Must-win games evoke Liverpool memories of Houllier’s cup treble
A late surge, no margin for error, and three games in the final eight days to shape an entire campaign. For Liverpool 2021, read Liverpool 2001; although the stakes and rewards were considerably higher for Gérard Houllier two decades ago than they are for Jürgen Klopp as he attempts to preserve the club’s place in the Champions League.
“What we see at Liverpool now is partly down to Gérard,” says Dietmar Hamann, the former Liverpool and Germany midfielder. “The club was at a crossroads in the late 90s. Another two or three seasons of mediocrity and Liverpool could have been just another club. I think what’s happened at Liverpool over the last five years wouldn’t have been possible if Gerard didn’t put Liverpool back on the map 20 years ago.” Cardiff and Dortmund were the exact starting locations.
Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of Liverpool’s gripping 5-4 Uefa Cup final victory against Alavés, when a golden-goal own goal in extra time from Delfí Geli secured an unprecedented cup treble for Houllier’s team and Anfield’s first European trophy for 17 years.
The FA Cup had arrived four days earlier courtesy of Michael Owen, the League Cup had been won at the Millennium Stadium in February against Birmingham and, three days after Alavés, Liverpool beat Charlton 4-0 on the final day to qualify for the Champions League for the first time. Fourth place did not provide a ticket to European football’s most lucrative competition back then. It needed a second-half onslaught from Robbie Fowler, Danny Murphy and Owen to seal third place in the Premier League. Finally, Houllier’s players could party. Officially. Some had already started.
“I didn’t have a drink after winning the FA Cup on the Saturday,” Hamann recalls. “Then we went to Dortmund and played another 117 minutes and won the Uefa Cup. I was lucky enough to win it before with Bayern Munich in 96 and after the game Gérard said again: ‘No drink.’ But there was a bar in the basement of the hotel. I thought: ‘I’ve just won the Uefa Cup in my home country, surely I need to have a few?’ The gaffer and Tommo [the assistant manager Phil Thompson] knew I didn’t play any worse if I did have a drink. I’m not sure if they found out but I wasn’t in the squad for Charlton on the Saturday.”
Thompson interjects: “We needed fresh legs against Charlton, that’s my excuse anyway. Didi broke my heart when he later told me him and Sander [Westerveld] had gone for a drink.”
Thompson and Hamann are on a video call to discuss a new Liverpool documentary – One Week in May: The Story of a Unique Treble – that revisits the remarkable finish to the 2000-01 season and airs on Sunday. The camaraderie between the pair after all these years is striking, as is the warmth that they and others in the film – including Steven Gerrard, Gary McAllister and Sir Alex Ferguson – share for the manager responsible. Houllier’s death in December has cast a considerable shadow over the anniversary.
“Gérard Houllier, more than anybody, moved Liverpool forwards and we should be eternally grateful for what he did,” says Thompson. “We were planning on getting together not only because it’s 20 years since 2001 but on 13 October it would have been 20 years since he had his heart problems. We were going to get together in Paris and I’m so sad that won’t be the case.”
Hamann concurs: “We cared because Gérard cared. He made us all aware of what it means to play for Liverpool. He was a father figure to so many players. I think Carra [Jamie Carragher] was his favourite. When I first came here I was on my own because my wife and the baby couldn’t move as we didn’t find a house quickly. Carra asked me if I wanted to go for a drink and said: ‘I’ll show you Bootle.’ I was well up for it. Somehow Gérard found out and pulled me in the next week. He told me he didn’t want me going out with the young lads because I was leading them astray. I learned my lesson and that’s probably why I didn’t invite Carra to join me for a drink after the Uefa Cup final. I’ve never seen anything like the outpouring there was for Gérard when he passed away. He was loved and respected by so many people.”
Hamann and Thompson expect a similar conclusion to this season following Liverpool’s 4-2 win at Old Trafford on Thursday. “They are in the ascendency now,” says Hamann. His former coach adds: “Those winnable games – like the last three we’ve got – is where we’ve had the problems this season. I’d be saying to the players: ‘Do you want to throw away all that hard work of beating Manchester United at Old Trafford?’ That’s got to be the motivation to get in the top four.”