By Ed Graham
From Issue 60, Spring 2003
Given the recent sorry run of results, it is inevitable that all kinds of speculation will take place as to the Manager’s position. It is also inevitable that given Gerard Houllier’s medical history, his health will become part of that speculation, what impact it may have on his ability to do the job and whether he should continue to put himself under the considerable stress involved in being the manager of Liverpool Football Club.
This kind of speculation is in poor taste and is very unfair on Gerard. Unfortunately, no-one ever said life had to be fair. I’m sorry, almost ashamed to say this and hope that I am proved wrong, but I believe that Gerard Houllier has not sufficiently recovered from his illness and his capacity for the job, namely his judgement, has been impaired since he returned to work full-time.
Before I start to try and justify myself I should make clear my prejudices when it comes to Gerard. He has transformed the team, brought us real success and to within touching distance of the league title. However I’ve been convinced that for the past 18 months at least, the style of play was inhibiting the team rather than assisting it. At the start of this season I was sceptical of the ability of the team to achieve the widely touted aim of switching from a defensive style of play to a more attacking one.
It can be done. All managers ‘tighten up at the back’ when taking over a team in difficulty. Arsene Wenger did it – although when he took over at Arsenal he already had an experienced back four in place. Now Arsenal play the kind of football we would all love to watch.
But with Liverpool it’s been a bit more fundamental. It’s not just the formation or players, it’s the team psyche, almost a club psyche, the bunker mentality, seeing virtue in holding on to narrow leads and frustrating (often inferior) opponents. Its not that easy to then send out the players with different instructions to play with a bit more freedom. It’s like he’s spent three years building a Land Rover and then decided to try and turn it into a Ferrari.
Gerard’s behaviour this season has made what would have been a difficult task into an apparently impossible one. None of the points I will raise below alone make out the case that Gerard’s health is affecting his ability to do the job, but cumulatively they are persuasive. All of them have other explanations which have nothing to do with Gerard’s health. Indeed, many of my observation are constantly levelled at managers with no health problems at all, and even if Gerard’s health is poor, that’s still a long way from saying it necessarily causes the team’s poor form.
Our manager has suffered a lot. His illness, the trauma of the ‘episode’ he experienced at the Leeds game, the operation and the demands of rehabilitation. We have always been told that he did not suffer a heart attack, in fact, reviewing the press releases at the time, the Club was at pains to stress specifically that he had not suffered a heart attack, that his heart was and would continue to be fine.
We have to accept this, unless you’re the kind of conspiracy theorist who takes any denial of anything to be conclusive proof of its existence. In a heart attack the non supply of blood and oxygen is sudden and can cause permanent damage to the heart. Parts of the brain can be damaged due to being starved of oxygen.
What he did suffer is an Aortic dissection. This is a leakage in the aorta, the main artery leaving the heart, causing insufficient blood, and therefore oxygen to reach the vital organs, which includes the brain.
In my job I’ve advised and helped a number of men of a similar age to Gerard who have suffered heart attacks, and they have all experienced poor concentration and a loss of memory. Nothing like amnesia, but they cannot remember things they certainly knew in the past. Of course other men, for example politicians like Michael Heseltine, can carry on stressful careers after a heart attack.
I’m not a Doctor never mind a heart expert, but it has to be at least possible that albeit more gently and over a period of time culminating in the episode at the Leeds match, insufficient blood was being pumped through the aorta to the brain, starving it of oxygen. If so, then it is equally possible that this has caused some damage to the brain and that his memory and concentration have been affected and as a result his judgement has been impaired.
I know it’s a lot of ifs buts and maybes, but I believe it would be foolish to dismiss what I’m saying out of hand. I’ll move on to what I believe to be some objectively discernible indicators of a lack of sound judgement, which can be caused by poor concentration and memory, namely transfers, team selection and dealing with the press.
Firstly, transfers. I’ll try and stick to the glaringly obvious. I cannot judge players I’ve never seen play, so I’ll stick to Abel Xavier, El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou. Personally I’ve been more impressed by Diao than any of the others. It’s really too early to judge any of them except Xavier, but the fact remains that other talented players have left to accommodate them.
Steven Wright left as Xavier was getting a game before him, hands up anyone who thinks Xavier is a better player? Anyone? Two forwards left last season – Fowler and Litmanen. Is Diouf better than either of these?
Second Selection. Traore is a better left back than Riise or Carragher. How many people thought that? I think I’m right in saying that against WBA this season we saw Traore at left back and Xavier at right back – you could see Henchoz and Hyypia were pulled all over the place covering their mistakes. We got away with it that day but not since. Neither of these two are competent fullbacks and undermined the centre backs. I suppose it can be argued that Traore has got potential, but surely it’s ability and form that should dictate the team. His continued selection smacked of stubbornness on the part of the manager.
Smicer. I should not have to say anything, but for anyone still in doubt, how many games (and proportionally he has started more games when fit than Fowler and Litmanen combined) has he actually made a difference in? For someone who often plays in ‘the hole’ or is given a licence to roam his goal scoring and goal creation record is abysmal. In my opinion, if Litmanen had been given half the opportunities Smicer has had we would be Champions by now. Out of the current squad either Gerrard or Murphy would create and score more in Smicer’s position.
Heskey – he famously once played 28 games in a row up from without scoring, whist Fowler and Litmanen sat on the bench. But now, after a goal in the World Cup and scoring a crucial goal in one of our opening games he is shoved out wide or not played! He is then publicly criticised for not scoring! (see below)
Dudek/Kirkland – please do not ask me what the farce over who played against Ipswich was all about but it was utterly baffling and Houllier attracted unnecessary attention to the club and made a fool of himself in the process.
In general, since his return Houllier has tinkered with the team far too much, and made baffling substitutions. Squad rotation is fine when the team is on top and performing well, but if you’ve got the best back five in the country, which I believe we did have you don’t mess with it unless you have to. You don’t drop strikers who are on fire (Baros) you don’t break up the lynch-pin of the team (Hamann/Gerrard) just to give one of your new signings (Diao) a game.
I said at the beginning, there are other explanations for all of the above other than his health, which may or may not be more persuasive depending upon your point of view. However the one area in which I believe my argument is strongest is what I will call “Public Pronouncements”.
I believe the heart problems and trauma of the operation episode and rehabilitation for a man in his health and age, have affected his concentration, memory and consequently his judgement. It is in dealings with the press which are often by necessity unpredictable encounters when emotions are often running high, that any poor judgement is likely to be magnified or exposed.
Gerard has become increasingly fond of the sound of his own voice, and of the maxim that ‘any publicity is good publicity’. Before his illness, his pronouncements were generally reserved for standard football fare, or the state of English football in general, occasionally for players he wanted to see the back of.
Now however, he is never out of the news, regularly making it into the sports news headlines. Does anyone remember the classics – 10 games from greatness, we will beat Basle, the public criticism of Steven Gerrard, the implied criticism of his staff and self glorification over Milan Baros. During our recent bad run, stating that we’d turned the corner – after two draws!
I write the day after the first Sheffield Utd game and because it’s topical (yes indeedy – ed) I will use this as an example. Before the match Houllier publicly stated it was about time Emile Heskey scored some goals – for the fans. Not only has Gerard not been picking him or playing him in midfield – he then did not pick him for the match in question. How is Heskey supposed to score if he is not on the pitch?
After the match he moaned about the physical approach of Sheff Utd, and told the press to ask players for more details! Managers usually try to keep the press away from their players, especially on controversial issues, not give an open invitation to get juicy quotes.
Even if his complaints were justified, it just sounds like sour grapes, and even hypocritical given that in some of our preceding matches (Newcastle) he has clearly sent the team out with instructed to get stuck in, resulting in red and yellow cards. Worst still, we’ve still got to play them in the second leg, any prizes for guessing what will be pinned up on the Sheffield Utd dressing room wall at Anfield? Someone at the club needs to address the issue of dealing with the press before we become a laughing stock.
This all smacks of extremely poor judgement. Given the sensitivity of this issue I’m reluctant to make analogies to illustrate my point, but it has to be said that many public figures once renowned for their judgement and wit eventually start to ‘lose it’ whist still in the public eye, due to either ill health or the ageing process. Their increasingly bizarre public statements are often the most obvious and discernible indication of them losing their powers. This is what I believe is happening to Gerard.
It could still be possible for Gerard take us to greater things, but he needs to start following some of his own advice. He quite rightly often sees a player’s poor form from a holistic viewpoint, i.e. that factors off the pitch may be affecting performance (Murphy, Fowler, Gerard, Baros), and these need to be faced up to and addressed before improvement can follow.
If Gerard does this he can continue to be a great manager. But he does need to realise his limitations. Gerard needs to admit his past and present mistakes with players and tactics. It really frightens me to think he still believes Smicer contributes to games and that defending one nil leads at home to relegation fodder is good tactics.
Gerard does not know his best team but sticks with players everyone else can see are inadequate. I always thought it was impossible for a person to be both obstinately stubborn and indecisive at the same time, but since his illness Gerard has managed to achieve this. I only hope that the club are aware that Gerard’s health could be affecting his performance as manager, and are willing to take the action needed to remedy this. I’m not calling for him to be sacked, but he needs to limit his dealing with the press, admit his past mistakes and start listening to advice. If not then things could get a lot worse before they get better.