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From zero to Villan: Houllier's task ahead

The last time Gerard Houllier took a team to Stoke City, as he will do in his first match as Aston Villa manager on Monday, he saw Liverpool triumph 8-0 in a League Cup tie. The goals flew in so thick and fast that the electronic scoreboard lost count and displayed the result as 9-0.

The landscape of English football has radically changed, not just in the decade since a full house at the Britannia Stadium was left feeling one over the eight on that night in November 2000, but since Houllier quit the Anfield job and left the Premier League six years ago last May.

Some staples remain - his old adversaries Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger are the obvious examples - but Robbie Fowler, who scored a hat-trick against the Potters, is long gone from the top flight, as are fellow scorers Markus Babbel, Christian Ziege and Vladimir Smicer.

Houllier is returning to a world in which Manchester City now have unlimited funds, Liverpool are even further away from recapturing past glories and Stoke, despite a torrid start to the season, are no longer second-tier pushovers.

Therein lies one of the most pressing problems the Frenchman will face as Martin O'Neill's successor at Villa Park. Houllier must acquaint himself at the earliest opportunity not only with the Villa squad but also with all the players, from around the world, who now ply their trade in the Premier League.

While renowned for his meticulous preparation, and clearly an intelligent, urbane character, French football has been his milieu since 2004, and in an administrative capacity at that for the past three years. He now has to get up to speed on which left winger must not be allowed to cut inside on to his right foot, which centre- backs are most dangerous when coming up for corner kicks, which teams hold a high defensive line, and so on.

Villa fans, many of whom were frustrated that it took Randy Lerner a month to fill a vacancy which the American owner-chairman initially appeared keen for caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald to fill, were by no means universally enthusiastic about the imminent unveiling of Houllier.

True, he fulfils Lerner's criteria of having Premier League experience and international contacts plus a handsome haul of silverware to his name. And the alternatives from the smallish pool of available talent were less enticing.

On the message boards and phone-ins, though, supporters have expressed concerns that he may be past his sell-by date, not because he is 63 - younger than Fabio Capello and the same age as Roy Hodgson - but because he is identified with a different era and has been out of the front line for such a long time.

Opinions are sharply divided on his six years in charge on Merseyside. On the credit side, he rebuilt a team that had gone downhill under Graeme Souness and Roy Evans. Houllier won a treble in 2000-01 - League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup - and, the following season, Liverpool were runners-up to Arsenal, finishing above Manchester United for the only time in the Premier League.

Ironically, he was absent for six months during that campaign, having been taken ill during a match against Leeds and entrusted the side to his deputy, Phil Thompson, while he recovered from heart surgery. Houllier at first appeared reinvigorated, and Liverpool won nine and drew three of the opening 12 fixtures the following season, but that's when the debit side kicks in. He then endured a run from November to January without a single victory. The more he talked about "turning points", the worse it became.

In what proved his final season, 2003-04, Liverpool finished fourth, 30 points adrift of champions Arsenal and 15 behind third-placed United. The board, then under David Moores, made it clear that qualifying for the Champions' League was a minimum requirement and not a success in itself.

His legacy was a squad considerably improved from Souness' time, the majority of them going on to recapture the European Cup 12 months after his departure. Few Kopites would deny him the credit for bringing through Steven Gerrard or for signing Sami Hyypia, Gary McAllister, Didi Hamann and Jerzy Dudek.

Yet his knowledge of continental players, much vaunted as a factor in Villa's appointment, did not spare Anfield a clutch of under-achieving imports, from Eric Meijer, Anthony Le Tallec and Bruno Cheyrou to Titi Camara, Sean Dundee and Florent Sinama-Pongolle.

Nor is Houllier remembered at Liverpool for developing youthful talent - an area in which Villa's MacDonald has had success, with players such as Marc Albrighton, Ciaran Clark and Barry Bannan making an impact in the senior ranks under his temporary stewardship.

But once he was confirmed as manager, supporters began, as is their wont, to switch from negativity to qualified optimism. To them, Villa are one of the great institutions of the English game. In terms of trophies, though, they have picked up just two League Cups since the European Cup victory under Tony Barton in 1982, so perhaps those who view Houllier's arrival with disappointment are living in the past.

In leading Villa to sixth place, O'Neill hit what Lerner called a "glass ceiling". Breaking through it will be difficult for Houllier - especially with his hands tied in the transfer market until January and his rivals' expenditure columns ticking over like Stoke's old scoreboard.


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