2002/03 was supposed to be the season. After 13 long years, Liverpool would win the Premier League. There was work for Gerard Houllier to do despite only being three months removed from his return to the dugout from heart surgery.
His first order of business was to make a decision on whether or not to make Nicolas Anelka’s loan move to Anfield a permanent one. Houllier decided not to in a decision that still baffles Liverpool fans to this day. Houllier instead opted to sign Senegalese winger El-Hadji Diouf for £10 million from Lens based on his performances at the World Cup and a recommendation from his old assistant.
It was a decision that became symptomatic of Houllier’s final two seasons in charge.
Houllier became almost obsessed with the idea of developing a player into an absolute world-beater. He wanted to turn a lump of coal into a diamond. His first summer signing in 2002 was actually midfielder Bruno Cheyrou from Rennes, a young man he labelled ‘the new Zidane.’ Cheyrou was anything but.
In fact, Houllier’s obsession with development only seemed to stretch to French players or players brought in from France. Of his final eleven signings at Liverpool, EIGHT were either from France or French. Of those, maybe three could be described as immediate first-team signings.
He would bring in Diouf’s Senegalese teammate Salif Diao from Sedan and compare him to Patrick Vieira which still raises a chuckle. The problem Diao had though, much like Diouf, was that too much was expected of them and they simply were not good enough.
The summer of 2002 saw the departure of Gary McAllister and Jari Litmanen, two excellent creative players as well as Nick Barmby and Anelka. It soon became very apparent that Liverpool were missing that extra bit of quality needed to win the league. Or a game.
Actually, to give Houllier credit, Liverpool did start 2002/03 like a house on fire. 12 games into the season and the Reds had dropped just six points, without losing at all. They were four clear of Arsenal and flying. They were completely outclassed by a Rafael Benitez-managed Valencia in the Champions League but everything else was going fine. Apart from Diouf, the striker meant to take them to the league, only getting two on his home debut in August, then never scoring.
The league form was a plaster over an axe wound. The problems could be seen but points had stopped people pointing them out too much. It would be a trip to Middlesbrough that would begin the slow, painful demise of Houllier’s reign.
Liverpool were not at the races at the Riverside, struggling to create and looking very one-dimensional. The sucker punch came with eight minutes to go when Dudek came for a cross and dropped it at the feet of current England boss Gareth Southgate, who prodded home. Nothing untoward about losing you’d think but this Liverpool side crumbled spectacularly.
A midweek trip to Basel for the final group game saw the Reds needing to win. However, they were three down at half-time to the Swiss side and only recovered to draw 3-3. The catalyst for that comeback was Salif Diao, which is the only positive thing he ever did for Liverpool.
So began a run of 13 games without a win. Houllier’s tactics came into the question, the lack of creativity becoming more apparent as Liverpool became more reliant on clean sheets and long balls to Owen and Heskey. It was difficult to watch Liverpool and the new signings were woefully out of their depth. Diouf had become a running joke for his lack of goal threat; Diao was plodding and useless and Cheyrou looked to be three weeks behind the pace of the game.
Mistakes were creeping in throughout the side with even the reliable Sami Hyypia beginning to falter. Young Djimi Traore was played a lot too and he looked to be very raw and very error-prone. Questions were rightly being asked.
The only saving grace for Houllier was the Worthington Cup where Liverpool would be able to squeeze through to the semi-finals where they faced Sheffield United. By the time the first leg came round, the Reds had won a league game for the first time since early November. They just about made it past the Blades to set up a final with Manchester United.
That final would save Houllier’s job for a season. Despite United being head and shoulders a better side than Liverpool, the Reds dug in and defended stoutly. It would be their English stars that would provide the quality with Owen and Gerrard firing them to another trophy, Houllier’s sixth in charge. The respite was temporary though as a UEFA Cup run was halted by Celtic in the quarter-finals, a game notable for the Reds being outplayed at Anfield and Diouf spitting on a Celtic fan.
In the meantime, Liverpool had put together some late-season form and were winning games again even if it wasn’t massively convincing. There were blips, the 4-0 shellacking at Old Trafford one, but with two games to go, they were shooting it out with Chelsea for the final Champions League spot. All they had to do was pick up points but in true Liverpool fashion at this time, they lurched to disaster.
Manchester City were the final visitors to Anfield in 02/03 and had an Anelka up front with a point to prove. He scored both to give City a 2-1 win, sticking it to Houllier in the process. That meant Liverpool had to beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on the final day. That game would go down in history as a Chelsea side financially on its knees won thanks to Jesper Gronkjaer’s goal, persuading Roman Abramovich to purchase the club and change English football forever.
2003/04 saw Houllier attempt to add some quality to his side with the additions of Harry Kewell and Steve Finnan while culling the fringe players like Bernard Diomede, Patrik Berger and Abel Xavier. Houllier’s obsession with young French players he could develop continued with signings of Anthony Le Tallec and Florent Sinama-Pongolle.
The season played out much the same as the previous one with questionable player selection (Igor Biscan and Salif Diao at centre-back), poor signings (Sinama-Pongolle and Le Tallec scored three between them) and a number nine not scoring a single goal all season. Seriously, Diouf was that bad.
The UEFA Cup campaign lasted four rounds before being ended by Marseille, the FA Cup run was stopped by Portsmouth while Bolton won at Anfield to stop the defence of the Worthington Cup in its tracks. The football was dire but Liverpool had Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard and Owen’s 16 goals in the league got the Reds into the top four for Champions League in 2004/05.
Houllier was a dead man walking though, by that point, becoming more confrontational in his press conferences, referring to meaningless statistics and devolving to nonsensical statements. His favourite was that the team was “turning a corner,” something that happened five or ten times during 2003/04.
Gerard Houllier departed Liverpool on 24 May 2004 but the foundations he’d laid in the early 2000s would come good next season, in the most surprising way possible.