EARLIER this summer Liverpool Football Club appointed Brendan Rodgers as the new manager at Anfield as a replacement for Kenny Dalglish. Rodgers is only the third man, since Bill Shankly’s appointment in December 1959, to have been given the top job at Liverpool without having come through the ranks of the club as either a player or a coach. Famous for the “boot room” school of internal coaching and promoting from within, a system instigated by Shankly during his time at the club, Liverpool have only ever had two foreign managers in the history of the club.
These two managers are, of course, Gerard Houllier and Rafael Benitez and, given the fact that between them they were in the Anfield hotseat for over a decade, it is hard to deny the influence that each has had on the club in the modern era. Hailing from France and Spain, both had new ideas and definite styles and each tried to mould the club in his own image. In this article we have a look at their respective careers at the helm and ask: who had the bigger influence on the club’s direction?
Gerard Houllier arrived at Anfield in July 1998 as a replacement for long-term coach Ronnie Moran. Initially it was thought that Houllier would assist, then boss, Roy Evans in a straight swap for the retiring Moran. However, it soon became clear that Houllier had in fact been brought in as joint first-team manager to work directly alongside Evans, in a radical hitherto untried move by the LFC board. As was always likely, the experiment failed fairly quickly, with Evans resigning in November of the same year, leaving Houllier in sole charge. Many, more sceptical fans and commentators still believe that Houllier’s arrival and the “co-management” situation was simply a way of forcing Evans out without having to sack him.
Houllier’s CV, whilst being varied and including some notable successes, was not exactly glittering. After some success in the French lower leagues with Lens, Houllier moved to PSG in 1985 where he clinched the Ligue 1 title the following season. There followed a decade of work for the French national team. Initially appointed as Technical Director to Michel Platini in 1988, Houllier was given the top job in 1992 but resigned just one year later following France’s failure to qualify for the 94 World Cup. He remained as Technical Director, however, and was involved with the team’s World Cup ’98 triumph, earning recognition from the French Football Federation for his contribution.
Beginning in the summer of 1999 the Frenchman set about his own “five year plan” at Anfield. Immediately he got rid of six players, including Paul Ince, David James and Jason McAteer, whilst also losing Steve McManaman on a free to Real Madrid. Even with Houllier’s initial signings though, he was sowing the seeds of his eventual demise. Hamman, Hyypia, Henchoz, Smicer and Westerweld were all sound signings (some would become Anfield legends), however, his initial purchases also included Djimi Traore, Erik Meijer and Titi Camara.
Meijer, a tall Dutch striker signed from Leverkusen would score just twice for the Reds, although his passion for the club made him a cult hero at Anfield. Titi Camara began his career at Anfield well, but differences with Houllier stalled his progress in a Reds shirt. In Djimi Traore, Houllier brought a player that is synonymous with inadequacy for many Reds of a certain age. Not only was Houllier’s ability to spot talent brought in to question very early on, but as these quotes reveal, the new man found it hard to man-manage many of his own signings properly, leaving them disappointed and jaded.
“At Liverpool, I was lucky enough to be playing for a great club but unfortunately things didn’t go well with Gerard Houllier. The first season went very well, but after that Gerard Houllier wanted to stop me playing for Guinea…he decided to sideline me. There are times when a coach decides a footballer’s fate and it’s sad.” Titi Camara.
“So many times I knocked on his door saying I wanted to leave the club. I have a mixed view on Houllier…. Personally, in the end, I didn’t trust him anymore. I was upset.” Djimi Traore.
Many of Houllier’s initial signings would prove to be very astute, Hyypia and Hamann instantly spring to mind, and Houllier’s arrival certainly brought a refreshing wind of change blowing through the dressing rooms at Anfield and the training facilities at Melwood. During the Roy Evans era, Liverpool earned the tag “Spice Boys”, for their reported antics off the pitch and many, including the club’s hierarchy, believing that social shenanigans were affecting performances and results, were desperate to change the more old fashioned, English culture at the club. Houllier’s arrival brought with it a continental approach, which highlighted nutrition, fitness and diet and put an end to the drinking culture that had once been so prominent in English football and still lingered at Anfield. On top of this, Houllier embarked on a refurbishment of Melwood, making it into the World Class, state of the art facility it is today.
Liverpool finished the season fourth, claiming a space in the UEFA Cup. Houllier brought in the likes of Emile Heskey, Nick Barmby and Christian Ziege, whilst picking up Markus Babbel and Gary McAllister on free transfers. This was to be Houllier’s finest season in charge of Liverpool. He guided them to victory in the League Cup, the FA Cup and UEFA Cup and a third place Premier League finish. The following season, however, Houllier fell ill during a match with Leeds United. After heart surgery, Houllier returned to Anfield but he failed to recapture any of his former glory.
Even during the successful 00/01 season, fans had become slightly critical of the side’s perceived negative tactics and some of the Frenchman’s signings who had not come up to scratch, however, success had kept these dissenting voices to a minimum. Now, as Liverpool’s fortunes dipped these voices grew louder and discontent began to spread. Houllier’s transfer policy became more and more questionable. Determined to sign from France, where he supposedly had the inside track, Houllier found that all the top French talent was making its way to Arsenal to work with Arsene Wenger and, not having the same respect amongst players as his countryman, Houllier began to recruit second rate players, from the French league.
Salif Diao, Rigobert Song, Bruno Cheyrou were some of his most notable first team flops, with his youth policy fairing little better. Anthony Le Tallec and Florent Sinama-Pongolle highlighted Houllier’s deficiency in accurately spotting young talent. In fact, youth development is an area that Houllier comes in for a lot of stick for during his Anfield career. Apart from Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard, who were pretty much finished products when he arrived, his failure to improve youth team players, selling them on whilst choosing instead to bring others in from outside, is a branch that many still use to beat him with.
There were though, perhaps, two defining transfers which really turned the tide of fan opinion against Gerard Houllier. At the end of 2001 Houllier did the unthinkable. He sold God! Houllier’s one dimensional, counter-attacking style, which had come to the fore by this stage, favoured a big man and a little man partnership up-front, namely Owen and Heskey. Fowler was sold to Leeds United for £12million and always maintained that Houllier forced him out. Many Liverpool fans simply never forgave the manager.
The second major faux pas was to occur at the end of that same season. Nicolas Anelka had come to Liverpool on loan, with the option to buy. He took a few games to settle, but by the end of the season was scoring goals, linking up well and showing that he was truly a World Class player. However Houllier passed up the chance to sign the Frenchman for £11 million, opting instead to sign the Senegalese, El Hadji Diouf for the same fee. The Diouf signing was disastrous and firmly cemented the belief that Houllier was a long way past his best. He left the club in 2004.
Embarking on a mission to re-establish Liverpool as one of the major forces in English and European football, Benitez brought with him fellow Spaniards such as Luis Garcia and Xabi Alonso, persuaded Steven Gerrard not to go to Chelsea and transformed Jamie Carrragher’s role at the club, making him an integral figure at the heart of the back four. Alonso and Garcia would be instant hits as Liverpool, remarkably, really from nowhere, managed to claim their fifth European Cup. 3-0 down to AC Milan at half-time in the final, Benitez’s calm words and inspired substitutions at half-time, particularly the introduction of Didi Hamann, are said to have given the players the confidence to achieve the impossible. That they did, eventually winning the final in a penalty shoot-out.
Like Houllier’s vision for Melwood, so Rafa had a vision for Kirkby, the club’s academy. Bringing in Jose Segura and Rodolfo Borrell from the Nou Camp, Benitez envisaged an academy at Liverpool Footballl Club run along the lines of La Masia, in the Barcelona or Ajax model, in order to produce a production line of talent and establish a single philosophy running through all levels of the club. On the subject, Benitez said:
“I believe the academy is a very important part of the future of the club….I know the academies of Ajax, Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan and Valencia and they are producing players regularly. The way the system works there means the manager has an input into development and I think this could be the way forward here and we would hope that this would help us make better use of local talent.”
Liverpool’s league form was mixed in Rafa’s first season, injuries and European commitments took their toll as the Reds finished fifth, outside the Champions’ League spaces, and were fortunate that a UEFA ruling saw them enter the competition for 05/06 as the defending champions. Josemi and Nunez, two new recruits that hadn’t hit the mark were quickly shunted on along with Smicer and Biscan from the Houllier era, whilst the hero of the Istanbul shoot-out, Jerzy Dudek was relegated permanently to the bench. Reina, Crouch, Sissoko and Agger were brought in and, in an example of how quickly and the extent to which he understood the club, Benitez re-signed God on a free. Fowler’s words on his return: “I feel like a kid waking up on Christmas morning every day now!”
The following season Benitez guided Liverpool to third in the Premier League and took the Reds to Cardiff where, again by virtue of an heroic comeback and again on the back of a penalty shoot-out, Liverpool lifted the FA Cup, making Benitez the first LFC manager to win major trophies in his first two seasons in charge. The following season saw Liverpool fail to challenge in the Premier League, however, they did reach their second Champions’ League final in three seasons. This time though, they came up short against AC Milan, losing 2-1.
Despite kind words about Benitez from new owners Hicks and Gilett: “We knew of him but I don’t think we realized how good he was… The more we have seen of him the more impressed we have become”, the relationship was strained because of money. Benitez knew investment was needed and eventually it came with the signings of Torres, Babel, Benayoun, Lucas and Bellamy amongst others. In 08/09 Liverpool had their best campaign ever in the Premier League, finishing in second, just four points off Manchester United after winning ten of the last eleven games. However friction with the board over transfers, notably over not getting the money for Gareth Barry and being forced to sign Robbie Keane, had left relations hanging by a thread.
Benitez’s one big mistake was his willingness to sell Xabi Alonso in 07/08, reportedly to gain the money to sign Barry. This was brought about by the sell to buy policy enforced by Hicks and Gillett. Alonso didn’t leave at the time and, in fact, had his best season during Liverpool’s 08/09 campaign, however it was the perceived disloyalty of Benitez that made him want to leave the club and, at the end of that landmark season, he joined Real Madrid.
He has been sorely missed ever since.
The following season saw further disputes over transfer funds as the owners plundered the club’s financial resources to furnish their debts. Public disagreements and a rising tide of resentment amongst the fanbase towards the board, culminated in protest marches against them and rallies in support of Benitez. Eventually the strain told though, Benitez signed the injured Aquilani as a replacement for the departed Alonso, having been denied the funds he was promised to sign his intended target, Jovetic of Fiorentina. Aquilani arrived injured and never really showed the commitment to recover or to become a player for Liverpool and other signings, such as Lucas, had failed to show their true class by that stage. Eventually Benitez left by mutual consent in June 2010, some believing that his time had come, the vast majority believing him to be a cruel victim of circumstance.
It is impossible to discount the contribution to and the influence on the club made by these, our two only foreign managers. Very different men with very different personalities and philosophies, they have been the right men at the right time and they have each, in their own way, moved the club forward. Houllier brought LFC into the 21st century, away from the culture of ‘lad’s nights out’ and into the areas of sports science, nutrition and psychology. He recognised the importance of state of the art training facilities and ensured that Melwood became one. Undone by a lack of nous in the transfer market, ill health and a fairly one dimensional tactical approach in the end, Houllier’s tenure was definitely an important one for the development of the club and his love for LFC is unquestionable.
Benitez was the right man to replace Houllier. Quite simply, he was the man to take Liverpool FC to another level and in that, he was successful. With the ability to attract star players as opposed to average ones, to bring back an attacking, possession-holding style of football so craved after by the Anfield faithful and, having the tactical know-how to get to the very top of European competition, Benitez was certainly a cut above Houllier. Benitez’s commitment to the future of the club as well as his understanding of the game as a whole have turned Liverpool’s Kirkby Academy into a place which is now generating a host of exciting young players such as Suso and Sterling, incidentally both signed by Benitez, and will continue to do so for many years to come.
Overall Benitez has, undoubtedly, had the bigger impact of the two and it will be Rafa’s legacy that is most remembered by fans but it’s important to note that, without Houllier’s continental approach first paving the way, Liverpool would, most likely, never have been ready for a manager like Rafael Benitez. The success and pride that Benitez restored was built on the back of Houllier’s pioneering approach. The difference between the two managers from a player’s perspective is summed up in this quote from Didi Hamann, a Houllier signing who also played under Rafa. It shows why Benitez’s legacy should tie straight in to Brendan Rodgers’s current tenure too.
“Rafa and Pako have got a completely different way of training. We train harder, we train for longer and we work harder than we used to. Everything is about tactics as well. You know that they know what they are doing and that’s the main thing. If you ask Pako, he tells you what we will be doing in training in two weeks time. That’s unusual because when sometimes things don’t go right, people change things. What he does is very impressive.
“We work on tactics almost every day and if you look at our goals against record, that is a massive improvement. We played Valencia a few years ago when Rafa was in charge there and that was probably the hardest game ever for us. It was hard to get the ball and once we had it, we couldn’t play. We got beat 1-0 at home and I think we only had half a chance through Emile Heskey. We were completely outplayed and couldn’t get anywhere near them. When you work with them and see the way they train us now, you can see why Valencia played the way they did.”
Quotes fromLFCHistory.net & the Liverpool Echo.
You can catch Neil on Twitter @Neil1980 or on his blog http://itsallinthegameblog.wordpress.com/