Gérard Houllier taken ill: sympathy, speculation but no surprise

When Aston Villa football manager Gérard Houllier was taken to hospital on 20 April with suspected heart problems it was a shock for football fans but not a surprise. If anything, the surprise is that it doesn’t happen more often.

Houllier, who made a full recovery after emergency heart surgery in 2001, had a thorough medical check-up in September last year before taking on the Aston Villa job. After seven difficult months, the stress seems to have taken its toll.

Fellow managers immediately offered Houllier and his family their best wishes for a speedy recovery. According to news reports, the club has made a responsible decision to give him as much time as he needs to recover. There is also plenty of sympathy from fans on Aston Villa blogs.

However, Houllier has not always been treated with such sympathy. As recently as 31 March Henry Winter wrote in the Daily Telegraph:
“These are challenging times for Villa’s manager. Over the past month, the Frenchman has been accused of everything from lacking passion to poor man-management and deploying players out of position. He has been lambasted for attempting to impose his more possession-based philosophy too quickly on a squad largely raised on Martin O’Neill’s counter-attacking principles…”

And so it goes on for several hundred words. On the same Aston Villa blog which is now wishing Houllier a rapid recovery (with full sincerity), one poster spoke for many when he wrote on 21 March:
“What a load of rubbish!! Houllier out and I’ll be singing the loudest!! We have two weeks to get him out or be relegated it’s Lerners choice. Sing and shout all you like but the players don’t want to play for him!”

Meanwhile Sunderland manager Steve Bruce, who is among those who has quickly offered Houllier his best wishes, was involved in a highly personal and public row with him in January after the move of Darren Bent from Sunderland to Aston Villa.

The point is not that Gérard Houllier has been victimised or singled out for unfair criticism but rather that football management is an almost impossible job. As the now more sympathetic Henry Winter writes, management is like an addiction and there is no escape from endless media scrutiny. Dr Dorian Dugmore, who assesses the health of managers, comments that the average tenure of a football manager in England is 18 months and they often neglect their own health while worrying about the fitness of their players.

Football, like other team sports, is to some extent a zero-sum game: in the Premier League only one of 20 teams can win the title in any given season and three teams will get relegated. One team’s success comes at the expense of another team’s failure. That is why managers patrol the touchline during games with such evident anxiety.

The pressure on football managers is unlikely to abate. There is already good work being done to highlight the issue of the health risks to managers. Let us hope that Houllier’s illness provides fresh impetus to managers to look after themselves. Get well soon, Gérard.

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