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Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Hero to Villain

I was personally disappointed to hear criticism from some corners when it was announced that Houllier was stepping into the breach at Villa Park. Unfairly, sentences about the Frenchman will always be tagged with the names Salif Diao and El-Hadji Diouf. This judgement is unduly harsh if you look at the squad he inherited, the funds he was given to work with and the facilities he had to work in. He signed some duds, yes, but what about Hyypia and Hamann, McAllister and Riise? Look at what, by contrast, Rafael Benitez inherited: state-of-the-art training facilities and back-room setup; a youth training academy to rival any in Europe; and a squad of decent footballers, decent enough that they won the Champion’s League within 12 months. A couple of Spaniards aside, the whole of that triumphant team were ‘Houllier’ players and the revamped foundations at Anfield are part of his legacy.

Liverpool were the meat in a French sandwich of success. In Houllier’s first full season with Paris St. Germain in 1986, he took them to their first ever league title. Successive Ligue 1 titles with Lyon followed his stint in England, which included a treble in 2001. A UEFA Cup run to victory Dortmund (disposing of Roma, Porto and Barcelona on the way) and a Michael Owen-inspired comeback in a Cardiff FA Cup final (and a league cup) means Houllier has little to prove.

So why the criticism? Why does an Aston Villa board member have to openly defend the club’s appointment of Houllier?

Firstly, there is the perceived negativity in his team selections, the thought that his teams were regularly set up to keep a clean sheet or protect a one goal lead. Not the attractive football Liverpool fans and Premier League audiences alike want to see, thanks very much. But it is effective. In his first full season as Liverpool boss, the astute acquisitions of Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz saw 19 fewer goals conceded than in the season before. Villa currently look vulnerable at the back and Houllier’s ability to instil some solidity to their back line could be crucial. With Richard Dunne and James Collins, they have two defenders capable of forming a formidable partnership.

Moreover, it’s not like Houllier’s team only ever won 1-0. Liverpool scored 127 goals in all competitions in the 2000-2001 season – a stat that goes some way to dispelling the ‘negativity’ label. However, this was achieved with Owen, Heskey and Fowler all in their prime. Agbonlahor, Carew and an ageing Heskey are unlikely to produce as significant a return. With Young, Albrighton, Downing and Delfounso though, Houllier still has youthful attacking options with which to work.

But managing in the Premier League has become far more political in the age of billionaire owners and busybody chairmen – no longer is it just about the football. Houllier has been viewed by many as a very proud man, reluctant to accept any mistakes he has made. This, along with his controlling ethic makes me believe that he may not be the right man for the Aston Villa hotseat. Granted, Randy Lerner is no Doug Ellis, and Martin O’Neill would have had a job for life given the way he had turned the Claret and Blues from serial under-achievers to feared opposition. However, O’Neill did not like the boards’ interference in transfer activity, particularly with regard to the sales of Gareth Barry and James Milner. There is nothing among Houllier’s previous relationships with boardroom staff that makes me believe he would react to such intervention any differently.

Houllier caused consternation at Anfield by beginning to overlook his highly acclaimed youth talent. Steve Heighway’s youth development work had produced McManaman, Fowler, Owen, Carragher and Gerrard, all of whom had been pushed through to first team action. The perceived dearth of home grown talent thereafter was a cause of conflict – Heighway claiming they were ignored, Houllier that they were not good enough. Not as good as Bruno ‘the next Zidane’ Cheyrou?

Not even two league titles at Lyon could keep him in a job there. Poor showings in successive Champions League seasons led to his resignation following criticism from his overly-ambitious chairman, Jean-Michel Aulas.

In my opinion, Houllier is a good manager who achieved a lot at Liverpool. He has set himself ambitious targets throughout his career, but thus far (apart from maybe his background role with the French National team) never quite reached his goals before the blade falls. His transfer record is debatable at times, but all good managers learn from their mistakes and Houllier can boast the unearthing of a few gems. So is he the right man for Aston Villa?

Tactically, he is exactly what they need in the short term, but whether he can build that into long-term success is another issue. If the Frenchman can work within the parameter that Villa are a ‘selling club’ when the big boys come calling, then Lerner’s appointment may be a wise one. As a Liverpool fan I do wish him all the best – my memories of the man are fond. At the same time, I have reservations about how he will fare at a club who may not have the patience to see how another five-year plan will pan out. Alex Bingle

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