Late May and the sun is shining at Anfield. On the pitch is Gerard Houllier and Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry, flanked by over a dozen photographers.
A photoshoot takes place, hands are shook. Smiles are aplenty. A press conference follows in the historic trophy room inside the Main Stand. Houllier describes Liverpool as “one of the most fantastic clubs in the world.”
And yet, this wasn’t an unveiling of Houllier as manager in 1998, but a press conference for his departure after six years as Reds boss.
The manner of Houllier's exit from Anfield sums up the person and why he is still held in such high esteem 16 years after he left the club.
Next May would have been 20 years since the historic cup treble the Frenchman guided the club to, which included the first European trophy in 17 years - winning the UEFA Cup after beating Roma, Porto and Barcelona en-route to one of the most dramatic European finals of all-time.
That 2000/01 season though wasn’t just about the three trophies won, but also saw Houllier’s team qualify for the Champions League for the first time since it was rebranded in the early nineties - clinched on the final day of the season with a 4-0 win at Charlton that earned a third-place finish in the Premier League.
The final week of the season saw Liverpool beat Arsenal in the FA Cup final on the Saturday, win the UEFA Cup against Alaves in extra-time on the Wednesday, then win 4-0 at Charlton the next Saturday. Essentially, it was three cup finals in seven days.
“It was amazing. It was just one of those seasons you never wanted to end,” recalls striker Emile Heskey to FourFourTwo.
“The UEFA Cup final was our 62nd game of the season and I was running on empty. It was very tough. I can’t remember too much of the final – I had to watch it back to remember it, because it was just adrenaline taking me through that game.”
It was a 63-game season that saw Liverpool score 127 goals.
The following year, Liverpool finished in the top two for the first time in the Premier League, matching Man United’s title-winning points total of the previous season. It was also a season that had seen Houllier rushed to hospital at half-time of a home game against Leeds and undergoing open-heart surgery.
Plenty advised the Frenchman to quit the game. “There are those who say maybe I should forget about football. Maybe I should forget about breathing,” he replied. “Football is my oxygen."
Houllier returned for one of Anfield’s most incredible European nights, against Fabio Capello’s Roma in March 2002. A win by a two-goal margin was required and achieved. Liverpool made the Champions League quarter finals and Houllier remarked that his side were “10 games from greatness.”
But a defeat to Bayer Leverkusen, which included a highly questionable substitution, saw the European dream end. Despite winning eight of the final 10 league games, Liverpool finished second to an impressive Arsenal side.
By this time, Houllier had restored Liverpool’s name on the continent, achieved domestic success, and modernised the club - including a complete re-design of the Reds’ training ground.
A 5-0 win against Ipswich at Anfield on the final day saw fans anticipating a return to the glory days. The title was the next step. And while the next step never arrived under Houllier, there is no doubt that he laid the foundations for what followed, including a fifth European Cup a year after his departure.
Houllier revolutionised Liverpool on and off the pitch, setting new standards and moving the club into the 21st century.
“Liverpool meant six years of happiness to me,” he said when he left the club so amicably in 2004.
“You can never take away from me the time, success, and fantastic relationships I’ve had with the players, my staff and, of course, the supporters.”
For a generation of Liverpool supporters who had grown up hearing stories of memorable European nights and trophies won, Houllier brought those moments to life. For anybody born in the 1980s, they’d never witnessed first-hand what the club was so renowned for worldwide.
Winning in Rome, beating Barcelona, five trophies won in six months, achieving qualification for the Champions League, overseeing a player - Michael Owen - winning the Ballon d’Or, bringing through Steven Gerrard and appointing him as the club’s youngest ever captain, and ultimately restoring Liverpool’s name among Europe’s elite.
For that, Kopites will forever be thankful, and Houllier’s legacy lives on.
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