'Like a second father' - How Houllier left behind an 'incredible' Liverpool legacy

Gerard Houllier Liverpool 2001
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The French coach, who died on Monday at the age of 73, was as successful on the pitch at Anfield as he was genuine and kind away from it

Football has lost another great.

The passing of Gerard Houllier, aged 73, has left the game in mourning. Yet more desperate news at the end of a quite desperate year.

Houllier was unquestionably a great manager. His achievements, at Paris Saint-Germain and at Lyon but most of all at Liverpool, will stand the test of time. He was, in every sense, a winner, a builder of teams and of clubs.

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Over the course of a 38-year managerial career, and well beyond it, he left his mark everywhere he went.

At Anfield he will be remembered as one of the greats, and rightly so. He was the man who, through skill and strength of personality, brought Liverpool kicking and screaming into the modern era.

After the slumber of the 1990s, it was Houllier who woke the giant at the turn of the millennium. The success of his greatest team, the treble-winners of 2001, will probably never be repeated.

But being a great football manager is one thing, being a great person quite another. Houllier was both; ruthless and determined, yes, but also caring, sensitive, emotional, thoughtful, passionate about people as much as players. 

“I loved him to bits,” said Jamie Carragher, who says Houllier changed him “as a person and as a player.” 

Carragher has, in the past, described him as being “like a second father”, a view shared by others of that era – notably Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen, both of whom benefited enormously from Houllier’s TLC, on and off the field.

Gerard Houllier Jamie Carragher Liverpool 2001

“Genuinely caring,” was Owen’s tribute. “One of the few gentlemen in the football world,” added Dietmar Hamann, one of his greatest-ever signings.

"I'll never forget the smile on his face when he told me I was making my debut," says former Reds striker Neil Mellor. "The joy it gave him to believe in me and make my dream come true. I'll be eternally grateful."

John Arne Riise was another Houllier signing, joining Liverpool from Monaco in 2001. "Without him believing in me, I would never have had the career I had," he says. "I have so much to thank him for. He meant so much to me. I'm just devastated."

His impact on those players, and many, many more besides, is well-known. The pride he took from seeing the likes of Gerrard and Carragher go on to become Anfield greats was clear every time he spoke. 

But if you want a more private example of Gerard Houllier the man, then just ask the Cain family.

Helen Cain had been one of the nurses who looked after Houllier at Broadgreen Hospital during his recovery from heart surgery in 2001, and struck up something of a friendship with him. She remembers his warmth, his smile, his conversation, how he would speak to her about her husband, Mike, and their children, sons Richy and Chris and daughter Claire. 

All of the family, he discovered were mad Liverpudlians. "Just like me, then!" he would smile.

Some months later, and completely out of the blue, Helen received a phonecall. It was Houllier’s personal assistant, inviting the family to Melwood for the day, to watch Liverpool train and to meet the manager and his players. 

“It was one of the best days of our childhood,” remembers Chris Cain. The pictures still take pride of place in the family home. 

Gerard Houllier meets Claire, Chris and Richy Cain

Such a gesture will surprise nobody who knew Houllier. Generosity, humility and decency were the values he lived by. "He was an incredible man," says former Reds forward Harry Kewell. "One of football's smartest, warmest and loveliest people," tweeted Gary Lineker.

It says everything that pretty much every Merseyside journalist, even those whom came into conflict with him as his Liverpool reign faltered, have such warm memories of him. Most, if not all, remained in contact long after he left the club.

Ric George, the former Reds Correspondent for the Liverpool Echo , became a personal friend. "And he knew full well I was a Blue," George tweeted on Monday.

Perhaps the most poignant tribute, of the thousands which have flooded in came from Phil Thompson, Houllier's assistant during his six years at Liverpool.

“Just to be in his company was an absolute treat,” Thomson posted. “So loyal, so passionate, and extremely fierce. So many wonderful times, bringing smiles back to people’s faces; 2001 should never be forgotten.

Gerard Houllier Phil Thompson Liverpool 2001

“Since we finished, at the end of every conversation we had, I told him I loved him and would always be grateful for him giving a wonderful partnership.”

Goal spoke to Thompson back in May, for a feature on the 15-year anniversary of Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League triumph. When we did, he told a story which says everything about Houllier’s relationship with the club and its supporters.

“On the morning of the final in Istanbul, I went over to see Gerard at his hotel,” he said. “And it just happened to be right by Taksim Square, where all the Liverpool fans had gathered.

"I was absolutely gobsmacked by what I saw in the taxi on the way there, the scenes, the flags, the scarves, the sea of red.

“Gerard was so excited, so proud. ‘Isn’t it just incredible, Thommo?’ he said. ‘How can they not win for these fans tonight?’ He was like me, he just loved Liverpool.”

He certainly did. And Liverpool loved him too. He will be missed, at Anfield and way, way beyond.

A great manager, but an even better person. Rest in peace, Gerard.