Lifting the lid on the world of football

The Secret Footballer
28 Oct, 2015

The Secret Footballer meets Gerard Houllier


Gerard Houllier is a Liverpool legend. It is unlikely that his haul of five trophies in the 2000-01 season will ever be bettered at Anfield or at any other English club.

In his recently released autobiography – “Je Ne Marcherai Jamais Seul” (“I’ll Never Walk Alone”), published in France by Hugo Sport – Houllier recalls that magnificent campaign with the Reds.

And in our exclusive interview with The Secret Footballer, the much-respected French manager and coach also addresses the past, present and future in his own frank and disarming style.

What did Houllier make of the spitting antics of the controversial El-Hadji Diouf? And the drinking culture among the Liverpool players?

How can the beleaguered Fifa organisation clean up its act? And how will new manager Jurgen Klopp fare at Anfield?

All this – and more – in a must-read Q&A for Liverpool fans. And supporters of rival clubs will find it informative and enlightening, too.


TSF: Steven Gerrard and a few other Liverpool players who I know have said that you were one of their best coaches and that your training sessions were the most enjoyable that they’d ever had. But some coaches really struggle to have the same affect on their squad. What are some of the best coaching sessions for top players and how do you go from being an average coach to a great coach?

GH: Top players are great competitors. So what they like in training is to have competition, to have games, to have opponents.

In training, I always try to have three things – the three “Ps” …

Progress (make the players progress), Performance (they have to achieve something), Pleasure (they have to enjoy it).

Besides that, I try to be as near as I can to the real game, which means that I try to have more cycles of one or two movements, transitions, things like that – always more than one simple exercise before pulling off.

You have one exercise, then you have to defend; and then you win the ball back and you have to attack. Always stick to the game, be as near to it as you can.


TSF: You had great success at Liverpool, winning five trophies in 2000-01. Do you have a standout game from that period or perhaps one moment from a game that made you realise how much you love football?

GH: Obviously, the five finals stand out, even the first one against Birmingham City, the League Cup final, when Robbie Fowler scored the first goal. Each final was a particular moment.

I would say that winning a European cup, after Liverpool had been deprived of European trophies for a long time, was a major pride for us.

So the Uefa Cup final in Dortmund against Alaves and the Supercup final in Monaco against Bayern Munich were games that I will always remember.

Winning the FA Charity Shield against Manchester United was something special for our fans.

And playing in the FA Cup Final – never mind winning it – is every British player’s dream and a major acknowledgement in their career.

I sometimes remember more moments of the games, or some events within the games, rather than the final result itself.

Like the penalty shoot-out against Birmingham, Michael Owen’s second goal against Arsenal in the FA Cup, Gary McAllister’s free kick against Alaves headed into his own goal by Geli.

Or Patrice Bergues [my first-team coach] trying to hold us out on the pitch because he didn’t know about the golden goal – that was funny!

When you go back and try to have some perspective on what you lived in your life, you always have moments that are a bit funny or a bit strange.


Next Slide: The interview continues


TSF: A heart problem a year later saw a period of recovery that meant you couldn’t be as hands-on with the team as you’d have liked. However, many Liverpool fans cite the signing of El-Hadji Diouf as a major turning point in the team’s fortunes. Was he really as bad as Steven Gerrard says he was in his new book?

GH: Diouf is an outstanding player. It’s not about his football qualities, he’s top class.

But his attitude sometimes, particularly his spitting habit, caused us problems.

Maybe I should have been more wary of that because, I remember, that he did that once or twice when he was warming up for games. I remember a match at Anfield when he had some problems with West Ham fans.

And, of course, what happened at Celtic, when he spat at a Celtic fan, was totally out of line. He was fined and banned for that.

Diouf’s skills were fitting in well, there was no problem with his work, but his attitude and his personality were not fitting into Liverpool’s philosophy.

We could have done better in terms of recruitment, obviously. But we lacked time to check and do the usual homework that we do before recruiting a player.

It’s not something against the player. It’s probably more something I regret I couldn’t do because of health reasons.

I wish I had kept Nicolas Anelka, instead of recruiting Diouf, but his brothers didn’t help him.

Afterwards, I became very careful about a player’s attitude.


TSF: You write in your book that Steven Gerrard is perhaps the standout player from your whole career as a manager. I’m a huge Gerrard fan and, when I think he played in England teams with other greats such as Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, it seems strange that England couldn’t capitalise on that golden generation. Why do you think that England routinely fail in major tournaments?

GH: They were unlucky! They were held back three times by penalty shoot-outs in the quarter-finals – Euro 2004, World Cup 2006 and Euro 2012. At times, you need some luck to succeed.

The penalty shoot-out is like a lottery, you never know what can happen, though I know that there is an outstanding book, “Twelve Yards”, that proves otherwise.

England had a team to win a major tournament. Now, they seem a bit young to me to win Euro 2016. But you never know.

They failed in the World Cup in Brazil last year and there’s probably more eagerness in them this time to go far next summer.


Next Slide: The interview continues


TSF: In the press conference before you left Liverpool in 2004, you famously said: “If they want to go back to the 70s and 80s, they can do that, but not with me.” I think that your managerial appointment was a pivotal moment in Liverpool’s history, perhaps the first time that the club had tried to break away from their famous “Boot Room” culture. It ultimately laid the foundation for Rafael Benitez to win the Champions League a year later. How difficult was it to propel Liverpool into the modern era with all that history pulling you back?

GH: When I was appointed manager of Liverpool, my predecessors were Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Kenny Dalglish, Ronnie Moran, Graeme Souness and, finally, Roy Evans.

Can you imagine how strong and meaningful that was? There was a sort of tradition: the man in charge belongs to the system, he gets out of the Boot Room.

And, suddenly, as they said in the beginning, it’s “Gerard Who?”

Not only did I come from outside the Boot Room but I was a foreigner, not even British!

Being a foreigner means different types of training, a different attitude to the work, the job, a different preparation.

I think that when I left, Benitez – and he acknowledged that – had five things that were good for him …

1. The fact that he could come in after a foreign manager – a Spanish after a French. The pattern of the Boot Room had already been broken.

2. He had new facilities. Melwood had been totally changed, thanks to the board and chief executive Rick Parry, who accepted that we would do something different.

3. He had a proper team. When I came in, there was not a team of the same quality that there was when I left.

4. Liverpool had new habits. We put the club into the 21st Century in terms of training, looking after yourself, having a proper rest.

From then on, in terms of preparation, the team was living what was lived in big clubs in Europe. The discipline and attitude to the job were different; the players were more focused, more professional.

5. We left the team in the Champions League. If we had finished in fifth place instead of fourth, we wouldn’t have qualified. And Liverpool would not have won the Champions League …

And qualifying was not easy, I can tell you, with Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal ahead of us.

With my staff, we left a legacy. Changing the habits of the players is difficult and takes time.

Let’s be blunt: there was a bit of a drinking culture still going on. And we had to get rid of that gradually.

You’ve got to be brave, you’ve got to take decisions sometimes, even get rid of some players.

But the most important thing is to be convincing. Be convincing that this is the right thing to do if you want to improve, be a better player, form a better team and get better results.

I had noticed that some heavy drinkers, in other clubs, had a lot of recurrent injuries at the age of 27 or 28.

Some of them even had to end their career. Some of them were just a shadow of what they used to be.

So if you like the job, if you have a passion for football and if you want to play as long as you can, you’ve got to give yourself the right weapons to do that.

And your first tool is your body. You can’t damage your body by staying up late and drinking.


TSF: You’ve sat on Uefa and Fifa technical committees during major competitions. Recently, both organisations have been the subject of alleged criminal activities over a number of years. What do you make of the problems at, in particular, Fifa and can it survive in the future in the face of an increasingly independent and powerful network of elite clubs and countries that might not want to be governed by such an organisation?

GH: First of all, what is happening at the moment is very sad. Sad for football, for the players, for the fans, for everybody who is involved in the football world.

Secondly, it’s a crisis which, as with every crisis, is an opportunity. An opportunity to clean up.

There were all sorts of rumours, about things that were hidden. Now that they are out in the open, the best way is to build for the future something more transparent and probably healthier as well.

I notice that everybody seems to agree with the fact that they need to implement reforms, to change things. So, hopefully, what’s happening will serve the future and serve football.

At one stage, I even thought that there would be a threat of Uefa departing from Fifa.

But it won’t happen. Matters will be solved by drastic measures, changes and also maybe by new people.

But it’s a team thing, so do not expect a “white knight” coming in and rescuing football.

Fifa needs a new executive committee, a group of personalities, of leaders, really willing to change the attitude, the mentality and the approach of the governing body of football.

This, to me, is the future. But, now, it’s just depressing.


Next Slide: The interview continues


TSF: Your book ends with a long interview about the evolution of football, of the game itself. There has been a very clever attempt by Fifa, supported by various governing bodies, to increase goals and favour attacking players. We have seen the offside rule clarified several times, and the introduction of an automatic red card if a defender is deemed to be the last man, as well as the backpass rule and the tackle from behind being outlawed. English fans continually moan to me that football is no longer a man’s game now that the rough and tumble has been taken out. The more cynical ones suggest that this has been a sustained and blatant attempt by Fifa to make the game appeal to more fans globally and increase advertising revenue as a result with more exciting matches. Are they right?

GH: The modern times imply that when you win, it’s got to be in style. It’s got to be an entertaining game.

Entertainment is very important. There is a competition between sports.

To me, the landmark was the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

Few goals were scored and there was this controversy about the fact that too many teams were defensive and managed to be successful nonetheless.

The forbidding of the backpass to the goalkeeper, the evolution of the offside rule – same line as the defender, passive offside – the tackle from behind being outlawed, the red card for the last defender, the pulling of the shirt …

A lot of rules have been issued to protect the offensive players, the strikers, those who get around the area.

I think that this is for the good of the game. But it doesn’t imply that the hard stuff has been taken out.

I saw the Premier League game between Arsenal and Manchester United recently and the first 30 minutes were very physical. So you still have that.

But you have more protection as well, more open spaces for the strikers.

And there are more goals – 2.7 a game during the last World Cup, nearly three a game in the Champions League.

The tendency at the moment is to attack, to take risks. And the teams who attack and who take risks seem to be rewarded.

This is a good thing for the future of the game.

TSF: Where is the style now? In what teams?

GH: This is where it gets interesting. It could be a direct style, with counter-attacks, or it could be an indirect style. It could be a build-up style from the back, like Spain or Barcelona.

But you can’t say: “This style is better than the others.”

You can only say that you prefer to see goals and goal opportunities rather than games where it is all locked up in the midfield and nobody takes risks.


TSF: As head of global football for Red Bull, where do you see the real player hotbeds of the future? Who are the names that we should be looking out for in the next few transfer windows?

GH: Just look at the players who are 20 or 21 and then you’ll probably discover somebody for the future.

The European under-21 competition prepares the top players. You always have one, two or three who will emerge and become a top-class player.

How do I see if a player is good or not? How do I scout a player?

Sometimes, it’s luck; sometimes, somebody talks about someone and I go to see him playing in a game … and that’s it.

My scouts send me reports. At Red Bull, we have around 50 scouts for our four clubs.

We have 12 scouts in Salzburg, we have scouts in Brazil. In every club, we have a string of scouts who go to games.

And there are systems that analyse everything. Whenever a young player plays a game somewhere, the next day all you need to know to check on his abilities is in the computer of our chief scout.

Regarding tomorrow’s hotbeds, I quite like the way that the Germans manage to combine ball possession and physical strength.

When they played the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, they were dominated by Spain in the semi-final. They hardly played, they couldn’t get the ball.

If you look at the way they played during the last World Cup in Brazil, they had improved their ball possession and combined that with muscles added to their game. And that combination led them to the final victory.

If you ask me, I would say that this is maybe the future. Modern football is about skills and speed.

But skills and speed is not enough. You need sometimes to have a bit more physicality around your game.

That’s why I don’t agree with people who say it’s not a man’s game any more. Just look at the number of players who get seriously injured.

TSF: But there is something more than skills and muscles – there is team spirit. You write in your book: “While France was nurturing Ben Arfa, Germany was training Philipp Lahm and Spain Andres Iniesta.”

GH: This is an image. It’s true that, in France, we worked extremely hard to improve the skills and creativity of our players.

That gave rise to players like Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Zinedine Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff and so forth.

But we probably undeliberately disregarded the team aspect. The skill is useful for the team, not for yourself. It’s not an individual game.

We probably enhanced more the skills and the quality of the individuals rather than the team effect that it must have.

While we were working in that area in France, Spain and Germany were working in the same area, but combined with team play. A good player is first of all a good team player.

This is probably where we were wrong but that changed when I came back to the federation and joined them again in 2008.

I worked a lot with Erick Mombaerts and we probably set up a new type of learning and teaching football.

And we started to also have our own Iniestas and Xavis.


Next Slide: The interview continues


TSF: In your book, you say: “English players are usually much easier to coach than their French counterparts.” Can you expand on that?

GH: English players are more straightforward, more honest. If they do something wrong, they don’t try to hide it.

They are open and brave enough to say: “Well, this is what happened. I’m sorry.” They also have a culture of effort, they like effort, and they have a great respect for hierarchy.

Steven Gerrard is a brilliant example of this culture of effort.

He was a natural-born leader as well, albeit it was probably not that obvious the first time I saw him – as I relate in the book.


TSF: What job would you love to have a crack at? Is Real Madrid the pinnacle of a manager’s career, like it may be for a player, or would you prefer something away from the pitch? Head of Uefa or Fifa or the French federation?

GH: If I had the physical ability to do it, I would have liked to manage Bayern Munich or Barcelona.

As for the French federation, I know there have been rumours but it’s not on my agenda.


TSF: Something that we ask all our guests to do because we know it’s almost impossible. Can you name the five greatest players of all time?

GH: First, Pele, even if I saw him only on TV. He was above everyone else.

And then I would say Michel Platini, Lionel Messi, Johan Cruyff, Cristiano Ronaldo. And Zinedine Zidane. And Diego Maradona. And Bobby Charlton. And Thierry Henry.

This is world-class level, top of the top, la creme de la creme. But you’re right. That makes more than five!

If you ask me the best British players I’ve seen in my time, I would say David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Alan Shearer – an outstanding striker.


Next Slide: The interview continues


TSF: And finally. The majority of people believe that Liverpool’s recruitment strategy is fundamentally flawed. What do you think is causing Liverpool’s current problems? Do you think that Jurgen Klopp is the right man in the right place?

GH: The future will tell but I trust Jurgen to do well.

I know him, I think his passion will fit in well with the passion of the fans of Anfield Road.

He’s still a young, energetic coach. He knows what he wants, he’s got not only a vision but also a good philosophy. I think he’ll be loved by the players and the fans.

Regarding Liverpool’s recruitment strategy, I would say that their main mistake is that they signed too many players. You need to have cohesion in your team, to keep the players.

They lost Luis Suarez and brought in too many strikers – they took Mario Balotelli, they took Rickie Lambert.

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I liked Brendan Rodgers because he made his team play very well. And some players improved with him.

Unfortunately, Liverpool had too many injuries and they didn’t win a trophy.

They had an opportunity in the semi-finals of the FA Cup last season, they could have won against Aston Villa. But once again, you need to have luck.

When you think back to the season before, they were doing so well. And then Steven Gerrard slipped, probably depriving his team of the title.

You know, Liverpool’s results are the results I always look for.

And the title of my book says it all: “Je Ne Marcherai Jamais Seul” … “I’ll Never Walk Alone”.


houllier book

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About the author: The Secret Footballer


I’ve seen everything there is to see in football, and a lot more outside of it. My anonymity let’s me tell you how it is, from inside the game without the shackles of pre-conception or fan bias.

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