FOOTBALL: FA CUP FINAL 2001: ARSENAL v LIVERPOOL - ABIDE WITH MOI, BOYO!; History will be made today when two French managers lead out foreigner-dominated teams to play the English Cup Final.. in Wales.
ARSENE WENGER has been joking this week that they might as well play the FA Cup final in Paris as in Cardiff.
There will not be a Welshman on the pitch nor on the bench, but there will be plenty of Frenchmen.
Certainly, a little slice of history will be made when two Gallic managers lead out Arsenal and Liverpool.
It will be the first time that two foreign managers have met in the FA Cup final, and the expected number of overseas players - 12 not including substitutes - will also be a record for the famous old competition.
The match will be watched by a record overseas audience because of the number of foreign players involved, and the interest in France is almost as intense as it is over here.
The focus of all the attention is the two managers who have been lifelong friends and now come face to face as rivals at the Millennium Stadium.
For Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier there is a massive irony in the fact that he will walk out at Cardiff directly alongside fellow countryman Wenger.
The two have been close for 20 years after taking their coaching badges together, and during those years, no matter where in the world they were, they would talk every week on the telephone.
That routine has remained unchanged this week, despite what is at stake this afternoon.
"We have talked this week - in French of course - about the irony of it all and how strange it is that we should be taking our teams to the Cup Final," said Houllier.
"If you'd have said back in 1982, when we were both taking our pro-badge on the UEFA coaching course, that we would be in the FA Cup final 20 years on, then we would have laughed.
"How could you imagine that we would be so close, speaking to each other every week, no matter where we were, and then end up matching ourselves against each other like this. Life is strange.
"We are close and we share the same passion and commitment to football. Arsene is like me. He lives football night and day. Ten years ago we were together at the Under-20 World Cup in Portugal, and we would spend so much time taking in the matches, and then going back to the hotel to watch football videos.
"He is a very good coach and I know that he will be a formidable opponent in the FA Cup final. He has built a very good side."
Yet Wenger believes the French revolution sparked by both he and Houllier may never have happened if the Liverpool boss had taken charge at Sheffield Wednesday when he had the chance.
Houllier might not be seeing the funny side of anything now if he had opted to go to Hillsborough instead of Anfield three years ago after he finished his stint as France's Technical Director with the World Cup triumph of 1998.
He telephoned Wenger for advice and was steered towards Liverpool and, eventually, to today's meeting of French minds.
Wenger added: "Gerrard started in France when I started, in 1982. He is a good friend. Before he made the decision to go to Liverpool I met him in Paris and he told me all the offers he had had.
"I gave him my view about English football and about the potential of the clubs who wanted him.
"There was Liverpool, Sheffield Wednesday and others. He was technical director and national coach in France, so he has always had contacts here and was always in touch with people in this country.
"He spoke good English, that was the first thing. Then I told him the bigger the club, the better, and Liverpool is a giant in England, so at least there was potential.
"I also told him he must have players who have commitment, because good technique is not enough in England. I think he has done remarkably well."
Title dreams are for next season for both men. This time around, though, there is more on offer for Houllier, as he seeks a unique treble of the FA Cup, UEFA Cup and the Worthington Cup, which has already been claimed.
Wenger has only today to end the unexpected famine of silverware there has been at Highbury since the Double of 1998.
He said: "After beating Leeds to secure our place in the Champions League, it would be great to finish off the season by lifting the FA Cup - especially as we have under-achieved at times this season and not been more of a threat to Manchester United in the league.
"At Arsenal, if we don't win everything then people will say we have under-achieved.
"But that is a compliment to the club. Even if people have had mixed feelings about my team this year, I still feel it can be a big season." For Houllier, the priorities may be different. He has a huge league match at Charlton next weekend when he must try to secure qualification for the Champions League.
Houllier admits he has Liverpool in his blood after becoming hooked on the club when he taught on Merseyside in the late 1960s, and he believes Wenger has the same passion for Arsenal.
Wenger only has a year left on his Highbury contract, and speculation has been rife about his future plans. But Houllier is convinced he will sign a new deal, even though Manchester United are reported to be interested in him.
"It's uncanny isn't it?" said Houllier. "I have Liverpool in my heart, and I think Arsene has Arsenal in his.
"I know that even when he was manager at Monaco, he used to come over and watch Arsenal, because he had a feeling for the club.
"Now he is manager there, and has done a wonderful job. I believe that's because he has the club so deep inside him.
"He has been linked with United when Sir Alex Ferguson leaves, but I don't think he will go there because he loves Arsenal so much. I have a feeling he will stay, because he is an Arsenal man, just as I'm a Liverpool man."
Despite their obvious respect and admiration for each other, Houllier could not resist starting the mind games ahead of today's showdown with a mischievous offering.
"I would say that Arsenal are slight favourites," he said.
"They maybe have a bit more experience and perhaps are a bit better than us.
"But we have been defying the odds all season - maybe we can once more."
HOULLIER is planning the second part of his treble; BON AMIS: Wenger (left) with pal Houllier in France in 1992; WENGER is hoping for one prize this season
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||May 12, 2001|
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