Assistant manager, Liverpool, 1998-2004
I was co-commentating for Radio City in Valencia for a UEFA Cup game against Liverpool the first time I met Gérard Houllier.
I went down to the hotel bar for a drink and found Ronnie Moran, Tom Saunders and their wives. Gérard then came past, and Tom stood up and introduced us.
“Of course I know Phil,” Gérard said. “I’ve seen him play many times.” We chatted for about 15 minutes, which was lovely. He was a gentleman – absolutely charming.
A week later, Tottenham beat us 3-1 in the League Cup at Anfield. I’d been working again on the radio, and going on about a disconnect between Gérard and Roy Evans (below) – looking at them just sat there in the seats as this was unfolding out on the pitch.
There was no togetherness on the pitch, and I said that was echoing what was coming from the management.
The following day, my phone rang. It was Peter Robinson, the Liverpool chief executive. “Can you come to a meeting?” he said. “Don’t come to Anfield. The press are all over Anfield. Roy’s just resigned. Do you know where the chairman David Moores lives?”
I said: “Of course I do, yeah. When would you like to see me?”
Not knowing what was happening, I headed up to David Moores’ house. All of the directors were sitting around there – Rick Parry, David Moores, Tom Saunders. It was like a funeral parlour.
“Phil, we’ve had a chat,” Peter Robinson said. “Roy’s resigned. We’ve spoken about what we need, and we need some discipline brought back into the club.
“We need somebody who can stand up to the players and be strong. Somebody who’s got Liverpool’s DNA in them.
“Tom Saunders said: ‘You have to bring Phil Thompson back.’ We would like you to be assistant manager to Gérard Houllier.”
"He knew so much, and about how he should communicate it"
My mind cast back to my first meeting with Gérard.
I said: “That’s great. You know my love for the club and I’d be delighted, but how does Gérard feel? That’s the most important thing. I don’t want to be thrown together with Gérard if he’s not comfortable with me coming in.”
They said they’d chatted, and he was more than happy to have me. It was a big call from them, with us not really knowing each other.
I was a disciple of Ronnie Moran (below, left). Very abrasive. Very demanding of my team, my squad.
Gérard was a little bit calmer. It was a bit bad cop, good cop, but I think that’s what the directors and club needed – to change direction, not just tactically, but passionately and with discipline. It needed a big culture shock.
Straight away, I went with Rick Parry and Peter Robinson to Gérard’s to chat about what we saw as our vision for the club. He had Sammy Lee there already, and Patrice Bergues, who was a wonderful coach – he and Sammy Lee worked very, very well together. But it was still a big decision for Gérard to take.
The changes were quite quick. From day one we had 20 rules everybody had to adhere to, and the first was no mobile phones. Gérard wanted everybody to converse with each other because that would help the togetherness; the camaraderie.
“As you come through the door, you either turn your mobile off and bring it in with you, or you leave it,” he said. “Everybody has to speak English – you’re here together as a team. You sit with other nationalities when you’re having lunch.”
"Gary McAllister and Markus Babbel were astute signings"
It was a big shock to the players, but it needed it. It became a way of life. There were a lot of players who probably disliked me immensely for a couple of years, and I didn’t mind that – Ronnie Moran had rattled everybody’s cages every day.
Gérard could see what I was bringing to the party. When Bill Shankly was manager, Bob Paisley was the bad guy. When Bob became manager, Ronnie took on that role. It seemed to work.
Gérard hadn’t played at a high level, but he knew so much about football and how to communicate it in team talks. He knew the game inside out, and that was the thing you knew within the first couple of months. My English isn’t great; he never ever got any spellings wrong. There was a wow factor.
Sometimes we would go to Anfield, sit in Peter Robinson’s office and be there until 11pm, going through the players we wanted to be brought in. We got Stéphane Henchoz at first, and I’d seen Sami Hyypia playing for Finland against Oliver Bierhoff and Germany.
We finally had our centre-backs. Didi Hamann (above), a great character, was also instrumental.
The signings in that summer of 1999 also helped to change the attitude of the local lads and how things should be done. Gérard changed diets – everything.
We were disappointed to just miss out on the Champions League on the last day of the 1999/2000 season, but with hindsight we had a very young squad and could have got really hurt. Playing in the UEFA Cup would give us a good grounding.
Markus Babbel (below) was a sensational signing. He was quite exceptional, both as a person and as a footballer. Gérard’s contacts had a lot to do with him coming in – he had his choice of so many of the big clubs in Europe, but once Gérard had spoken to you he could have you believe the club was going places.
"Gerard wanted everybody to know that they were as important as Gerrard or Owen"
Gérard also said to me: “We’ve got a chance of signing Gary McAllister.”
“Gérard, do you not think this will send out the wrong message when we’re trying to get a very young team together?”
“I can see that, Phil, but can you not see the experience he can give to the younger players? I’ve spoken with him. He is a proper professional, and he’s not just coming here to warm the bench.”
Gary helped the younger players to become more professional and to see the game a little better. He was an inspirational signing. He and Markus were two very astute signings.
From January 2001, it was games weekend, midweek, weekend, midweek. Preparing, and travelling, and recovery – which I’d not been through before as a player. We also had some really tough games.
We had a two-legged semi final in the League Cup and then, from February, more two-legged ties in the UEFA Cup. Roma, Porto, Barcelona – some really tough teams that had to be negotiated.
We wanted to make people feel positive about how great these games were. Gérard was fantastic at keeping the players relaxed and then lifting them up again for every game. His team talks were quite sensational – he really had them believing. It was quite something – exhilarating.
As tough as it was, the players enjoyed it immensely, and it wasn’t just the three cups. We wanted Champions League qualification, so we were absolutely pushing to try and get that. We had to keep going in the league.
"I knocked. Gerard was great, because he would always listen"
We had two buses going to Cardiff for the League Cup final because Gérard wanted to keep everybody involved – to let them know they were as important as Steven Gerrard or Michael Owen. It was no problem for Gérard to leave Michael out that day – it was what he believed was right. The team always came first.
For 90 minutes we absolutely battered Birmingham, but we just couldn’t get the second goal we deserved on the day. Birmingham equalised with a last-minute penalty, and then played very well in extra-time.
Gérard spoke to the players: “This is the one we want. We win this, it will kick us on to other bigger and better trophies.”
Getting that first one gave the players belief that it was possible. People in the city were talking about whether they’d rather have the UEFA Cup or the FA Cup, or Champions League qualification. Liverpool were back in there for the big trophies – it was wonderful.
Roma were a very special team, with Gabriel Batistuta, Cafu and Vincent Candela, among others. Before we went out there, Gérard said he had a plan to beat them. On the day he said he was going to play Jari Litmanen in the hole, behind Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler.
Roma played three at the back and five across the middle. Me, Sammy Lee and Joe Corrigan looked at each other, and I said: “I’m not sure of this, boys.” Patrice said: “Phil, we cannot go against Roma with three attackers away from home.” Sammy and Joe said: “No.”
I said: “I’m going to see him. I’m going to see the boss.”
I went up to his room and knocked on his door. “Gérard, can I have a word?” He was great, because he’d always listen.
"Cardiff was to become the Michael Owen Cup Final"
I explained. He said: “How do the other coaches feel?”
“Gérard, they feel exactly the same. That’s why I’m here.”
He’d already told Jari that he was going to start. “Okay, Phil. Leave it with me.”
I’d never done that before, but he was amazing – and he listened. He had to go and see Jari, and he changed the team. Michael got two goals and we won 2-0. It said a lot about Gérard.
The FA Cup final that May was on a boiling hot day – absolutely scorching. Gary McAllister was left out, and really disappointed.
We got battered. Arsenal were absolutely ripping us to shreds. Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Thierry Henry, tearing us apart.
But we hung in there. I had played in loads of games like that, and you have to believe things will come right. In the end, they did.
I said to Gérard: “We need to win this in 90 minutes. If we don’t, we will get battered in extra-time. We’re out on our feet.”
"The togetherness, the bond, came to the fore in that game"
In the last 15 minutes we were pushing so hard, and we put McAllister on. Lo and behold, it was to become the Michael Owen Cup Final (below). The togetherness, the bond, came to the fore in that game.
Gérard found it in him to say: “You can’t celebrate. I don’t want you to celebrate or get drunk.” We had the UEFA Cup final against Alavés on the Wednesday.
That was one of the strangest games I ever witnessed as a coach. We’d gone 2-0 up and you’re thinking it could be six or seven. All of a sudden they changed from three to four at the back and brought on another striker, and they got back in it right before our eyes.
We were then a bit lethargic, and even though Gérard was making changes it was a game that just got out of our control. You couldn’t get hold of the game. It was running wild – end-to-end football.
They weren’t lying down, and it was the most incredible game you’ll see because you didn’t know which way it was going. Extra-time at 4-4, then they were down to 10 men, and then once the foul was committed out wide they’re down to nine. From that free-kick, Gary McAllister plays a great delivery and it bounces off Geli’s head and into the bottom corner – it was the golden goal.
The players were thinking: “Why are all the staff running on the pitch?” They’d forgotten. To this day, I’ve got the exact piece of paper with my penalty-takers written on it.
Gérard told us we still had an important game to play at Charlton, and again he didn’t allow us to celebrate. We didn’t get back to the hotel until after 2am, and then it was on to Charlton. It was only years later that Didi Hamann admitted it: “Of course we had a few drinks.”
It was a game we had to win. Leeds were going for third place as well, and we were absolutely awful in the first half. Charlton battered us – Sander Westerveld made save after save after save – and we were hanging on.
"We held his hands while he went down to the operating theatre"
But as bad as were in the first half, we were as good in the second. We ran out 4-0 winners, and it could have been six or seven. Every time we attacked, we looked like scoring.
The staff on the touchline had our own little huddle. We’d done it. That’s how big it was – being in the Champions League.
Something even bigger then followed at Anfield that October.
Leeds were our opponents in the Premier League, and were winning 1-0 at half-time. I was looking at Gérard standing by the treatment tables in the changing room. He only addressed the players for two minutes, cut short his team talk, turned round, and walked out the dressing room door.
“Joe, Doc. Follow him,” I said.
Joe came back and said: “He’s not good. He’s not coming back out.”
I never said anything to the players. It was just: “Come on, boys. Let’s get ready.”
Just before the players went out, I went straight to the treatment room. He was lying on the treatment table. Emile Heskey had come off, and was looking at Gérard, white, with an oxygen mask on his face.
"Then I flipped over to the very last page. ‘Do it for the boss’"
I held his hand and said: “Gérard, you’ve been a good teacher. I will know what to do – me and the staff will be fine. You make sure you get yourself better.”
I went back not knowing anything about what was going to happen. We got back into it and drew 1-1, which was a good result – but it was only the beginning.
We went straight down to the Royal Hospital in Liverpool, and they said he’d just been transferred to the Broadgreen Hospital. We were straight back in the car and up there.
We stayed with him until he went down for his operation, and held his hands while he went down to the theatre. We had no idea it was going to be an 11, 12-hour operation.
On the Sunday morning, on the plane to our Champions League match at Dynamo Kiev, instead of me and Gérard and our bags of Wine Gums – which we loved – it was me, the bags of Wine Gums and an empty seat.
“Christ, I’m manager of Liverpool Football Club. I’ve got to pick the team. How do I tap into the players here?”
Being caretaker manager was something new for me. It was also quite exhilarating. My biggest fear was how to do team talks – Gérard’s were exciting and fulfilling.
On the night of the game, the doctor spoke to the players again about what had happened with Gérard since, and then I asked to speak and had to give the team talk. I did the team talk and had two flip charts. The first had the team on it. Then I flipped over to the very last page. It read: “Do it for the boss.”
"‘If I’m needed, I’ll make my comeback against Roma’"
We were the first English team to win in Kiev, which was a great thrill – we beat them 2-1. After every team talk I gave from then until the Roma game, I mentioned something about the boss.
“The boss is thinking about you.”
“Think about the boss.”
After that win in Kiev, we lost only one of the next 12 games.
I was in charge for six months. For three or four of those, Gérard was too ill. I would walk to his apartment after matches, and talk to him about the game. He’d either watched on TV or listened on the radio. He’d ask what the team was going to be that week.
“Gérard, forget it. Concentrate on getting yourself better.”
Gradually, as he started getting better, we started feeding him little bits of information. After four or so months, we’d tell him what the team would be – but it wasn’t until the last month that we would allow him some input, because we didn’t want him to be stressed.
That March, to progress in the Champions League, we needed to beat Roma by two goals at Anfield. Gérard had always said: “If I’m needed, Phil, I will make my comeback in that game.”
"When I look back now – God, he looked frail. He still looked ill"
Nobody else knew he was coming back. By 5.30pm, I went to the team meeting at Melwood – Gérard was already in there secretly, writing up his team talk. The players started coming in – I could see them all whispering. Even the staff.
He gave an inspired team talk. “You can do this.”
Me and Gérard were the last ones on the coach, and I could see the players looking down the aisle like meerkats. “Is he coming?”
Going along to Anfield, and coming through the Shankly gates, all the fans were clapping. You could see them all pointing at the front of the coach. The camera crews caught Gérard emerging off the bus, and you could feel the elation of the players.
He got his red scarf and hung it around his neck – he was still frail – and coming down the steps touched the This is Anfield sign.
As we came out, there was Fabio Capello – his old mate – waiting to greet him. I’m sure he knew the lift and what it would do.
It just so happens that they’d decided to put a big mosaic of Gérard on the Kop that night, not even knowing he was making his comeback. We got the two goals – it was a sensational performance.
At the time, because Gérard came back, I think we all thought it was done. But when I look back, certainly at the game in Leverkusen, where it was cold – God, he looked frail. He still looked a little bit ill.
"There was an outpouring of emotion when Gerard died"
Maybe we should have said: “Thanks very much, Gérard. Now go back to your apartment. When we need you again, we’ll bring you back.”
But he came back full-time, and he – we – had made the wrong call. We should have gone about it in a different way. Pre-season, and warmer days and nights, would have been a lot easier for his rehabilitation.
We won the League Cup in 2003, so it wasn’t like everything was falling apart. I only did it for a few months – the press conferences, radio, tactics – but it’s demanding. The guy had died on the operating table that day. You don’t come back from something like that in months.
He wanted so much to win the Premier League for Liverpool. He loved the club immensely; he loved the people; everything about it. But it started to unravel in his final year, 2003/04.
It happens with all managers. You can have good results, and a good run, but every time you have a defeat everything seems worse than it was before.
We’d put smiles back on people’s faces, and I think that because Rafa Benítez came in and won the Champions League in his first year in such dramatic fashion, people forget about what Gérard actually did. Three cups in one season, and Liverpool’s first European trophy for 17 years.
A generation had only had stories of what their dads and grandads and uncles had spoken about – travelling in Europe and winning European competitions. Now they had that unbelievable night in Dortmund against Alavés, and the Owen Cup Final against Arsenal.
There was an outpouring of emotion when Gérard died. He hadn’t seemed to have been put alongside Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, Benítez and Klopp, but he deserved it.
"He got Scousers, and he loved being manager of Liverpool"
He was like a father figure for Steven Gerrard, who in his early days was quite injury-prone. Gérard got that right with the medical staff. “I want solutions.”
He also loved Jamie Carragher’s fun and humour, and his commitment, but he told him if he didn’t mend his ways he wouldn’t get to 26 in the game. Carra took that on board – for him to still be playing there at 35 years of age was incredible. Both he and Gerrard became iconic figures.
Gérard’s man-management was just incredible. He would know about players and try to do everything – he worried about their families, the ground staff, girls on the desks, guys on the gate.
At the Christmas parties at Melwood, he did the seating plan. Staff from the kit room would always be sitting between Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen.
He would very much think about people’s wellbeing, and that’s what stood out about him above all.
He left his door open. “It’s open for you to enter.” The players took him up on that.
He also had incredible contacts. Wherever we went in the world, there were people he knew. He was like a father figure to all of them, and I was taken aback by that.
As a young man he came to Liverpool to be a French teacher in Alsop Comprehensive, a mile from the ground. He’d come and stand on the Kop with the other schoolteachers. He got Scousers, and he loved being manager of Liverpool.
We were two very different people, but we had a great partnership. It was wonderful.
Even when we left, we talked to each other every other week. When we chatted, I always finished with the words: “I love you, mate.”
I’m glad I said it, because now I’d be kicking myself. I’m thankful every day for us spending six quality years together. Even the bad times – you have to go through things like that in life.
I love you, mate.
Author: Tony Hodson