Civic Virtue and The Beautiful Game


Universe Column for October 5th 2003

By David Alton

Over 2000 people recently crowded into Liverpool Cathedral to hear the Liverpool Football Club manager, Gerard Houlier, deliver a lecture on the links between sport and citizenship.  This was the most recent in a series that I have staged on behalf of Liverpool John Moores University.

Although Houlier’s Catholic faith is a private part of his life there is no doubt, when listening to him, how much his core beliefs have influenced his outlook and character. He told his audience that a cultivation of personal virtues is essential for all of us.

His emphasis on changing the inner man – if he is to be a coherent and effective team player – was one of his central themes; and he said that however famous or wealthy a footballer may be, he will have many anxieties and insecurities  – and an effective manager must make time to understand these if he is to draw out the best from the player. But Houlier also has a great belief in providence – believing he was spared after his massive heart attack for some specific purpose.

He had strong words about those who bring the sport into disrepute – especially those who use racist language to abuse black players. He attacked the culture of blame and said that becoming resentful or bitter disables personal growth while enthusiasm and passion need to be cultivated.

His message about building a team spirit, setting clear targets, inspiring confidence and trust, and developing inspiring forms of leadership were messages for a football club but clearly they were messages for the wider society as well.

Gerard Houlier first came to Liverpool as a young teacher in the late 1960s. He quipped that he had “exchanged the atomic shelter of education for the minefield of club management.”  Yet he has never lost his belief in the importance of education. His lovely wife, Isobel, who has a PhD in history from the University of Paris, wouldn’t let him even if he wanted to.  Watching some of the young people who crowded in to hear him – and hanging attentively on his every word – it’s just as well that he understands how to use the unique influence which his position gives him.

Under his influence LFC has been deeply involved in the life of the community, especially in education. They have given support to terminally ill and mentally or physically disabled children and are also involved in a raft of educational projects for the able-bodied. These include Reeducate, the Vernon Sangster numeracy and literacy initiative called Never Too Late To Learn, the Knowsley Education Action Zone, and a new video that is being pioneered in conjunction with Merseyside Police on anti-social behaviour. They have also sponsored a web site for the John Moores University’s foundation for Citizenship where the stor ies of young recipients of the good citizen awards can be told.

Football is often described as “the beautiful game” – but some of the actions of its clubs, supporters and managers are more ugly than beautiful.

Houlier, with his emphasis on attributes such as loyalty, humour, solidarity, resilience and warmth,  is one of the giants of the game who can restore respect and counterbalance the excesses.

Little wonder that in July the Queen awarded Houlier the O B E in recognition of his services to football; and in France he was given the highest civic honour, the Legion of Honour, to recognise his contribution to sport and civic life. Although he has brought home plenty of trophies to his adopted and much-loved City, in helping to cultivate the civic life of the community he is giving it something more enduring.

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