20 September ~ Losing a popular manager in the week before a new season starts is one thing, finding out that his replacement could be available only sporadically for the next three months is quite another. That is the position in which Aston Villa, club and supporters, now find themselves. The protracted arrival of new man Gérard Houllier has been met with more of a whimper than a roar of approval – or, for that matter, disapproval.
The tone on the internet forums has been respectful. The national press has been quick to emphasise his record but equally noted that he has been away from the Premier League for six years. In many ways, the reaction says more about the domestic obsession of the English press, but after a gap of that length it is easy to lose track of just what Villa are getting. Houllier's achievements at Liverpool are well known, with his triple cup success in 2001 the highlight. Just as important is his subsequent spell with Lyon where he added consecutive Ligue 1 titles (2005-06 and 2006-07) to the one he won with PSG in 1985-86.
Houllier's time at Liverpool gives plenty of insight into his personality and managerial approach. Having elbowed aside Roy Evans, the workaholic Houllier showed single-mindedness and determination in his overhaul of the squad as Phil Babb, Paul Ince and David James, among others, could testify. Famously he took on what he saw as an over-indulgent culture towards some prominent players – "the Spice Boys" – instilling strong discipline and leaving little room for dissent.
Over a couple of years he embarked on a programme of player recruitment with mixed results: for every Sami Hyypia or Didi Hamann there was an El-Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao or Bruno Cheyrou. If he didn’t create a record for infallible recruitment, he worked hard to improve Jamie Carragher’s professionalism and Steven Gerrard’s fitness.
Not unlike Martin O’Neill, Houllier is not a particularly hands-on coach, at Liverpool leaving much of the day-to-day to Sammy Lee and his long-term associate Patrice Bergues. Equally, he was not widely regarded as a particularly astute tactician, but his willingness to play directly, "back to front", could easily suit Villa’s current squad. Gary McAllister, recruited at Liverpool and his new number two at Villa, believes Houllier’s defining feature was his attention to detail in training and preparation, creating an environment in which players can flourish.
His time at Liverpool had two distinct periods: the time before his illness with a ruptured aorta, and a much less assured period after that illness. But Ian Rush links the change less to Houllier’s health and more to the departure of coach Bergues to Lens in 2001. Bergues has worked with Houllier at Lens, Lyon and the French Football Federation (FFF) and gained a good reputation for his knowledge and his relationship with the playing staff. The bad news for Villa fans is that Bergues, Houllier’s preferred choice of assistant, is not joining him at Villa Park, preferring to stay in France.
In his first press statement, Houllier praised Randy Lerner’s "enthusiasm, dynamism, honesty and ambition" – cleverly qualifying the latter characteristic by endorsing an approach built upon "gradual progress", no doubt music to his new employer's ears. It’s unlikely that there will be much money available for new signings in January and the hope will be that Houllier will help bring on some of the young talent already at the club alongside bringing European talent into the academy.
Houllier has negotiated his release from his contract with the FFF and he may regard a return to the demands of the Premier League as less fraught than his current situation. He has come under sustained criticism in the wake of France's poor showing at the World Cup. In part he is facing guilt by association, but more particularly for his role in retaining Raymond Domenech after a poor showing in the 2008 European Championship.
Nevertheless, speaking to L’Equipe in July, the avuncular gave way to the ruthless when Houllier gave his view of Domenech: "In human terms, he’s a good guy, on a professional level, he should go." Despite the genial front it would be wrong to see Houllier as a soft touch. All of that said, if a manager needs anything, he needs luck. In that respect he has made a good start by missing a last-minute defeat to Stoke and a tame home draw with Bolton. Brian Simpson