McAllister takes Aston Villa reins as Houllier faces long lay-off
Gary McAllister, a Liverpool player on the day Gérard Houllier was rushed to hospital with heart problems 10 years ago, is primed to guide Aston Villa through the final month of the season after Houllier spent a second night in a Birmingham hospital after complaining of chest pains.
The Villa manager admitted himself to the Queen Elizabeth medical centre on Wednesday evening as a precautionary measure. He is understood not to have had a heart attack. However, the wording of a club statement, which said Houllier was expected to remain in hospital "for several days", suggested his illness was of sufficient concern to make it unlikely he will return to the dug-out this season.
At the age of 63, Houllier may even be persuaded by his family, in particular his wife Isabelle, that it might be judicious to relinquish the reins he took up at Villa Park only last September. In the meantime, McAllister, the assistant manager who was in the Frenchman's midfield against Leeds United at Anfield in October 2001 when he fell ill during the half-time break, will be in charge of the side for tomorrow's visit of Stoke City. McAllister, the 46-year-old former Scotland captain, gained experience of management with Coventry City, a job he left to look after his wife when she had terminal cancer, and at Leeds, where he was dismissed in December 2008.
Paul Faulkner, Villa's chief executive, said Houllier was "comfortable" and "undergoing tests" in hospital. He added: "I spoke to Gérard this morning, as did Gary before he took training, and he sounded very positive. I've received a lot of good wishes from fans and I'd like to thank them for their kind thoughts in wishing Gérard a speedy recovery."
Houllier's absence comes, ironically, at a time when Villa have just reached the 40-point mark after two wins and a draw, opening up a seven-point gap over the relegation zone. Before the run began, Villa had lost at home to bottom-club Wolves and a section of the crowd called for his head and displayed a banner calling for him to go.
The former Liverpool and Lyons manager has not enjoyed the most auspicious of returns to the front line after being appointed by owner Randy Lerner in September, more than a month after the abrupt resignation of Martin O'Neill five days before the campaign kicked off.
Having finished in sixth place three seasons running, Villa have at times found themselves in the bottom three. Houllier's decision to step up their training regime, by initiating twice-daily sessions and using former France fitness trainer Robert Duverne, reputedly alienated some players. Amid claims of indiscipline within the squad, McAllister and defender Richard Dunne were involved in a training-ground altercation, which the Scot insisted was "over in a second", while Houllier had a public falling-out with John Carew, who is on loan to Stoke.
Fellow managers last night rallied round Houllier. Kenny Dalglish, still nominally caretaker manager at Liverpool, said his health was "more important than anything" and sent the best wishes of all at Anfield. Stoke's Tony Pulis, who would have been pitting his wits against him tomorrow, said pressure was "part of the job – you get used to it", yet warned: "Nothing stops you from getting excited on the touchline or carrying the pressure on your shoulders if things aren't going too well."
Neil Warnock, of Queens Park Rangers, said with characteristic bluntness: "We all know what kind of a job this is. My wife wouldn't have let me come back if I'd had the problems Gérard had at Liverpool." Manchester City's Roberto Mancini, declaring himself a friend of Houllier's, hoped to see him back soon "because he's a big person and a big manager".
Houllier underwent a medical at Villa last week. Before he returned to the Premier League, after six years away, he consulted Dr Abbas Rashid, the surgeon who performed an 11-hour open-heart operation on him in 2001. Pressed about his health when he was unveiled to the media, he acknowledged there would be "pressure and hard work" and accepted he would "not sleep every night". But he insisted his body was ready, adding: "I'm much fitter and healthier now."