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
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
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
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.