Steven Gerrard still believes one key transfer decision made by Gerrard Houllier cost Liverpool a shot at the Premier League title in the 2002/03 campaign.
Houllier’s Reds had conquered the cups in 2001 with a Treble-winning season, which included the FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup, with Gerrard scoring in the final of the latter competition as they defeated Alaves 5-4.
The mood at Anfield was buoyant and they were setting their sights on challenging for the league title, with glory alluding them since 1990.
Gerrard had hit 10 goals that season and was starting to look like the influential midfielder he proved to be, but Houllier’s transfers went wrong, the manager most notably ignoring Nicholas Anelka and signing El-Hadji Diouf.
Asked by Gary Neville on his Soccerbox show on Sky Sports if he thought the Reds were getting a squad together to challenge for the title, Gerrrad said: “I think at the back end of the treble season I was like if we get the next two or three signings right then we can compete for it, but we never, and we got them drastically wrong.
“El-Hadji Diouf wasn’t the right signing, we should have taken Anelka. Salif Diao stiffened us up but never took us to the next level. But I think the signings at that time never went in our favour.”
Neville asked Gerrard if the recruitment at Anfield at that time was led by the manager, Houllier, Gerrard concurred and admitted that the French boss had gone against the dressing room to sign Diouf instead of Anelka.
“Yes, it was more manager led. We used to have a chief scout around, but I’d say Houllier had the final say on signings,” said Gerrard.
“I remember being in the meeting room and he was trying to get a feeling from the senior players whether he should sign Diouf or Anelka and Anelka had been on loan, and across the board, amongst the players it was Anelka…and he went for Diouf,” said Gerrard laughing,”which was, in my opinion, to this day still the wrong move.”
Neville also asked about Gerrard’s relationship with Rafa Benitez, who succeeded Houllier in June 2004.
“Very respectful but I was coming off the back of a manager like [Gerard] Houllier who was like a father figure. He’d speak to me every day, put an arm around me. His man-management to me was really loving,” said the Rangers boss.
“I then went into one of my first meetings with Rafa, came out of it and thought ‘he’s not having me this fella’. I felt unloved from that moment really. It was more of a cold relationship.
“He provoked me a lot and pick on things that I maybe needed to improve on. He never really praised me. I think it took me a while to get used to that. Maybe my insecurities and maybe my emotions used to think he didn’t like me, where he was just driving me in a different way.
“Looking back at it now, he got the best out of me – and that was probably the best way to do it, so great management. But at the time my insecurities made me feel unloved a bit. He definitely took my game to the next level.”