In Gerard Houllier's first season at Liverpool in 1998-'99, he was asked by Steve Heighway to come and watch a specific club underage game. There was a lad starting who the then youth coach felt could solve a problem position for the first team. Houllier went along but kept getting distracted. Not by his mobile or any other affairs, but by another youngster who was taking charge of the match. Houllier asked his name and, once the match was finished, went straight to an astonished Steven Gerrard to instruct him he'd be training with the first team the following morning.
Promising as the young Gerrard was, it wasn't until the 2000-01 season that he really came to the fore. And that coincided with another Houllier coup. Not that many saw it like that at the time. Indeed, Jamie Carragher has admitted there was only shock in the Liverpool dressing-room when Houllier signed a 36-year-old Gary McAllister in the summer of 2000. Carragher also admitted, however, that McAllister became "one of the most astute purchases Houllier made... I'm sure the two years many of us spent working with him had a huge influence on all our careers."
Houllier's own career as a manager comes with many legitimate questions. Through his time with Paris St Germain, France, Liverpool and Lyon, his steeled but ultimately strait-jacketed approach appeared capable of taking sides to a certain level but never any further. All his teams were competitive but none truly captivating. It's still difficult to see Houllier, in the long term, taking Aston Villa beyond the plateau Martin O'Neill reached.
His career when it comes to the nurturing of youth, however, is almost beyond question. Yes, the promotion of Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan and Jonathan Hogg to Villa's first team against Manchester United last week may have been born of necessity rather than the manager's nous. But, as the Gerrard story emphasises, there are very few managers in the world who nourish young potential so well. France's greatest ever generation of players, developed under Houllier at Clairefontaine in the mid-90s, are testament to that.
In that context, the signing of Robert Pires this week – as with McAllister at Anfield – may yet prove to be another masterstroke. His 37-year-old legs are unlikely to offer the kind of interchanges or exceptional chipped finish that he did at Villa Park en route to Arsenal's double in 2002. But he will balance out the energy of Villa's young graduates with great experience. As Houllier's assistant McAllister insisted himself this week, "he's a player everyone can look up to because of what he has achieved".
The manner in which Bannan and Hogg lived with Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher in midfield last week as well as the penetration of Albrighton on the right have, literally, rejuvenated a stale-looking Villa. It also gave a different sheen to the perceived dourness of Houllier's new regime.
The brain and artistry of Pires are likely to help that process, but it's still the sort of signing you would associate more with Houllier's opposing manager today, Sam Allardyce. Although it's perhaps an unfair generalisation given the Blackburn manager's previous promotion of Nicky Hunt and Joey O'Brien, he is much more famed for taking a last punt on ageing or out-of-sorts talents than youth development. And, with Allardyce expected to push Blackburn's new Indian owners for as much money as possible in the January transfer window, that's unlikely to change. Despite the takeover – as well as Allardyce's own aspirations of managing an Inter Milan or Real Madrid – there's still an element of Groundhog Day to his own career. It's hard to escape the feeling that his Blackburn will go the same way as his Bolton: fighting and clawing their way up the table, maybe picking up a Carling Cup along the way, until eventually he feels set again for a new challenge.
Houllier's youngsters will at least provide a more immediate one, as well as energise a match that could well have been reduced to a battle.