. Anfield was euphoric.
Assistant manager, Phil Thompson was the only man in Anfield that night who knew of Houllier's planned return, even the players hadn’t been made aware. Houiller showed up at the eleventh hour ahead of one of Liverpool's most important games of the season. Putting football first and his wellbeing on hold.
It took all four sides of the ground a few moments to realise why there was such a commotion by the dugout. As soon as it became apparent to what was going on, the ground broke out into a spine-tingling rendition of the boss' name.
Out off all of Anfield's historic European nights, this one was one extra special, one that will live long in the memory of those present that night.
At this point it was more than football, a man had refused to be beaten, he was back doing what he loved, back involved in football. Although Liverpool crashed out the of domestic cups and the next round Europe in disappointing fashion, for many, seeing Houllier back in the dugout felt like its weight in trophies.
Liverpool had a man at the helm, who was willing to do anything for this football club. And for that, he will be eternally adored by those connected with Liverpool Football Club.
Rest in Peace, Gérard.