'THE ATMOSPHERE, THE FEELING, THE PASSION' - ANFIELD LEFT FRANCESCO TOTTI STUNNED WITH EMOTIONAL LIVERPOOL RETURN

*Today marks the anniversary of Liverpool beating Roma 2-0 at Anfield back in 2002. Here, Dan Kay looks back on a truly special night under the lights in the Champions League...

The legend of Anfield has in many ways been built on dramatic European nights under the floodlights of various different shapes and sizes.

From the vanquishing of world champions Inter Milan during Liverpool’s first foray into continental competition under Bill Shankly in 1965 to the miraculous overhauling of a three-goal first-leg semi-final deficit against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona which truly set Jurgen Klopp’s current side on the path to greatness, that special patch of grass and concrete in L4 and those inside it has continually helped inspired performances and results which have defied the odds and entered into folklore.

At its core is the magical alchemy which exists between this unique football club and its supporters, the emotion they are together able to invoke time and again managing to produce a torrent of passion which has often overpowered superior opponents and lifted those wearing red to feats they would never have imagined possible.

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But in terms of raw human sentiment Anfield has rarely known a night as super-charged as when manager Gerard Houllier returned to the dug-out after months of convalescence following a life-threatening heart problem to help his Liverpool team overcome a star-studded AS Roma side and reach the Champions League quarter-finals in their first season in the rebranded competition.

The French manager had arrived on Merseyside back in the summer of 1998 in the unusual role of joint-manager to work alongside Roy Evans having helped mastermind his country’s World Cup victory that year as technical director and, having taken sole charge the following November when the Anfield board called time on what proved to be a doomed coaching experiment, set about revamping and revitalising a club which had fallen behind the times in the early years of the Premier League era after decades of dominance.

Houllier’s scientific and methodical approach would take time to bear fruit but, after falling just short of returning Liverpool to the top table of European football in his first full campaign in charge, he led the Reds to one of their most remarkable ever seasons when his side completed a unique cup treble in 2000/01, winning the League, FA and UEFA Cups while also fulfilling the initial objective of returning the Reds to where they desperately needed to be both in a financial and footballing sense, the Champions League.

The hope and belief was the gathering momentum would also lead to a renewed assault on ending Anfield’s league title drought which was now stretching into a second decade but, having led the club back into the European Cup after a painful 16-year absence on the historically significant day of 11th September 2001, all those plans were thrown into jeopardy just over a month later when the Liverpool manager was rushed to hospital during a match with his life hanging in the balance.

The Reds’ long-standing rivalry with Leeds United, first invoked during the 1960s as Bill Shankly and Don Revie led their clubs to prominence after years languishing in the doldrums, was reborn around the turn of the century as David O’Leary’s young team and Houllier’s emerged as the two most likely to threaten Manchester United and Arsenal’s position as the pre-eminent sides in the country.

They met at Anfield in mid-October 2001 for one of the biggest games of the fledgling season so far with the Yorkshire side in top spot and Liverpool five points behind in sixth but with a game in hand, Harry Kewell’s Kop end strike shortly before the half-hour mark giving the visitors the lead as the strangely-subdued hosts again struggled to get to grips with rivals who had beaten them home and away in the league the previous season.

An improved second-half showing salvaged a point thanks to Danny Murphy’s close-range header after a sublime Robbie Fowler chip had hit the crossbar and only a handful of eagle-eyed supporters in the Main Stand would have noticed the absence of manager Gérard Houllier from the bench as his side dug deep to take something from the game.

The rest of the 44,352 spectators in attendance that day, along with millions watching on television across the world, were stunned when the news broke in the minutes after the final whistle that the Frenchman had been rushed to the Royal Liverpool Hospital after feeling unwell, with fears being the Frenchman had suffered a heart attack.

For the second time in barely a month, the usually-boisterous pubs adjacent to Anfield were filled with near-silent supporters watching breaking news updates on television screens as concerns over the much-loved manager’s health began to grow.

Former European Cup winning captain Phil Thompson, who had returned to Anfield as assistant manager when Houllier took sole charge in 1998, stepped in to fulfil the post-match media obligations and revealed the clearly unwell manager had still delivered a brief half-time team talk to his players before discreetly seeking out the club’s medical staff.

“I think one or two of the substitutes had an inkling something was amiss”, Thompson said.

“They stayed on in the dressing room a little longer than anyone else, and the incident happened very close to the end of the interval. Gérard had delivered his team talk, but stopped a little earlier than I expected him to, and quietly left the room.

“Our physio, Dave Galley, noticed and followed him out, and then alerted the club doctor, Mark Waller. He was treated here initially. He was in some discomfort so he was given oxygen.

“I never said anything to the players. It was just, ‘Come on, boys. Let’s get ready’

“Just before the players went out, I went straight to the treatment room. He was lying on the treatment table. Emile Heskey had come off, and was looking at Gérard, white, with an oxygen mask on his face.

“I held his hand and said: “Gérard, you’ve been a good teacher. I will know what to do – me and the staff will be fine. You make sure you get yourself better.”

Leeds boss O’Leary, a good friend of Houllier’s, was as shocked as anyone after the game at the distressing developments and, while passing on his well-wishes for a speedy recovery, revealed that when they had been chatting before the game the Liverpool manager had said something in passing which proved to be eerily prescient.

“I hope everything turns out well. This is obviously more important than the football result, and everyone at Leeds wishes him well.

“It's funny, but I was chatting to him before the game and he seemed his usual self. He did say one thing that made me think, though. He said that the job had changed, and that looking after 20 very rich people was bad for your health. It's not an old man's job anymore, that's all I'll say. Good luck to Bobby Robson [69], but I certainly won't be doing it at his age.”

It soon emerged that 54-year-old Houllier had not suffered a heart attack but in fact a dissection of the aorta - a condition where the inner lining of the aorta, the main artery leaving the heart, splits and affects blood flow - and, after being assessed at the Royal Liverpool Hospital, he was transferred to the world-class Cardiothoracic Centre at nearby Broadgreen Hospital where that night he underwent an 11-hour operation to save his life.

“For 24 hours none of us knew if he’d survive,” Jamie Carragher said, reflecting in his autobiography. “The prospect of him continuing as manager was secondary to him returning alive.”

Steven Gerrard texted his manager, who was ordinarily quick to respond. “I hope you are all right,” was the midfielder’s simple, concerned message. No reply.

“Being without Gerard hit us hard,” Gerrard said later. “Imagine Manchester United coping without Sir Alex Ferguson. I drove home feeling worried.”

Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry confirmed the following evening the operation had been successfully repaired the problem and Houllier was in a ‘comfortable’ condition while remaining on a ventilator to keep him as calm and stable as possible.

It was clear that a long period of recovery would be required with Parry hopeful the Frenchman would eventually be able to return to his post even if the famously workaholic manager may have cut back on his workload in the future.

"We are confident that he will be back because we have not been told anything that indicates to the contrary”, Parry said.

"But he's going to be conscious of the fact that he'll have to be very focused on the sort of commitments he takes on. He's the sort of guy who can't say no. After something like this, anyone would have to reflect on their lifestyle and he'll have to cut out some of the extraneous work he's always been keen to do.

"It's too early to speculate on what the future holds. There's an extraordinary weight on managers these days with pressure coming from every direction. It's hard to see that getting any easier but our concern is getting him back to full fitness. He must not rush back."

Warm messages of support from the likes of David Beckham and Elton John flooded in from all around the globe as the world reacted with genuine concern to the shocking news but the relentless nature of the modern game meant there was very little time for his shocked colleagues and players to digest what had happened with Liverpool due to travel to Ukraine on the Monday for a Champions League clash against Dynamo Kyiv, with Houllier’s assistant Phil Thompson now thrust into the role of caretaker manager for an indefinite period.

“Christ, I’m manager of Liverpool Football Club now. I’ve got to pick the team. How do I tap into the players here?”, the Kirkby-born former Liverpool and England skipper admitted wondering to himself.

“On the plane to our Champions League match at Dynamo Kyiv, instead of me and Gérard and our bags of wine gums – which we loved – it was me, the bags of wine gums and an empty seat.

“Being caretaker manager was something new for me. It was also quite exhilarating. My biggest fear was how to do team talks – Gérard’s were exciting and fulfilling.

“On the night of the game, the doctor spoke to the players again about what had happened with Gérard since, and then I asked to speak and had to give the team talk. I did the team talk and had two flip charts. The first had the team on it. Then I flipped over to the very last page. It read: ‘Do it for the boss’.

"The main thing he would want was for us to carry on as normally as possible. The best way for us to help Gérard in his rehabilitation was to win and to keep on winning."

Houllier’s players provided the perfect tonic for their stricken leader by becoming the first English side to ever win in Kyiv, goals from Danny Murphy and Steven Gerrard securing a vital 2-1 victory which bolstered their hopes of qualifying from the initial group stages, which they confirmed at the end of the month with a memorable Anfield victory over Borussia Dortmund.

The following weekend, Anfield showed its support for the manager with a Kop mosaic in tribute to the Frenchman ahead of the Premier League clash with bitter rivals Manchester United which the Reds won 3-1 to move up to second in the table, Thompson revealing shortly afterwards how much the display had meant to Houllier who was now home and beginning his long road to recovery.

"When I spoke to Gerard last night he said he was deeply touched when he saw the mosaic on television”, Thompson said.

“His wife Isabelle was at the game and she was very emotional. When I came out of the tunnel and saw it, so was I.

“It was magnificent. The fans who organised that should be very proud of themselves. I know it took a tremendous amount of hard work."

Later that month, Houllier gave his first interview since taking ill to the ECHO and admitted he had put his life at risk by keeping his condition a secret from his players during that fraught half-time period in the Anfield dressing room.

"As manager I did not want to show that there was something wrong”, he said.

"Physically I felt something was wrong, but I did not show that to my players. If you show you are weak, the team will be weak. In my mind I could not allow that to happen.

"All I knew was that the outward look of Gerard Houllier was not what I was feeling inside which was real exhaustion. My brother Serge, who is a doctor in France, would later talk to the surgeon who operated on me. He said that for the previous two months there might have been a leak in the aortic valve in my heart.

"At half-time I felt something was wrong in my chest. I remember saying to Phil Thompson: 'Listen, the first half was poor. Leave the start of the team talk to me. I will also make one or two changes.'

"While I didn't feel right, I wanted to keep the players' self-esteem up. I didn't want them to go out in the second half with a lack of confidence or with their minds not on the game.

"I remember the doc telling someone to call my wife Isabelle and my friend Norman Gard who were sitting together in the Main Stand.

"I was still convinced I would be watching the second half of the game and asked when I could go back to the dugout. The doc said: 'No, you are going to hospital.’”

And the recuperating manager relived the moment when he realised he was in a life-or-death situation.

"One of the specialists, Dr Rod Stables, said to me: 'We will have to operate on you.'

"He added quickly: 'There is a significant risk with this type of surgery. There is no way we can transport you. We must do the operation now.'

"I didn't think twice. I said: 'Get it done. I've taken risks all my life.'

"But even then, I still somehow couldn't grasp just how serious things were. That changed when he said: 'Do you want to speak to some people?'

"I realise now what he was inferring. My wife Isabelle was with me and the words we exchanged are obviously very personal.

"It turned out to be a lot more complicated because the leak had been happening for a long time. The medical team was absolutely brilliant, led ultimately by a wonderful surgeon, Abbas Rashid, with support from Elaine Griffiths, Dr Jim Murphy and Dr Rod Stables.

"Mr Rashid is an expert in his field, but is such a humble person. He is the most human individual I have ever met.

"Likewise, the anaesthetist Jim Murphy kept me breathing for all those hours through an extremely complicated procedure. My brother-in-law is an anaesthetist and he knew how crucial Jim would be. He was brilliant.

"After the operation was over they kept me unconscious on a respirator in intensive care with the help of sedatives. I was out until the Monday morning and woke up progressively. Mr Rashid was there and he said it was a very emotional moment.

"When I smiled, he knew that everything was going to be okay.

"We knew it was very serious, but not for one single moment did I feel I was going to die. But the people around me knew I had been very lucky.

"If I had felt those symptoms two hours after the game, I would have told myself again that I was just tired and almost certainly I would have gone to bed.

"The other thought in my mind was that 24 hours later we were flying to Kyiv for a Champions League clash. If things had gone wrong when I was in the air… let's just say that somebody up there must like me.

"I feel I was in the right place with the right people - with the right expert hands. It was not luck that things happened the way they did. It was fate.

"The medical team are satisfied that the operation has been a total success. Now it's just a matter of time. I have been pleased to see everyone getting behind Phil. He deserved that and needed this support when some people suggested we might need an experienced caretaker manager. Phil embodies the spirit of Liverpool.

"The surgeon has told me that there should be no problems in the future and that I can become even stronger. The operation was a huge success and I owe my life to the Liverpool Cardiothoracic Centre and the people I have mentioned."

Houllier’s players had already demonstrated their depth of character during the previous season’s marathon Treble campaign and performed admirably in the difficult situation they now found themselves in, losing only one of the first 12 games of Houllier’s absence and going top of the Premier League in mid November after securing qualification for the next round of European football so beloved by their manager.

A trickier period followed with only one league win recorded in the nine matches played around the turn of the year dropping Liverpool to fifth but a gritty 1-0 victory at Old Trafford against a Manchester United side bouncing back from their own tricky spell having just won nine games on the spin steadied the ship and would ultimately help lead to the Reds’ then-best final Premier League placing of second, their highest since 1991.

Progress in Europe however would be more complicated. With the Champions League briefly experimenting with a second group stage before the quarter-finals, Liverpool’s Group B campaign had got off to the worst possible start when Barcelona gained revenge for the previous season’s UEFA Cup semi-final defeat by recovering from a goal down to win 3-1 at Anfield.

A goalless stalemate at AS Roma followed and, after the mid-winter pause, the Reds were only able to manage further draws home and away to Turkish side Galatasaray and away at Barcelona but the vagaries of group stage qualification meant - despite having only achieved four points from a possible fifteen - victory by at least two goals over the Italians at Anfield in the final fixture would be sufficient to see Liverpool progress to the last eight of Europe’s premier cup competition for the first time since 1985.

Houllier inevitably had kept in close contact with Thompson during the months of his rehabilitation, his obsessive love of football and his Liverpool project making it impossible for him to completely switch off as those closest to him would no doubt have preferred.

“I was in charge for five months and for three or four of those, Gérard was too ill”, Thompson recalled.

“I would walk to his apartment after matches, and talk to him about the game. He’d either watched on TV or listened on the radio. He’d ask what the team was going to be that week.

“‘Gérard, forget it. Concentrate on getting yourself better’, I would tell him.

“Gradually, as he started getting better, we started feeding him little bits of information. After four or so months, we’d tell him what the team would be – but it wasn’t until the last month that we would allow him some input, because we didn’t want him to be stressed.

“That March, to progress in the Champions League, we needed to beat Roma by two goals at Anfield. Gérard had always said: “If I’m needed, Phil, I will make my comeback in that game.”

After so long away from top-level European competition, the previous season’s UEFA Cup exploits had given a new generation of Liverpudlians a taste of the stories so many of them had been brought up on and there was already a huge sense of anticipation and excitement ahead of Roma’s visit, with Houllier’s men having seen off that season’s Serie A champions-elect - managed by the legendary Fabio Capello - en route to their Dortmund triumph over Alaves.

With the internet still in its infancy and social media still years away, Liverpool were able to keep plans of Houllier’s return to action quiet with even the players only getting an indication of what was going to happen when they met up at the team hotel for their traditional pre-match meeting on the afternoon of the game.

Some of them, notably Steven Gerrard, were shocked at how pale and gaunt Houllier looked after his illness but they were soon left in no doubt their old boss’s spirit was still intact after his address to them which the Frenchman later described as ‘an intense moment of happiness’.

“He said we would need to give 100% and then a bit extra,” defender Stephane Henchoz revealed.

“But when he told us he was coming to the game we all felt certain we would be able to find it.”

Phil Thompson was in no doubt either that Houllier’s return would provide an extra edge that might just make the difference given the task at hand on such an emotion-charged night.

“When he got on the bus to go to the game you could tell the players were lifted. It made for a magical night. I just knew we wouldn’t be beaten.

“Going along to Anfield, and coming through the Shankly gates, all the fans were clapping. You could see them all pointing at the front of the coach. The camera crews caught Gérard emerging off the bus, and you could feel the elation of the players.

“He got his red scarf and hung it around his neck – he was still frail – and coming down the steps touched the This is Anfield sign.”

Outside the tunnel, a packed and expectant Anfield had just given the two teams a rapturous reception onto the pitch when, to a blur of camera flashlights, Houllier emerged from the tunnel and was immediately enveloped in a hug by Roma manager Fabio Capello - a friend from their time working together on UEFA technical committees - with news of the manager’s return rapidly spreading around the ground to send the already electric atmosphere into a different dimension.

Facing a stellar Roma side featuring the likes of Francesco Totti, Gabriel Batistuta, Vincent Candela, Damian Tomassi and Emerson, Liverpool were not at full strength with Michael Owen out injured, Nicolas Anelka ineligible and Dietmar Hamann suspended but, with adrenaline coursing through their veins and Dr Abbas Rashid - the surgeon who had operated on Houllier - watching on from the directors’ box, the Reds tore into the Italians from the first whistle and grabbed an early stranglehold on the game they never looked likely to relinquish.

After only five minutes, Vladimir Smicer - who had scored the crucial opener in the earlier group stage decider against Dortmund - strode forward purposely before unleashing a 25-yard drive which Italian international goalkeeper Francesco Antonioli had to push behind at full stretch and, from the resulting corner, the ball dropped to Danny Murphy on the edge of the penalty whose legs were taken by midfielder Marcos Assuncao as he shaped to shoot leaving Norwegian referee Rune Pedersen no alternative but to point to the penalty spot.

As Anfield held its breath, Finnish veteran striker Jari Litmanen, standing in for Owen, stepped up to coolly send Antonioli the wrong way from 12 yards to give Houllier and Liverpool the dream start they had been praying for.

“King Midas has done it!”, proclaimed commentator Clive Tydesley to the national tv audience, “The very presence of Gérard Houllier has touched the Liverpool performance instantly!”

The job was far from complete yet with Roma only needing to avoid defeat to qualify and Liverpool knowing only a victory by two clear goals would guarantee their own progress without relying on help from the other group fixture between Barcelona and Galatasaray but, galvanised by the return of their leader, there was no let-up from the Reds who continued to pour forward and could have put the tie to bed before half time.

Emile Heskey’s physical presence at the point of the Liverpool attack was causing the experienced and robust central defensive duo of Uruguayan Walter Samuel and Brazilian Aldair all manner of problems and, after the England striker won a free kick for his side on the edge of the box, Steven Gerrard fired in a powerful drive which Antonioli was glad to see bounce off his chest to safety, with John Arne Raise flashing a trademark left foot rocket narrowly wide shortly afterwards.

The visitors began to show some of their threat with Jamie Carragher forced to make a crucial interception to stop an Emerson through ball reaching Totti and, after Gabriel Batistuta hit a free kick into the wall, the Argentina superstar was denied by a last-ditch Stephane Henchoz intervention when he looked odds to equalise from Emerson’s cross from the right.

The Reds were still pushing for the second goal they needed with Heskey going close with a header from a Carragher cross and Capello’s concern at his side’s first half showing was highlighted by the double change he made at the break, bringing on Vicenzo Montella and Marco Delvecchio for Francisco Lima and Batistuta.

The visitors began the second briefly with Totti twice being denied by a Dudek save and Henchoz block but they were still struggling to cope with Heskey, who won a free kick from Samuel which Riise was unable to find the target from and then left the Uruguayan standing with a rampaging run down the right flank that led to a corner from which Gerrard and Riise both went close.

As the hour mark approached, news came through that Barcelona had taken the lead in Istanbul against Galatasaray which meant if the scores stayed the same a 1-0 win for Liverpool would be sufficient, a relief to those in the ground aware of it with Roma again going close to equalising when Totti’s effort from Assuncao’s low centre was deflected wide and then Delvecchio flicked Candela’s cross narrowly over.

Those fears became academic after 63 minutes though when Liverpool doubled their lead with a goal greeted by a roar which nearly took the roof off Anfield. A clever Litmanen turn on the left flank saw him pulled back by midfielder Tommasi, who received a yellow card to go along with the two he had received in the previous season’s UEFA Cup tie, and from the resulting free-kick Danny Murphy’s inswinging delivery was met by Emile Heskey who hung in the air above his marker Aldair and directed a powerful downward header beyond Antonioli and into the net to send Anfield wild with delight.

Roma’s spirit was finally broken and, although they gamely kept pushing till the end with Totti, Montella and Emerson spurning half-chances to set up a grand finale, Houllier’s men were able to see the game without too much alarm to secure the 2-0 win which saw them qualify in second place behind group winners Barcelona and reach the quarter-finals for the first time in 17 years, the final whistle being met with jubilant scenes all around the ground.

An emotional Phil Thompson declared after the game the manager’s return to the dug-out had inspired both the team and the fans to produce one of the greatest nights Anfield had ever witnessed.

"He did his team talk beforehand which I was grateful for! He was ready and it was a very emotional night for him, the players and the fans. It was great for him and I was very pleased.

"It gave everyone a lift because Gerard inspires the players and the fans. If there was any night he was going to come back it was this one. Gerard has always said when these players want something badly they go and get it.

"They produced a fantastic performance and we've knocked out one of the best teams in Europe. I said at the start that Roma were my tip to win the European Cup so what we've achieved is magnificent.

"Gerard was fine and we knew it would be an emotional night. Gerard has always known when the time was right for him to come back and tonight was that night.

"This was a special atmosphere only Anfield can produce. This was St Etienne part two and the fans cheered every tackle and it's one of the greatest nights in this football club's history."

He also later revealed a hilarious moment which happened during the game which cut through the tension of an intense night of knock-out European football.

"I needed to get John Arne Riise's attention who was on the other side of the pitch. I whistled so loud that the crown on the top of my tooth fell out! I remember scouring the technical area whilst all the lads on the bench were in stitches.

“When I got in and watched the highlights on TV, the cameras caught me looking for my missing crown and the lads laughing their heads off. Let’s not forget this was a crucial Champions League tie and the commentator says:, ‘It’s great to see Liverpool haven't lost their sense of humour in such an intense atmosphere’. If only he knew!”

The shell-shocked Italians were generous and magnanimous in their reaction, "I've never seen Liverpool play like this," said Fabio Capello afterwards while admitting he thought the Reds could go all the way to the Hampden Park final if they continued in the same vein with Roma icon Francesco Totti later saying, "Despite the negative result, I have nice memories of that game. The atmosphere, the feeling, the passion of the fans - it was very impressive."

Houllier himself would later admit he probably came back from his illness too soon with his reign never quite hitting the same heights afterwards, Liverpool being knocked out in the quarter-finals by unfancied German side Bayer Leverkusen and not being able to build on the runners-up spot and record Premier League points tally they achieved at the end of that season.

“In hindsight, I came back too soon, I can say that,” he reflected years afterwards. “I did it for the game but maybe I should have rested more. It was difficult to finish the season.”

His devout passion and commitment for Liverpool meant he just could not keep away from Anfield that night however and years later he revealed how a seemingly insignificant moment during that Roma match confirmed to him he was back where he belonged and doing what he loved.

"I was not nervous because it was a tactical battle to win with Roma," he said. "All I remember is that when I went on the pitch, nobody knew but Capello saw me and he hugged me for a long time. He said later on, 'I knew that when you came back that it would be difficult.'

"So I tried to be focused. I think at the time we were 2-0 up and they changed their system because they knew that we were overrunning them with what we were doing on the pitch.

"Danny Murphy, he came over to me and asked me, 'Do we go back to a traditional 4-4-2?' because we had a diamond shape in the midfield. He wanted to see whether we would change.

"That, I would say, was a manager's moment, a coach's moment. The fans were really special. I was one of theirs, don't forget that.

"It was very emotional. I knew the surgeon was in the stands, my wife was in the stands. It was something really special."

*A version of this article was originally published in 2022.

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