This morning came with the tragic news of Gerard Houllier’s untimely death.
Words: Andrew Maddox | @MaddoxJourno
Former Aston Villa manager Gerard Houllier has tragically passed away aged 73.
The Frenchman had the unenviable task of following up Martin O’Neill in the Villa Park dugout in 2010 and managed to guide the club to ninth in the Premier League, a feat not matched by any manager since. Houllier’s time at the club was blighted by a recurring heart issue, robbing him of a potential second season at Villa.
Villa left it late to appoint Houllier following the controversial departure of O’Neill, with Houllier joining the club on 8 September. Until then, Kevin MacDonald had been in caretaker charge and oversaw a mixed start to the season. The Frenchman took charge of his first game at Villa Park two weeks later, a 3-1 win over Blackburn Rovers in the League Cup. Due to commitments with the French Football Federation, he didn’t actually sign his contract until two days after his first game.
Immediately after taking charge, Houllier’s side was hit with an injury crisis. A string of first team injuries forced Houllier to make his first signing in November, this being the 37-year-old Robert Pires. Despite being just an emergency backup, with the midfielder only making nine appearances in claret and blue, the signing generated hype around the club for the first time that season.
On the pitch, Houllier’s reign got off to a difficult start. Villa managed just two wins in his first ten Premier League games, beating Wolves and Blackpool. However, the only lost three of those games suggesting that the team still had a competitive edge about them. Sadly, as time went on and the injuries piled up, Villa’s form worsened. The club picked up just one win between the victory against Blackpool in early November and a surprise win against Manchester City in late January, with the club dropping into the relegation zone following a defeat to Sunderland on 5 January.
Houllier immediately got to work in January to reinforce the squad, with his first signing being Tottenham right-back and future Premier League winner Kyle Walker. The Sheffield native had recently finished a loan spell with Championship side Queens Park Rangers and slotted straight into the Villa team. He proved to be an effective and popular presence in the team, and he was quickly promoted to the Tottenham first team before Villa could bring him back for the 2011/12 season.
However, Houllier’s third signing was less successful. The Frenchman opted to raid his former club Lyon for defensive midfielder Jean Makoun following an impressive 2010 World Cup for Cameroon. He started well but annoyed his new manager by getting a straight red card against Blackpool. Makoun would only make eight appearances by the end of the season following his poor form and made just one appearance after Houllier left.
The rest of the transfer window saw one brilliant and one bizarre signing. Villa broke their transfer record by spending £18 million on Sunderland striker Darren Bent. While the England international didn’t get as many goals as some may have wanted in a Villa shirt, he served his purpose. His nine goals under Houllier were enough to not just pull Villa away from relegation but catapult the club back up to ninth. The final signing of the season was the pointless arrival of Michael Bradley on loan. The American made just three appearances and most Villa fans forgot he even made one.
Villa dropping into the bottom three sparked Houllier into life. Despite fans chanting “you’re getting sacked in the morning”, Houllier took the club by the scruff of the neck and inspired a resurgence. Villa went on to win five and draw three of their next nine games, with the only defeat coming to eventual league winners Manchester United. The club had climbed back up to 12th in the table and things were looking up.
However, things began to derail again in March following an FA Cup fifth round exit to Manchester City. Houllier chose to rest most of the first team for the match and Villa fell to a 3-0 defeat. Houllier’s decision to sacrifice the game was criticised by many, especially after cup disappointment earlier in the season with a League Cup quarter final defeat to Birmingham City. The cup exit coincided with a bust-up between centre backs Richard Dunne and James Collins with assistant manager Gary McAllister, who was already unpopular among the players.
The league form began to dip alongside this, with the fans unveiling a banner saying “had enough, Houllier out” before a defeat to Wolves in March. The loss was Wolves’ first victory over Villa in 31 years and the pressure was once again beginning to mount on Houllier. Fans again chanted “you don’t know what you’re doing” towards Houllier and booed the team off after the defeat. However, Houllier would shortly leave the Villa Park dugout and the management game in cruel circumstances.
On 20 April 2011, Houllier was admitted to hospital following the second heart issue of his career. Fate again claimed his Villa career after his spell at Liverpool was cut short due to the same issue seven years earlier. The team were sadly just picking up form again, having won consecutive games against Newcastle and West Ham. First team duties fell to McAllister, but the form enjoyed under the leadership of him and captain Stiliyan Petrov started under Houllier.
Villa only lost once in the five games Houllier missed and they overcame Arsenal and Liverpool to finish comfortably in midtable. Houllier recovered from his latest illness, but he had the final two years of his contract paid up following advice from his doctor.
Even with his difficult spell at Villa, facing injury crises and fan pressure, he was renowned for his warmth and kindness that defined him throughout his career. He is fondly remembered by all Villa fans to this day, with many wondering what could have been had illness not cut his stint short, and he will be dearly missed by all in football.