Houllier: Wenger will never quit Arsenal
Gérard Houllier believes Arsène Wenger will never quit as manager of Arsenal and that the board will have to sack him if they want a change at the Emirates Stadium.
Houllier, one of Wenger’s closest friends in football, fears his compatriot may not get the dignified exit he deserves as pressure mounts on the Frenchman after a string of insipid displays.
Arsenal suffered another dismal defeat away to Brighton & Hove Albion today, following back-to-back 3-0 losses to runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City last week, leaving the former Liverpool manager wondering whether Wenger’s message is still getting through to his players.
“I don’t think Arsène is a quitter and I don’t think he will quit now because the team is in difficulty,” said Houllier, speaking at a function in his honour at Pier 6 on Friday. “Maybe someone will take the decision for him.”
Houllier also drew comparisons between Wenger’s Arsenal situation and his bitter departure from Monaco, where he was fired after a poor start to the French top flight in 1994.
“Sometimes the communication that goes between a manager and player works very well and sometimes it’s broken,” Houllier said. “If it’s broken then you have to move on.
“Arsène had this when he was at Monaco after five years when they sacked him. He said to me that the communication was not the same between him and his players.
“That communication is based on two things: trust, which is very important, and the need for the players to know you’re in control.”
Houllier regaled the Liverpool-centric audience with tales of his memorable time at Anfield, including how he unearthed Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard as a “lean 17-year-old”.
He said: “The Academy director [Steve Heighway] came to me and said, ‘I know you’re looking for a right winger. Why don’t you come to see our under-19 game against Blackburn’.
“I could see after two minutes that the guy he wanted me to take for the first-team wouldn’t fit the bill. That was Richie Partridge; he was good but not for me. Not fit enough for the first team.
“In the middle of the park there was this lean guy tackling and shouting at people, getting the ball, winning the tackle. Very gritty.
“I said, ‘Who is he?’ I was told that, ‘He’s an under-17, always injured and just helps out when we’re short’. At the end of the game I went to see Stevie and said, ‘Tomorrow you train with the professionals’. I looked after him like a son.”
Gerrard was a “born leader”, according to Houllier, and it was not long before he made him captain.
“It was a difficult decision because I had to take the armband off Sami Hyypia, who was seven years older, and give it to Stevie,” he said.
“I made him captain because there was an event in his private life that was taking him down. Really, he was down and down, and he was even expecting me to get him out of the team.
“I had this idea that if I appointed him captain it would make him grow up as a man immediately. I called him into my office and said, ‘Stevie, from now on you’re my captain’.
“He later confided in me and said it was the best day of his sporting career. Can you imagine being 22 and the captain of Liverpool!”
Houllier, whose appointment in 1998 was met with the headline of “Gérard Who?” in one English tabloid newspaper, won five trophies in the 2000-2001 season: the FA Cup, League Cup, Uefa Cup, Uefa Super Cup and Charity Shield.
Despite qualifying for the Champions League in 2003-4, he left the club at the end of that season and was replaced by Rafa Benítez, who led Liverpool to European success the following campaign.
Houllier admits it was strange watching a side he had largely assembled lift Europe’s most prestigious trophy after an epic comeback over AC Milan in what became known as the “Miracle of Istanbul”.
“Out of the 14 players that took part in the Champions League final 12 were with me the year before,” said Houllier, who also managed French clubs Paris Saint-Germain and Lyons.
“I was in the changing room at the end of the game as I wanted to congratulate the boys. Some of the players came and hugged me and said. ‘Boss, it’s your team; it’s our team’.
“Somebody asked me what was my contribution? I said, ‘My contribution is none apart from the fact we finished fourth. If we didn’t finish fourth we wouldn’t have played in the Champions League.”
The 70-year-old also set the record straight on much-maligned striker Emile Heskey, saying he was underappreciated by many, although not by his team-mates.
“You wouldn’t believe how good Emile’s influence was for the other strikers,” he said. “The other strikers wanted to play with him because Emile would always have two guys looking after him.
“Michael once said that Emile was underrated because of his hard work and the way he played. Emile is also the nicest guy, I can tell you.”
A good friend of Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp, Houllier is adamant the German will eventually lead the club to their first league title since 1989-90.
“The big guns are very strong but Liverpool are young and if they stick together they can win the title,” Houllier said.
“They already have recruited somebody [Naby Keïta for £48 million from RB Leipzip] for next year who will be very good in midfield.
“Klopp fits the bill totally. He’s ideal for Liverpool, knowing the warmth and passion of the fans. Klopp is a man of heart.”