For Phil Thompson, the occasion seemed to demand Gerard Houllier’s return. “Gerard has always known when the time was right for him to come back and tonight was that night,” said the Liverpool assistant manager of the Frenchman’s unexpected reappearance in the Anfield dugout after a little over five months. It was 19 March 2002 and ‘that night’ was a must-win Champions League game against AS Roma.
Of course, they won. But more than that, the 2-0 result inscribed ‘Ged’ Houllier in Liverpool’s history in a significant way. It seems baffling to say that about a manager who won five trophies and transformed a stagnating club into title contenders – surely he was already a hero – but there was one point of contact yet unmade between Houllier and the club’s mythos.
Two decades on, and eighteen months since the football world sadly lost Houllier, the significance of that game against Roma in the Frenchman’s personal journey is clearer than ever. It was here that Houllier finally got his ‘famous European night at Anfield’.
As he exited the familiar tunnel, Houllier – debonair, Camus-like, clad in a black jacket – was embraced by Roma manager Fabio Capello. Greeting him with a genial, close-mouthed smile, the Italian warmly clasped Houllier’s hand and patted him on the back before the Liverpool manager took his place in the familiar dugout.
It felt surreal that he was even there. Five months earlier, in October 2001, Houllier had given an abortive half-time team talk during a game against Leeds United before being taken to hospital with chest pains. The subsequent surgery lasted eleven hours.
When Houllier did make his surprise reappearance against Roma, he was serenaded by the crowd, roused by the unexpected fillip of their returning manager. The report in The Scotsman connected, with a feeling of destiny, the presence of the manager with Liverpool’s trophy-winning form, noting that “though the Frenchman looked gaunt his presence lifted the Kop to fever pitch and reinvigorated his players with the sense of purpose which he had instilled in them on route to last season’s UEFA Cup success.”
In subsequent years, Rafa Benitez and Jurgen Klopp arguably overcame greater odds on their respective European nights. But the symmetry of a raucous home crowd, a place in the next round to play for, and a galvanised Liverpool that marked those games against Chelsea and Olympiacos, Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona is unmistakable. Benitez and Klopp belong to the modern revival of European Anfield nights kick-started by Houllier against Roma.
It was the revival of a dormant tradition. Just how dormant, in fact, was inadvertently revealed by the game to which Thompson compared the Roma encounter: “This was a special atmosphere only Anfield can produce. This was Saint-Etienne part two and the fans cheered every tackle and it’s one of the greatest nights in this football club’s history.”
That was a full twenty-five years earlier. It is worth emphasising just how long the years of isolation had actually been for Liverpool – the 2001-02 season was the first time the club had played in Europe’s flagship competition in seventeen years, their debut in the revamped Champions League.
Against Roma, the return of Houllier perfectly symbolised the recaptured sense of belonging in Liverpool’s own return to the business end of European competition. “Huddled in between his assistant Phil Thompson and the jack-in-a-box Sammy Lee,” wrote Dominic Fifield in a column for The Guardian, “it was as if he had never been away.”
The size of the task seemed enormous. To advance to the knockout stage, Liverpool would have to win by at least two goals – as many as they had managed in the previous five games of the second group stage of the Champions League, in which they were winless. Roma were the reigning Serie A champions, having lost just once in the league and once in Europe that season.
Liverpool, though, had beaten Roma before. The previous season, as part of a successful UEFA Cup campaign, Houllier masterminded a fantastic display in Rome, beating the eventual Serie A champions 2-0. In Jonathan Wilson and Scott Murray’s book The Anatomy of Liverpool, Liverpool’s showing at the Stadio Olimpico was described as “Houllierisme in excelsis.” The manager’s handed loomed large over the side.
Two years later, in the famous game against Olympiacos, Benitez was forced to change his approach on the fly – starting cautiously and swinging for the fences when they fell behind – resulting in a high-energy denouement capped by Steven Gerrard’s famous late strike. Against Roma, however, the objective was clear from the beginning – win by two or go home.
As far as narratives go, it is simple and compelling. So compelling that, for the troops buoyed by the reappearance of their general, it was no less than a battle plan against a besieged enemy. Somehow, Roma were forced into the narrative as their fall guys yet again.
This time, however, Liverpool could not wait for the goals to come and instead went for broke to secure the win they needed. “On a tumultuous night, and with Owen injured, Liverpool threw three up front: Heskey, Litmanen and Smicer,” wrote Wilson and Murray. “All three played with verve and panache, as Litmanen and then Heskey scored the goals to seal a famous victory.”
The first of those came after just seven minutes. Collecting the ball on the left flank from a Vladimir Smicer dispossession, Jamie Carragher spun around in search of a passing option. He found Gerrard sideways, just ahead of the halfway line, who took a touch and craftily took two approaching Roma pressers out of the game with a zippy backheel back to Carragher.
Carragher then hit it first time, bisecting two more white-shirted opponents – that’s four opponents rendered traffic cones, if you’re keeping count – and finding Smicer again, who arrested the ball into the stride of the onrushing John Arne Riise. The Norwegian shifted it back to Smicer just in time to avoid a despairing lunge by Aldair.
Suddenly finding himself in a pocket of space, Smicer lashed a shot into the bottom corner that was smartly saved by Francesco Antonioli. The whole move was swift and scintillating, amalgamating rat-a-tat one-touch play with the incision of direct, vertical passes. Smicer’s saucer-eyed disbelief, head in hands, perfectly captured the incredulity of the moment: how did that not go in?
In truth, a shot from twenty-five yards out was always going to be taken more in hope than expectation, especially with Antonioli cutting down the angle as well as he did, positioned just behind the six-yard line. But it was an early sign of Liverpool’s confidence – shock that they did not force the improbable into existence.
The resulting corner was dropped by Riise into the scrum clustered around the six-yard line. A brief game of pinball followed, and then the ball bobbled to Danny Murphy just inside the box, who had his legs taken out from behind by Marcos Assuncao.
Jari Litmanen elegantly stroked away the penalty awarded for the foul and ran off, fists pumping, pursued by delighted teammates, with Houllier motioning on the touchline, eyebrows raised, eyes wide, his expression earnest and nervous. Liverpool were halfway there.
The Finnish attacking midfielder was an inspired piece of business. Arriving from Barcelona in January 2001, he brought a touch of class to a Liverpool side more celebrated for their pragmatism than their flair but his symbolic value was of almost equal weight.
Despite an eighteen-month spell marked by injury and a curious lack of trust, Litmanen embodied an understated aspect of Houllier’s approach to squad building, at least in the early years – .a focus on variety for a well-rounded attack.
The summer of 1999 is rightly remembered as Houllier’s great purge – among its victims, Paul Ince, Rob Jones, and David James with Steve McManaman also leaving the club, a quartet with 965 Liverpool appearances between them – a wholesale clear out of the dressing room of the nineties. In one fell swoop, a big bang at the end of the millennium, Houllier had broken with the past, slashing and burning the vestiges of the Spice Boys era for a modern, continental style to take root.
Much less heralded, however, is the importance of the summer of 2000 in shaping the new Liverpool. The expulsion of ’99 was necessary to transform a rudderless club, but a delicate touch was required in 2000 and again in 2001 – consolidation and augmentation rather than restructuring.
In 2000, for instance, Markus Babbel, Christian Ziege, and Gregory Vignal seamlessly slotted in to provide fullback depth as the nineties exodus continued. The midfield was bolstered by the arrival of Nick Barmby and the unexpected coup that was Gary McAllister, a free transfer who added creativity and experience to the engine room.
Eventually, consolidation degenerated into stagnation but for a while after 1999, Houllier’s transfer business prompted measured steps forward – evolution rather than revolution. It is vital to stress this point. In 1997, the year before Houllier’s arrival, Liverpool, keen to shed their reputation of fragility, had bet the farm on Ince, switching from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2.
This attempt to change their approach backfired and one wonders if Houllier paid heed to the wreckage. Despite the justified criticisms of his style of play – the one-dimensionality of the breakaway-and-sucker-punch style, the lack of a string-puller in midfield, the lack of width – Houllier’s approach to recruitment, for a while, assembled a side with depth and variety in attack and once his pieces were in place, there were no gambles on a single player, only fine-tuning.
In addition to considering their own merits, a number of Houllier’s early transfers must be evaluated keeping in mind Liverpool’s recent experience in flipping the script with Ince. Each player brought something different to the table but multiple players could also do the same thing.
For instance, all of Litmanen, Emile Heskey, Michael Owen, and initially Robbie Fowler could score goals but each posed a different kind of threat. Similarly, Gerrard, McAllister, and Murphy performed different duties in midfield but all were a threat from dead ball situations, as was Riise.
The consistency of Liverpool’s set piece threat, in fact, was demonstrated several times against Roma. Not long after Liverpool took the lead, the free-kick conspirators Riise and Gerrard were again called into action after Heskey was hauled to the floor by Walter Samuel.
The left-back rolled the ball to Gerrard who struck it so viciously – fierce, fast, and swerving –that Antonioli almost chested it away in a failed attempt to gather the free kick. Early signs pointed to a long night for the Italians.
While Houllier’s Liverpool were a more versatile attacking prospect than they are sometimes given credit for, their physical dominance and defensive solidity were undoubtedly their bread and butter. Some of their best moves against Roma were the result of pressure rather than creativity, aggression rather than craft. Roma were not so much outclassed as outpaced and outmuscled, Liverpool forcing numerous missed headers, bungled interceptions, and sloppiness in possession from their opponents.
With Riise a constant threat on the left and drifting infield, Smicer fluently stitching together a lot of the build-up play, and Heskey unstoppable in the air, Liverpool seemed relentless. In their most fruitful raids, they attacked with four; shots exquisitely teed up by Litmanen and Smicer were blazed over a couple of times by Riise, the beneficiary of balls won by Heskey who himself headed over a Carragher cross.
At times, Roma were seemingly crushed by the occasion itself. Already that season, Liverpool had progressed through a must-win situation in the first group stage, beating Borussia Dortmund 2-0 at Anfield in the final game.
It was, the BBC match report noted, an “authoritative performance”, an early Smicer goal stoking an already noisy atmosphere before Stephen Wright headed in a free kick late on to seal the deal.
Against Roma, Liverpool followed a eerily similar template, as though the cosmic synergy of having to repeat progression from a group stage with a win in the final game was siphoned into an encore on the pitch.
The match programme cover was emblazoned with a bellowing Jerzy Dudek, hands by his side, knees brought close together, body contorted in subservience to an animated countenance, as though all his energies were centred in his flexing vocal cords at that moment.
It was emblematic of the ferocity that Roma were up against and they couldn’t cope, Michael Walker noting in The Guardian that “at an early stage their goalkeeper Francesco Antonioli looked a terrified character when compared with Jerzy Dudek at the other end.”
But no gale blows forever and especially not when, as it must be repeated, the opposition was as formidable as the Italian champions. Marco Delvecchio and Vincenzo Montella replaced Gabriel Batistuta and Lima after the break and little by little, pass by pass, Roma clawed their way back into the game in the second half.
The highlight was a beautiful ten-pass move beginning inside their own half, the white shirts deftly manoeuvring the ball from the flank to the middle, back to the flank, then back to the middle again, their exchanges intensifying to a one-touch flurry as they approached the Liverpool goal. The finishing touch was applied by Francesco Totti, coming agonisingly close from Assuncao’s centre.
Liverpool couldn’t lay a glove on Roma during this entire move. The visitors were sublime, flawlessly denying the home side the ball and chiselling out a brilliant chance from their control of the midfield with the finesse of a master sculptor. They were, truthfully, much better to watch than Liverpool when they finally got going. It was a reminder of the quality the Reds were up against.
There was a similarly impressive move after Liverpool doubled their lead. Samuel set things in motion with a lob up to Vincent Candela, resulting in some technically brilliant and blindingly fast interplay with Totti which would surely have been converted by Montella had Sami Hyypia not pulled off an improbable block.
But at 1-0, Liverpool’s lead was too slender to put Anfield at ease and Roma, needing only a draw, seemed close to an equaliser. With a little more than an hour gone, the vital second goal arrived in emphatic fashion courtesy of Heskey.
Receiving a pass from the overlapping Carragher on the left, Litmanen, with delectable Cruyffian deftness, attempted to evade Damiano Tomassi and was promptly grabbed. The Italian received a yellow card for his obstruction and Murphy lined up to take the free kick.
This was a last-minute winner that did not come in the last minute. That the crowd erupted in relief as much as joy and the manager permitted himself a wan smile betrayed how nervy it was getting. Murphy slung the ball into the penalty area and Heskey, already airborne before his marker Aldair got his feet off the ground, scored the perfect headed goal – the leap, the hang time, and the thunderous connection. There is no word to describe it other than glorious.
By the end, the chorus of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was full-throated and exultant. The final whistle rang out as Gerrard rolled a free kick out to Murphy and Liverpool were through. Houllier was embraced by Thompson and as he went through the ritual handshakes, one could glimpse the faintest, flickering grin upon his countenance – unmistakably, an echo of the one that had beamed out at the Stadio Olimpico the previous year.
At the end of the match, the stadium announcer George Sephton urged the crowd to never forget what they had just witnessed. It was an appeal that perfectly captured the overflowing emotion of the night – and those who experienced it were clearly affected by the outpouring.
Houllier’s opposite number, for instance, was completely hit for six. “I have never seen Liverpool play like this,” said Capello after the game. He was not alone; Walker wrote that “Liverpool may have won only one group game but on this evidence they have no reason to fear anyone.”
Heroism in sport is achieved in defiance of all reason. There’s a reason Houllier’s night is Roma at Anfield, even though Liverpool were dumped out in the next round of the Champions League and finished the season trophyless.
It was not only a result achieved in contravention of the evidence of Liverpool’s European form thus far and the struggles in the league during the winter. It was also a result that strongly suggested its repetition in the near future despite being birthed in extraordinary, unrepeatable circumstances.
The implosion that followed against Bayer Leverkusen, its sense of self-inflicted disaster underlined by his ill-fated ‘ten games from greatness’ prophecy, strangely takes very little gloss off Houllier’s triumphant return. As Walker says, “such was the drama and emotion here last night that it almost had the feel of a beautiful afterthought” because all that mattered was that Houllier was back.
Even when it comes to ‘ten games from greatness’, we are more forgiving because who, least of all Houllier and Thompson, couldn’t be forgiven for believing after a game like this?
Lastly, with respect to the sense of destiny about Roma, there is a much more sober tactical story to tell here, alongside the emotional one. Liverpool triumphed despite their best forward, Owen, being injured as they remodelled their attack to play with three, with each offering a different kind of threat. Not only were Liverpool more attacking, they had greater numbers.
That Liverpool won without Owen is, of course, a sign of their fighting spirit and ability to deliver against good opposition when there was something at stake. But it is also a sign of Houllier’s squad-building efforts, that he had assembled a squad with the depth to sufficiently cover for the absence of their best striker and the flexibility to adjust their attacking threat to the situation. There is, in other words, no destiny but merely the culmination of hard work and good recruitment.
Houllier would have been 75 years old on 3 September 2022. His apotheosis at a time of ill health, a night that was in so many ways made possible by him, ironically underlined his self-effacing nature at a time of great triumph. His arrival already low-key, his assistant Thompson had to push him forward to bathe in the crowd’s appreciation when the match was over.
By: Sushain Ghosh / @sushainghosh
Featured Image: @Juanffrann / Clive Brunskill – Getty Images