Comparing the Liverpool team Houllier inherited to the one he passed to Rafa
On July 16, 1998, Gerard Houllier took joint charge of Liverpool and would soon set about implementing squad changes which would help set up their 2005 Champions League victory.
Liverpool had struggled since the departure of Kenny Dalglish, finishing sixth in two consecutive seasons under Graeme Souness and then eighth in 1993-94 when the Scot was replaced by Roy Evans mid-season.
The Reds improved to finish third twice and fourth twice in four full seasons under Evans, but they won only one FA Cup and one League Cup in the seven years between Dalglish’s exit and Houllier’s arrival in July 1998. Even Evans only describes his time in charge as “okay”.
Houllier was initially appointed as joint-manager alongside Evans as Liverpool sought to maintain the traditions of the Boot Room, but the experiment was ended by November as Houllier was handed sole control.
It did not immediately reap dividends – Liverpool finished seventh in 1998-99 – but Houllier gradually fazed out the Spice Boys and put together a team which memorably won five trophies in 2001. And though he was unable to deliver a league title, many of the players he signed would go on to help the club win their fifth European Cup under Rafael Benitez in 2005.
Here, we look at how the team changed from the last game of the Evans era to Houllier’s final game in charge at the end of 2004-05.
Brad Friedel – Jerzy Dudek
Friedel went on to become a Premier League stalwart, making 479 appearances in the top flight before hanging up his gloves as a Tottenham player aged 44.
But only 25 of those came as a Liverpool player. After a protracted work permit process, the American was eventually signed by the club half a season before Houllier arrived, with the manager seemingly unable to decide between him and David James throughout his first season in charge.
After a year of switching between the two, Houllier brought in Sander Westerveld, and Friedel was benched before moving to Blackburn in 2000, after which he established himself as one of the Premier League’s finest keepers.
Dudek was one of two keepers – the other being the perennially-injured Chris Kirkland – signed by Houllier in 2001 after Westerveld’s impressive form early in his Liverpool career gave way to inconsistency and errors.
The Polish stopper remained first choice throughout the remainder of Houllier’s reign and played a significant role in Liverpool’s Champions League fairytale in 2005.
Stig Inge Bjornebye – Jon Arne Riise
Bjornebye, once described by Paul Ince as “maybe the best I ever played with”, had been around at Anfield for six years by the time Houllier arrived in 1998, but the new manager didn’t fancy the Norwegian.
Houllier brought Bjornebye’s compatriot Riise to Anfield after the 2001 Treble season. After a promising start to his Liverpool career, the attacking full-back struggled for consistency, but he played 339 times for the club and left a cult hero.
He scored several memorable goals for the Reds, including a world-class free-kick against Man Utd.
He is also remembered for being smacked on the arse with a golf club by Craig Bellamy in Barcelona, and unfortunately that injury-time own-goal in the Champions League semi-final against Chelsea.
Jamie Carragher – Jamie Carragher
The Liverpool legend was given his debut under Roy Evans, but it was Houllier who began to get the best out of the versatile Scouser.
Carragher credits the Frenchman with helping him to change his lifestyle after he was called in and given a dressing down for going out for a few pints with his dad one Saturday night after the Reds had played earlier in the day.
Houllier prefered Carragher at full-back, and it was not until Rafael Benitez arrived that he began to establish himself at centre-half.
“Houllier was a manager, Benitez was a coach,” Carragher told Off the Ball podcast. “They were totally different, but they brought out the best in me, both of them.”
Phil Babb – Sami Hyypia
Babb was one of the Spice Boys Houllier set about shifting when he took full control upon Roy Evans’ resignation in 1998. He’s best remembered at Anfield for almost splitting himself in half after sliding full-pelt into a post.
Sami Hyypia was signed by Houllier in 1999, with Ron Yeats, in his capacity as chief scout, labelling the £2.6million purchase from Willem II as “one of the best bits of business we’ve done over the years. A steal, a bargain.”
Houllier gave Hyypia the captaincy, which he shared with Robbie Fowler during the 2000-2001 season, which ended with three trophies for the Reds.
He served Liverpool for a decade, making 464 appearances before being carried off the Anfield pitch on his team-mates’ shoulders prior to joining Bayer Leverkusen.
Steve Harkness – Steve Finnan
Harkness was brought to Liverpool by Kenny Dalglish, but it was Graeme Souness who eventually gave the former Cardiff full-back a debut on his 20th birthday in 1991.
The closest he got to establishing himself as a regular was under Evans in 1995-96, but a broken leg ruled him out for a year, and Houllier sold him to Benfica within six months of taking sole charge.
Houllier brought Finnan to Anfield ahead of his final season, and though injury stopped the full-back showing his best form under the French boss, he became a fans’ favourite under Rafa Benitez, playing in two Champions League finals, winning one, and also tasting FA Cup glory.
Jason McAteer – Danny Murphy
McAteer was one of the leading Spice Boys, which meant he was never going to be popular with Houllier. The feeling was mutual.
“As soon as Houllier walked in the DNA of the club changed,” McAteer told Joe.co.uk. “We then went through the emotional period of Roy leaving and seeing him devastated in the dressing room and I resented Houllier for that. I also resented the way Ronnie Moran was treated and I blamed Houllier for it.
“All of this stuff about having been a Liverpool fan who’d watched them on the Kop, I just wasn’t buying it. I thought he was telling everyone what they wanted to hear while behind the scenes he was changing the club’s DNA and moving it away from what it had always been.”
Murphy, though, thinks rather more fondly of Houllier, admitting: “I’ve got a lot to thank him for.”
He made his Reds debut on the opening day in 1997-98 under Evans and Houllier, but the midfielder was sent back by the manager to his former club Crewe to get some game time and confidence.
Upon his return, he was put on a different fitness plan to the rest of the players, which reaped its rewards, because by the following autumn, Murphy was getting a game at Anfield.
The midfielder went on to play a huge role in the 2001 Treble season while developing an uncanny knack of scoring against Man Utd. When Houllier left Anfield, so too did Murphy.
— Planet Football (@planetfutebol) July 15, 2017
Steve McManaman – Steven Gerrard
McManaman was perhaps the only one of the Spice Boys that Houllier did not want rid of. But by the time Houllier took charge, McManaman had already decided he was leaving for Europe and a massive pay-day.
As McManaman wound down his Liverpool career, Gerrard was beginning his. Houllier spotted the 17-year-old midfielder playing for Liverpool Under-19s and immediately brought him up to work with the first team.
By 23, Gerrard was Houllier’s skipper, and the pair remained close after the manager was replaced by Benitez.
Upon retiring as a manager, Houllier paid tribute to Gerrard: “He is the one player, from a personal point of view as well as a professional one, that stands out during my whole career.”
Paul Ince – Dietmar Hamann
It perhaps says much about Ince’s persona that the former England midfielder is not particularly revered by fans at any of his former clubs. In joining Liverpool, he burned his bridges with Man Utd fans, while at Anfield, he was part of a trophyless transition between the Spice Boys and the Houllier regime.
When Ince left, Hamann arrived. The German established himself as a key presence, not only for Houllier but so too for Benitez.
“We won the Champions League after Houllier left and so many of the players were his signings,” remembered Hamann. “He deserves credit for the team he left behind.”
Oyvind Leonhardsen – Harry Kewell
Leonhardsen was brought in by Evans in 1997, with half of the £7million made on the sale of Stan Collymore sent straight to Wimbledon for the left-sided winger. The Norwegian was a regular under Evans but used far more sparingly by Houllier, who sold him to Tottenham in 1999.
Leonhardsen perhaps made the most of his talent in simply signing for Liverpool in the first place. Far more was expected of Kewell, but the Australian failed to deliver after joining in controversial circumstances ahead of Houllier’s final season.
Injuries stopped Kewell from proving himself to Houllier or Benitez, with his agent blaming British medics: ”He lost three and a half years of his career at Liverpool because the guys over there in England had, quite literally, no idea what they were talking about.”
The most prominent memory some Reds retain of Kewell is of the winger sloping off midway through the first half of the 2005 Champions League final. We know now that his groin had gone, but many believed Kewell just didn’t fancy it.
“On a personal level, that was a nightmare, a horrible night,” he admitted some years later. “You try to be happy for the team, but as soon as you go back to the hotel, that’s it. There’s nothing.”
Karl-Heinz Riedle – Emile Heskey
Riedle, the first German ever to play for Liverpool, is still fondly remembered at Anfield after two seasons at the club.
In between being signed by Evans and sold by Houllier, the 1990 World Cup winner notched 11 goals in 60 appearances, despite being second-string striker following the emergence of Michael Owen.
“For me, though, it wasn’t a problem,” said Riedle. “I loved to play for the club.”
Six months after Riedle moved on, Heskey signed for Houllier in what was then a club-record deal. The move also represented Houllier’s first purchase of a homegrown player among his foreign recruits.
Heskey was more effective than many remember and better than his record of 60 goals in 223 Liverpool appearances suggests. He remains the strike partner to have got the most out of Owen.
“Everyone has that connection with one player, and it just worked that way with him,” Heskey told Sky Sports. “I don’t why or how, but we just knew what we were going to be doing at any given time.”
Michael Owen – Michael Owen
Houllier inherited an 18-year-old with the world at his feet, who had already won the Golden Boot, and Owen retained the honour in Houllier’s first season. But then his hamstring problems began to take hold.
Houllier was without Owen for a third of the 1999-2000 season, but once paired with Heskey, the England forward fired Liverpool to the Treble, becoming the first English winner of the European Footballer of the Year award since Kevin Keegan 22 years previously.
Owen signed a four-year contract in 2001, but that was never going to stop Florentino Perez sniffing around the striker.
“They might be able to afford Ronaldo but they cannot afford Michael Owen,” claimed Houllier. “For that kind of money they could only buy his left foot but he is not going anywhere. Michael is Liverpool through and through and he is staying with me.”
Owen did stay with Houllier, but once the Frenchman was axed, Owen was gone too.