UPDATE: Gerard Houllier and Liverpool FC have announced a parting of ways. So long, Gerard. Thanks for the memories, we truly wish you the best for the future.
Normally, I try not to let all the usual post-football-season speculation to get to me. Experience has shown me that most of the frenzied headlines adorning the sports pages regarding transfers and managerial changes tend to be nothing more than rumours, balderdash, bullshit.
Occasionally though, during the odd times when pretty much every single news organisation picks up and spreads the same news item, I’d start thinking, “Hmm. No smoke without fire?”
The last couple of days, there has been frenzied speculation regarding the fate of Liverpool FC manager Gerard Houllier. Not just the tabloids, but even the broadsheets are saying that Houllier is about to part company with the Reds following a meeting with club chairman David Moores. Some reports suggest he could be gone by tomorrow.
Now, I admit I haven’t been happy with the team’s performance over the last 2 seasons. Ever since our Treble-Cup-winning season in 2001 followed by the success in finishing second in the Premiership (above Man Utd, even) in 2002, we have been slipping and sliding in our matches.
We may have qualified for next season’s Champions League qualifying round, but even the most optimistic of the supporters should be asking, “Will we get our Red butts kicked by Europe’s creme-de-la-creme?”
So, it’s natural to think that, yes, maybe Houllier’s time is up. Two poor seasons, inconsistent performances from all the players (including the stars), unacceptable performances from certain players for whom exorbitant transfer fees were paid – all these seem to be enough reasons to let the man go.
But Liverpool aren’t a sacking club. Amazingly, we haven’t kicked a manager out to the curb since the 1950’s when Don Welsh was sacked. Since then Liverpool managers have generally retired (Shankly, Paisley, Fagan) or resigned (Taylor, Dalglish, Souness, Evans). The big question now, is whether Houllier will resign or be “forced out” of the club he has supported since he was an English teacher in Merseyside during the 60’s?
Now, all these talk may prove to be false, and Houllier may well end up staying for another season (his current contract ends next season). Regardless, let us take a look at the supposed contenders for the Liverpool hotseat:
The hottest property in club management nowdays, O’Neill has a very good record of bringing success to whichever club he manages. He started his managerial career at then non-league Wycombe Wanderers in 1990 (after short stints at Stamford and Shepshed Charterhouse). After just 4 years, he managed to guide Wycombe into the Second Division as well as winning 2 FA Trophies and the GM Vauxhall Conference title along the way. In 1995, he was appointed manager of Norwich City but left after clashing with club chairman Robert Chase over money for team building. He then became manager of First Division side Leicester City the same year.
He made an immediate impact at the small club, guiding them into the Premiership at the first attempt via the playoffs. By the end of his first Premiership season, O’Neill earned himself cult status at Filbert Street by winning the League Cup, beating Middlesbrough, thereby earning a UEFA Cup spot as well. By now, he was in huge demand, but earned the respect of millions of football supporters worldwide by choosing to stay at the unfashionable club. Another League Cup victory followed in 2000.
Eventually, the call of destiny was too strong to deny. Everyone knew O’Neill was destined for greater things, and so the Northern Irishman moved up north in the summer of 2000 to Scotland to manage Glasgow Celtic, a club that recently was, more often than not, in the shadow of its fierce cross-town rivals Rangers. In his first season at Celtic, he won the Scottish Premier League title, a feat he would repeat in 2002 and 2004. The club has also won 2 Scottish Cups and 2 League Cups under his management. But his best achievements for the club has been in Europe. He took the Bhoys to the UEFA Cup final in 2003, only to lose to a “silver goal” to FC Porto. The following season Celtic reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup, but lost to Villareal. Nevertheless, the UEFA Cup run saw them post one of their most famous victories by beating Barcelona at Parkhead.
The Scot with the acerbic wit is a media favourite, and we have indeed missed his funny quips and one-liners after he resigned as Southampton manager midway through the recently concluded season, ostensibly to “recharge his batteries”. He started his managerial career at Premiership club Coventry City in 1996, after concluding a very successful and trophy-laden playing career. For the next four seasons, he helped the club stave off relegation – including achieving their best ever finish in the Premiership (11th) – but the club was never really challenging for honours, given the size of the club and its budget. By the end of the 2000/01 season however, the Sky Blues finally succumbed to fate and were relegated to the First Division. In Sept 2001, Strachan left the club and was soon snapped by Southampton. Once again, he found that his immediate mission was to keep the club in the Premier League, a mission that was successfully accomplished. In 2002/03, he took the club even further, finishing eighth in the league as well as reaching the FA Cup final – where they lost to Arsenal – thereby securing a UEFA Cup slot as well.
Midway through the 2003/04 season, Strachan announced that he would be taking a break at the end of the season when his contract expires. However, the announcement seemed to affect the team’s performances, and so Strachan decided to leave earlier than expected, on February 2004.
Curbishley’s loyalty to Charlton Athletic is a wonder in today’s cut-throat world of professional football. He played for them for about 3 seasons in the 80’s and returned to the club as reserve coach in 1990. His career progression was swift, yet measured. A few months on, he had become first team coach and by the summer of ’91 was appointed joint-manager, along with Steve Gritt. He was one of the youngest managers in league football, being only 33. Charlton Athletic were in chaos at the time. Short of money, sharing a ground with West Ham while their own ground at The Valley was being renovated, they nevertheless did well in the old Second Division, nearly reaching a play-off spot. Charlton finally returned to The Valley in 1992, after having to sell some of their best players in order to fund the completion of the stadium renovation.
The turning point in the club’s fortunes came when a new chairman – Richard Murray – was appointed in 1995. Murray almost immediately decided to relieve Steve Gritt from his duties but kept Curbishley as sole manager. The close chairman-manager partnership that was forged then would soon be the envy of English football clubs everywhere. Curbishley took the Addicks to the play-off semi-finals in 1996, and finally won promotion to the Premier League in 1998 after beating Sunderland in the play-offs. Although the club were relegated from the Premiership after just one season in the top-flight, they roared back in style by winning the First Division title the following season. Since their return, the club has never looked like being relegated. Curbishley’s ability to mould a group of players without any stars into a formidable, disciplined and effective unit has seen him being considered as the best young English manager in the game. Every season, his name crops up whenever a managerial vacancy appears, but he continues to remain loyal to the Addicks.
Considered by many as an articulate, charming and intelligent man with a brilliant footballing brain, Benitez has become one of the most sought after coaches in European football. Possessing a degree in Physical Education, Benitez started his coaching career at the lower rungs of Spanish football with Castilla’s youth team in 1986. He would go on to coach the Real Madrid youth team in 1989, and then coach the club’s B team in the second division in 1993 till 1995, as well as assisting Real manager Vicente Del Bosque in coaching the A team. He then took the step up into management, joining clubs such as Real Valladolid and Osasuna before making his mark with Extremadura, guiding them to promotion into the First Division in his first season in charge. He achieved the same success with Tenerife in 2001. He then joined Valencia in the summer of 2001.
Valencia under Benitez have been nothing less than spectacular. Considered to be a sleeping giant in Spanish football, Valencia have not only awoken, but have stormed their way to success domestically as well as in Europe. Benitez has guided the club to two Spanish league titles in 2002 and 2004, as well as to victory in the recently concluded UEFA Cup.
So is the gaffer leaving? Who’ll be the one replacing him? Is there a further twist in the tale for my beloved Liverpool FC? Stay tuned…..