It’s FA Cup third round Sunday, and as Emile Heskey finally breaks the sturdy Yeovil resistance, the BBC cameras pan to Gerard Houllier. The Frenchman puffs his cheeks in relief; relief that a giant killing will not now materialise; relief that he has bought time from those who, with each Liverpool under-achievement, demand his head.
Failure to win a Champions League place will increase the pressure on Houllier, and the question remains as to why a man who restored pride and hunger to this famous club, has been unable to build on his early success.
A few weeks ago, before he took his confident Bolton side to Anfield, Sam Allardyce remarked that going there had never been easier. His remarks came back to haunt him that December day, but Big Sam was only saying what has become self-evident.
Cup defeats to Crystal Palace and Bolton in 2003, have only served to confirm the belief; the fortress that was once Anfield is no longer worth a goal start to the home team.
The reasons for this are complex, but may be linked with the Heysel and Hilsborough tragedies which scarred Liverpool’s soul; the generally soporific effects of all-seater stadia; the more dispassionate nature of the all-ticket generation.
In the autumn, when Leicester visited Anfield, Houllier made a curious post-match comment, offering us a glimpse into his mind-set. Liverpool were two-one up in the closing moments and attacking the Leicester goal in a bid to extend their lead. In his interview, Houllier comments, ‘They even wanted to score a third goal, which is beyond me sometimes’.
Is such cautious thinking commensurate with a side aspiring to be the best in Europe? Great teams impose their will on the opposition at key moments in a game. Houllier’s comments are riddled with caution and fear. It informs us of the difficulties he faces in releasing the burden of expectancy and allowing his team to think for themselves; to play with freedom.
A courageous, thoughtful and loyal man, Houllier has accepted, as his personal mission, restoring Liverpool to greatness, but it is essential to remember that in football, as in life, success is cyclical.
Manchester United, champions of Europe in 1968, had to contend with relegation before they were able to regroup and regather under Ferguson. They had to suffer the down times, and understand them, before they could surf the upward wave.
It was inevitable that Liverpool’s dominance of Europe would be followed by a downward spiral. To restore greatness to a great club, especially one which has suffered the tragedies that have befallen Liverpool, is a process that must take time. Time for new foundations to be built, and developed; time for a new philosophy to take hold; time for a rebirth.
The current truism seems to be that, despite evidence to the contrary, Liverpool should have rediscovered success: success after the initial clear out of apparent malign influences like Ince, Fowler and co; success commensurate with history; success reflecting huge sums spent on new players. But accepting responsibility for success or failure comes at a personal price.
What else can explain the stress-related illnesses that have beset Dalgleish, Souness and Houllier whilst at the helm?
The Sports Psychology Summary…
Houllier understands with a profound intensity, and feels the weight of the club’s history. He exudes a quiet belief, but can he live with this burden from which he needs to protect his team?
Since his illness, he seems to have lost some of the lust which gave him lustre. Now, he is often content to sit in the dugout, a wry smile playing along taut lips, as if he has taken Shankly’s old mantra and reworked it. Now, to him, football’s not a matter of life and death, it’s less important that that. Yet..