Gérard Houllier, who has died aged 73 after a heart operation, was one of the first foreign football managers to make an impact in England, chiefly through six years in charge at Liverpool from 1998 to 2004, a period in which the club won the Uefa Cup, an FA Cup and two League Cups.
Studious, affable, calm and thoughtful, like his fellow Frenchman and friend Arsène Wenger, Houllier was a workaholic who was responsible for introducing new ideas and sensibilities into top flight English football, particularly in terms of training regimes and diet. But he was also an anglophile and, appreciative of the traditional fast-paced strengths of the game in his adoptive country, was careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
After a long apprenticeship as a manager in the lower reaches of French football, Houllier had come to prominence with Paris Saint-Germain, where he won the French championship in 1985-86, and then with the French national side during a decade from 1988 to 1997 in which he held various posts, including as assistant manager and manager of the full side but also as coach to the Under 18 and U-20 teams, helping to lay the foundations for France’s landmark victory in the World Cup finals of 1998, at which he was an assistant to the manager Aimé Jacquet.
From France he moved to Liverpool and then eventually switched back to his homeland, where he took Lyon to the French championship twice. After that he once again made for England, to manage Aston Villa, before ill health forced him out in 2011.
Houllier was born in Thérouanne, in the Pas de Calais region of northern France, one of three sons of Francis, a butcher, and his wife, Gisèle. After leaving the Lycée Albert-Châtelet at St Pol sur Ternoise, he studied English at Lille University and then became a schoolteacher before spending a year, in 1969, as a language assistant in Liverpool, working at Alsop high school in Walton. There he developed an affection for the city, did postgraduate research into social deprivation in Toxteth, played as a centre-forward for the school’s old boys’ side, and saw his first Liverpool match at Anfield, cementing an already burgeoning love affair with the club.
Back in France he continued to play football at a modest level while teaching in various primary and secondary schools. Then, in 1973, aged 26, he made a breakthrough when he was appointed full-time player-coach with Le Touquet. The club were several notches below the top level of French football, but the job gave him a profile and he was able to move on to better things with Noeux-les-Mines as head coach in 1976, rising to be manager and winning promotion from the third to second division in a six-year spell before becoming manager of top flight Lens in 1982.
He steered Lens to fourth place in his first season, helping them to qualify for the Uefa Cup, and made such an impression there that Paris Saint-Germain appointed him as their manager in 1985. PSG were not then the powerful winning force they are today, and when Houllier took them to their first ever French league title in 1985-86, his reputation rose even more dramatically.
In 1988 he became technical director of France as well as assistant to the national team coach Michel Platini. After four years in those roles he succeeded Platini as manager in 1992, but resigned late the next year after 12 matches in charge, having unexpectedly failed to get his team though qualifying into the 1994 World Cup finals.
He remained within the France camp, however, and was appointed coach first to the U-18s (1994-96) and then to the U-20s (1996-97), nurturing some of the players, including Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, who went on to feature in France’s first World Cup-winning side in 1998. During the 1998 finals Houllier was a key assistant to his successor as manager, Jacquet, and was awarded a special medal for the work that led up to a 3-0 victory over Brazil in the final.
Immediately afterwards Houllier joined Liverpool to become joint manager with Roy Evans, who had held the post on his own since 1994 but was felt to be in need of some support. It was an awkward arrangement, and when Evans resigned shortly afterwards, Houllier was left in sole charge. He was the first foreigner to manage Liverpool, and although in the previous couple of years Wenger and Ruud Gullit had made favourable impressions in charge at Arsenal and Chelsea respectively, there was still a degree of scepticism about importing coaches from abroad to manage English clubs.
Houllier quickly put in train a rebuilding programme at Anfield, shipping out a number of English players, including Paul Ince and David James, in favour of replacements from mainland Europe such as Sami Hyypiä and Dietmar Hamann. He also made sure the club’s training facilities at Melwood were revamped, placed restrictions on the alcoholic intake of players, and cut fatty foods from the club’s canteen.
The rewards came fairly quickly: in the 2000–01 season, with Michael Owen and Emile Heskey to the fore, Liverpool finished third in the Premier League and won a treble of the Uefa Cup (5-4 against Alavés), FA Cup (2-1 versus Arsenal) and League Cup (5–4 on penalties against Birmingham) – a unique configuration of victories.
Early in the next season, however, Houllier – who often worked 16-hour days and claimed to need only three hours’ sleep – collapsed during a match against Leeds and was rushed to hospital for an 11-hour emergency heart operation. Aged just 54, he had to take five months out of the game while a caretaker manager, Phil Thompson, steadied the ship. He returned in time to see his team finish second in the league, which was the club’s best finish in the Premier League era until Liverpool finally won the 2019-20 title under Jürgen Klopp. However, the runners-up spot was arguably Houllier’s high water mark, and thereafter Liverpool struggled to maintain momentum under his leadership.
Fifth place in the league and a 2-0 League Cup final win against Manchester United in 2002-03 – plus being made an OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list and appointed to the Légion d’honneur in France – failed to stem growing criticism among fans over the ineffectiveness of many of his big name foreign signings, allied to a rotation system that left high-profile players grumbling on the bench. By May 2004 he had departed “by mutual consent”, to be replaced by Rafael Benítez.
A year later Houllier was appointed manager at Lyon, who were flying high on the back of four consecutive Ligue 1 titles. He added two more to that run in 2005–06 and 2006–07, but could not deliver the success in the Champions League that the club’s owners had primarily appointed him for. In May 2007, physically and mentally worn out, he was granted a request to be released from the last season of his contract.
He returned to the less onerous duties of being a technical director with France until, in 2010, he was tempted back to England to become manager of Aston Villa in succession to Martin O’Neill. His first season in 2010-11 was a difficult one as Villa finished in a disappointing ninth place in the Premier League and failed to make an impression in the cup competitions. Towards the end of the league campaign he began to suffer from chest pains and on medical advice stepped down from the job in July 2011, marking a full retirement from the stresses of frontline football management.
In 2012 he became global sports director at the Austrian club Salzburg and later was head of Fifa’s technical study group during the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil. In 2016 he was appointed as an adviser to Lyon on general footballing matters.
He is survived by his wife, Isabelle, and their two sons.
• Gérard Houllier, football manager, born 3 September 1947; died 14 December 2020