Aston Villa’s new boss Gerard Houllier knows he still has the heart for the high pressure Premier League – because the fighting fit Frenchman now has his ticker checked regularly.
Houllier’s health has been a concern since the former Liverpool boss needed life-saving surgery after collapsing in the Anfield dugout during a top flight match in October 2001.
It transpired that Houllier’s chronic chest pains almost nine years ago were the result of the dissection of the aorta, which is a rare condition affecting the largest artery in the body.
The 63-year-old, who was aged 54 at the time, was rushed by ambulance from the game against Leeds and underwent 11 hours of emergency open-heart surgery at a Liverpool hospital.
Under doctors’ orders, he took five months off to convalesce before returning to the Reds hot-seat in March 2002 to guide the Merseyside giants through the final stages of the season.
And despite stressful situations in his roles at Anfield, Lyon and the French Football Federation, he has reported no serious ill effects since then.
Houllier laughed off suggestions that he should undergo the medical that new signings traditionally undergo to prove their fitness at their new clubs.
But the new Villa manager did reveal that he keeps in touch with one of the surgeons who carried out his operation and attends regular checks ups with a specialist.
“When you go into this job you know there will be pressure,” said Houllier. “There’s a lot of hard work. You won’t sleep every night, sometimes you’ll come back late so you need to make sure that your body is ready to sustain the challenge.
“So I’ve checked that and I would say I’m even fitter than when I went to Lyon. I went there in 2005, Funnily enough I had a check up in August in Liverpool.
“The surgeon who operated on me was with me. I try to meet him on a friendly basis. I’ve had no problems.”
Houllier’s wife Isabel was reportedly concerned about Gerard thrusting himself back into the demanding day to day rigours of club football at the highest level.
But the experienced manager insists that his nearest and dearest know what his latest challenge means to him and fully support his decision.
Asked how his family reacted when he told them he intended to dust off his tracksuit to return to the practice pitches of Bodymoor Heath, Houllier smiled.
However, he revealed that succeeding Martin O’Neill at Villa Park could well be his last job before he retires from football altogether.
“They are happy because I do what I like to do,” said Houllier, who intends to commit himself to Villa until 2013, when he will be approaching his 66th birthday.
“I like to be at a club and work with players, to make a team evolve and progress. They knew it would happen at some stage.
“I’m fitter now and healthier so maybe it’s a last challenge.”
Houllier is no stranger to stress and his first game back in the Premier League could be a welcome escape from the blame game he is embroiled in as France’s technical director.
He has taken some of the flak for his home country’s World Cup fiasco even though he insists their group stage exit had nothing to do with him whatsoever.
“This is funny,” he added. “Suppose there’s a plane crash and the black box reveals that it wasn’t the pilot, the co-pilot, a member of staff, a hostess, a steward or even a passenger. But I got blamed!
“I was preparing for the next 10 years – the team manager was in charge and was preparing the team. I never had any talks with him.
“It’s true that I was in favour of keeping him after 2008. After that, it was known we were not happy but it was too late to change.”
Houllier already feels comfortable dealing with Randy Lerner and Paul Faulkner and insists Villa’s power brokers share his aims and ambitions. While he has confidence about his own condition he is also excited about the prospect of working for a club which strives to be healthy on and off the pitch.
“I have done a bit of homework investigation and I must say I am yet to meet anyone who says Aston Villa is not a good club,” he added.
“When I was talking to friends, managers, players everybody said it was a good club – so let’s try to make it better then.
“The facilities are first class, the training ground at Bodymoor Heath is really good. The stadium is where we have aims and a vision for the future.
“You need to feel extremely comfortable with the people you are going to be working with and this is the case regarding the chairman and Paul.
“The club is healthy it has got a vision of gradual progress and improvement.
“We won’t achieve that over night but of course what we want is silverware like everyone else. We want places of honour which will be our goal and progression for the future.”