From 1998-2004, the French boss won six trophies in six seasons at Anfield, oversaw the establishment of Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard in the first team, and pushed standards into the 21st century. In the minds of many, the 2000/01 and 2001/02 seasons represent the high point of this six-year Liverpool reign.
The first of those saw the Reds secure a unique treble by lifting the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup — meaning they won every cup competition they entered that term.
The second began with more silverware, as the Community Shield and UEFA Super Cup were secured with victories over Manchester United and Bayern Munich respectively, ending with a second-place league finish — Liverpool’s highest since the Premier League’s 1992 inception. They also reached the Champions League quarter-finals in the club’s first season in the competition since its own 1992 re-brand.
These achievements were made all the more laudable by the fact that Houllier had been absent from the touchline for over five months of the campaign following emergency heart surgery.
A single League Cup triumph in 2003 and fifth and fourth-placed league finishes respectively saw his side fail to build on those levels in his final two seasons — perhaps understandably, in hindsight — and ultimately led to his departure in 2004. The Frenchman’s legacy remains untarnished by that mutual exit, with his impressive trophy haul and essential work behind the scenes fondly remembered by all.
When he joined Liverpool in the summer of 1998, the club’s position — and, indeed, his own — was an interesting one.
Roy Evans has been in charge for four-and-a-half seasons and had led decent title charges, particularly with the exciting young team in the 1995/96 and 1996/97 seasons. That team never finished higher than third, though, and was developing a habit for dropping off late in the campaign.
There was a sense that additional discipline was required alongside Evans’ slightly more easy-going approach, which led to himself and Houllier becoming joint-managers.
Despite a decent enough start to the season, a considerable dip in results in the autumn suggested the dual approach wasn’t a sustainable one. On November 12, 1998, Evans left the club, which put Houllier in sole charge.
His affiliation with the city went back to 1969, when he’d spent a year on Merseyside as a teaching assistant at Alsop Comprehensive. He was studying at the same time and completed a thesis entitled: ‘Growing Up in a Deprived Area’, which focused on social issues in Toxteth.
Alongside that, he’d taken the chance to visit Anfield that September, where he stood on the Kop for Liverpool’s 10-0 victory over Dundalk in the first-leg of a European Fairs Cup first round tie. He was accompanied that night by Patrice Bergues, later his assistant manager at the club.
Houllier had never played professionally but he thoroughly enjoyed amateur football both in Liverpool and on his return to France. It was a passion which led to him securing a job as a coach at Nœux-les-Mines after he saw it advertised in a local paper.
He soon took the role of manager and oversaw their promotion to the second-tier of French football. That led Lens to take him on in 1982, where he further built his managerial reputation, before he did likewise at Paris Saint-German between 1985 and 1988, and then with the French national team setup from 1988 to 1998.
Like what you see? Get it for free!
Sign up to get exclusive LFC content straight into your inbox, completely free of charge.
Given his experiences in his earlier years, it was perhaps unsurprising that Houllier took the widely popular decision to bring former captain Phil Thompson back to the club as his assistant soon after he took the reins.
The Frenchman began to make his mark from there. An 18-year-old Gerrard caught his eye playing in an academy game and, come November 29, the teenager came off the bench to make his first-team debut at Anfield against Blackburn Rovers.
He made 12 further appearances that term, including three starts, with his role in the side set to grow over the following two seasons.
The Reds finished seventh — four places lower than the previous campaign — but the summer of 1999 gave the manager his first chance to shape his squad.
There was a significant turnover in players. Captain Paul Ince, David James, Jason McAteer, Rob Jones, Tony Warner, Steve Harkness and Steve McManaman all left, while Sami Hyypiä, Stéphane Henchoz, Dietmar Hamann, Vladimír Šmicer, Sander Westerveld, Titi Camara, Eric Meijer and Djimi Traoré came in.
On top of early efforts to shift the culture and lift standards, which included modernising Melwood’s facilities, this business represented the Frenchman’s first notable laying of groundwork for the coming years.
Something reflected in Simon Hughes’ book, Ring of Fire, where Houllier stated: “We changed the habits in terms of the way the team prepared and practised. We brought a different attitude to training, demanding that the players looked after themselves in terms of diet. I personally think we also signed a group of players that went on to play together for a long time: players from different countries, different leagues and different attitudes — probably more in tune with what was happening elsewhere in football. This is not a criticism of what was happening previously. But sometimes you need to change to evolve.”
Houllier had read about the problems faced by Evans’ predecessor, Graeme Souness, as he tried to change too much of the culture too quickly during his 1991-1994 tenure. This insight informed the Frenchman’s dedication to a more gradual shift in certain areas.
The Liverpool board hoped that he could impact culture and playing style similarly to how Arsène Wenger had at Arsenal from 1996.
Progress was made in the 1999/2000 season; Houllier’s more secure-looking side finished fourth in the league, earning the UEFA Cup spot that the team would make such good use of in the following campaign.
Gerrard got his first senior goal in a 4-1 home win over Sheffield Wednesday in early December, while fellow youngsters Carragher and Michael Owen continued to enjoy established — and highly valuable — first-team roles.
Emile Heskey arrived from Leicester City in March and another busy summer followed. David Thompson, Phil Babb, Dominic Matteo, Steve Staunton, Brad Friedel and Stig Inge Bjørnebye departed, while Markus Babbel, Nick Barmby, Pegguy Arphexad, Grégory Vignal, Gary McAllister, Igor Bišćan and Christian Ziege came in.
The deep, well-balanced squad created by this transfer business was crucial to the historic treble campaign that followed.
Aside from avoided FA Cup replays, Liverpool played as many games as it was possible to play in 2000/01 — a hefty 63.
They beat Chelsea, Stoke City, Fulham and Crystal Palace on their way to the February 25th League Cup Final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium — where they triumphed against Birmingham City on penalties following a 1-1 draw.
Rotherham United, Leeds United, Manchester City, Tranmere Rovers and Wycombe Wanderers were overcome in the FA Cup prior to another Cardiff victory on May 12 — as Owen’s late double snatched a 2-1 victory from the jaws of defeat against Arsenal.
In the UEFA Cup, meanwhile, they saw off Rapid Bucharest, Slovan Liberec, Olympiacos, AS Roma, Porto and Barcelona on the way to a crazy 5-4 final victory over Alaves in Dortmund on May 16 — thanks to Delfí Geli’s golden own goal in extra-time.
All of that was achieved while securing third place in the league — which ensured Liverpool would experience the European Cup’s modern incarnation for the first time in 2001/02.
Things were put into stark perspective just a few months later, though, with Houllier’s health scare.
After experiencing chest pains at half-time of an Anfield clash with Leeds United in October, the then 54-year-old was rushed to hospital where he underwent an 11-and-a-half-hour operation to repair his aorta.
Doctors advised the Frenchman to take around a year off work, but he returned to the dugout on March 19. It seemed he gave his side a tangible boost, too, as they and the Anfield crowd put in a barnstorming display to beat Roma by the 2-0 scoreline required to progress to the Champions League quarter-finals.
Houllier had already been contributing from a distance while he recovered. Indeed, Ring of Fire speaks of him playing a prominent part in the January signings of Nicolas Anelka and Abel Xavier. That said, the widely-held feeling since is that Houllier came back too soon.
Questions were asked of his decision to bring on Šmicer for Hamann during the second-half of the 4-2 quarter-final second-leg defeat at Bayer Leverkusen, which saw the Reds exit 4-3 on aggregate. Questions were also asked of the largely unsuccessful transfer business which was done in the summer of 2002.
Anelka — whose loan wasn’t made permanent — was allowed to leave alongside McAllister and Jari Litmanen, while new acquisitions El-Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou never truly made the desired impact.
It was hoped that an even stronger title charge would follow in 2002/03, but the early March League Cup Final triumph over Manchester United would instead represent the season’s pinnacle, as the Reds exited the Champions League before Christmas and dropped three places in the league to finish fifth.
There was a growing sense that things were going a little stale — both in terms of success levels and playing style.
One source of freshness, though, arrived in October 2003 when Gerrard was awarded the captaincy – something which seemed to boost the then 23-year-old’s development even further.
Liverpool would go on to finish fourth — enough to earn a Champions League spot that Rafael Benítez and co, of course, would make history with in 2004/05.
Houllier arguably remains somewhat under-appreciated for what he brought to the club. Both in terms of silverware and modernisation — which allowed some of the ground which had been lost on rivals during the ‘90s to be made up.
Health and some very fine margins could be seen to have prevented even greater levels of — and more sustained — success.
His contribution to football since departing Anfield has remained sizeable, too. He won successive Ligue 1 titles with Olympique Lyonnais in 2005/06 and 2006/07, guided Aston Villa to a ninth-place Premier League finish in 2010/11 and has been Red Bull’s Head of Global Football since July 2012.
The success of the likes of RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig in recent years — in which Sadio Mané, Naby Keïta and Takumi Minamino each played significant parts, prior to their Liverpool days — reflects well on his work in his current capacity.