'The players would ring him all hours of day and night' - Liverpool's Evertonian fixer who became Gerard Houllier's best friend and was loved by Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher
A host of legendary Liverpool figures have paid tribute to the club’s former player liaison officer, Norman Gard, who passed away last weekend.
Norman, a passionate Evertonian, played a key role behind the scenes at Anfield for over 15 years before leaving the club in 2009, providing invaluable support for the Reds players and their off-pitch requirements.
The increasing influx of overseas footballers during that time made Norman’s role even more crucial and his influence went beyond the dressing room, becoming a trusted friend and confidante of manager Gerard Houllier, who himself died less than a year ago.
Iconic Anfield figures such as Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher Phil Thompson and Jerzy Dudek have all paid affectionate tribute in the wake of Norman’s passing and his son Jonathan said the outpouring of love for his father has been overwhelming.
“I've had literally hundreds of messages over the last few days”, he told the ECHO.
“There’s been calls from everywhere, from the Bolivian jungle to a Ghanian former youth player but also from the local lads like Robbie Fowler, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard which meant a lot, as they leaned on him a lot less as they had their own local support networks. The core of the Istanbul team were 'his' boys!
“I can't begin to describe how happy his job made him. He viewed all of them as 'his boys' and it kept him young.
“A while back his new passport arrived with his age four years younger, and he never corrected it so he didn't have to retire!
“When I was a kid, he'd done some work for 'First Wave Sports Management', an agency that had Robert Warzycha at Everton, one of their first foreign players, and were also involved in Teddy Sheringham’s transfer from Nottingham Forest to Tottenham.
“Dad was good friends with both Jim Greenwood at Everton and Peter Robinson at Liverpool, the Club Secretaries at the time and Jim was co-ordinating the north-west part of Euro 96, so hired my dad as Stadium Manager for Anfield. He was in charge of the logistics of games, and the teams based there, including Japan. The tournament was a massive success, and he had letters of recommendation from everyone from Sepp Blatter to Michel Platini.
“On the back of the tournament, Liverpool signed Patrik Berger (who we would forever refer to as dad's favourite son) and Peter Robinson took my dad on to look after him.
"Then the Premier League exploded, foreign signings multiplied and my dad's job expanded massively.
“Originally it was just sourcing language coaches, organising phones, finding them accommodation, but it became all-encompassing. For the younger players, he was definitely like their second dad.
“Once the new Melwood was being built, Gerard insisted that Dad's office was opposite his and it became the hang out of the foreign players. You'd always see Djimi Traore on Facebook on Dad's computer, Sami Hyypia reading his car magazines, and everyone else asking Dad to sort them out some free Nike gear before anyone else.
“Dad and Gerard became best friends and were almost inseparable, so much so that when my dad needed a bypass, Gerard made Dr Abbas Rashid, the surgeon who saved his life, operate on Dad too. Gerard was first in the recovery room with us, they were honestly like family.
“They'd then all meet up regularly, usually with Thommo, for dinner. The day Gerard died, many of the players including Robbie Fowler, calling from India, contacted Dad as they knew what he'd lost.”
Houllier’s assistant manager during his Anfield reign, former Reds European Cup winning captain Phil Thompson, said while many Liverpool fans would not have heard of Norman, his contribution to the success of that time was huge and should never be underestimated.
“The players absolutely loved him”, Thompson told the ECHO.
“They idolised him because he did so much for them. He never flapped when the players were wanting things and as you can imagine he was a bit of a counsellor to them at times because a lot of them were young boys so Norman was the perfect person to be, if I can say, at their beck and call. He had a lovely manner about him.
“I was always amazed, as you went into his office - and this is back in the days when chequebooks were used for more than they are now to pay things - the players would all give Norman their chequebooks and he would have them all in his drawer, he’d open the drawer and show them to me and there’d be like eight or nine chequebooks in there.
“Norman would have to write out their gas bills, electric bills, pay for any white goods they needed, many of their financial affairs, he house hunted with them, he helped them find cars they wanted .. he literally did pretty much everything for them and was probably one of the first really good player liaison officers and I think he made that into a real niche for himself.
“What was amazing as well was that Norman was a Blue so it was great to have him with us, and he then introduced Bill Ellaby, who was a good friend of Sammy Lee’s, to Everton and he - a big Red - became their player liaison officer!
“Norman was just a lovely character and nothing was ever too much trouble for him. The players would ring him up all hours of day and night, if their children were ill he’d rush a doctor out to their houses, he was always on call for the lads which made them feel comfortable and if they felt comfortable, they would play better.
“So it was a huge responsibility to keep the players as happy as he possibly could and they had a huge amount of trust in Norman. There was a really strong bond between them, and not just the players but their wives, children and families as well.
“He was such a trustworthy man. There would occasionally be things that would happen that the players could trust Norman not necessarily to come to Gerard or myself and tell tales, unless there was something extraordinary that needed to be done but even then he would inform the player first that he would have to let us know.
“Norman and Gerard were so close because, obviously while Norman was primarily there to look after the players who needed help with things, Gerard and his wife Isabelle were from France so he did everything for them as well. He was often picking Gerard up, driving him here driving him there, making sure he was okay because Gerard worked such long hours and he’d be ringing Norman up about all kinds of stuff.
“They had a really close relationship, they both lived in the south of the city not far from each other, so Norman could nip round there or vice versa, and that close bond really helped Gerard who was a bit of a workaholic.
“It’s been such a rotten time for Liverpool fans lately with all the greats who have passed away in recent months - Sir Roger obviously this week, Gerard last December of course, Ray Clemence, Gerry Marsden, the Saint as well.
“Very few Liverpool fans would know of Norman but his importance, not just to the football club, but to the players and their wellbeing, was massive.
“You look back at 2001 and the Treble season, winning five trophies in six months, the organisation that took on a continuous basis was immense and Norman had a lot to do with helping things go well.
“He played a huge, largely unnoticed part in our success but those of us within the club from when he came in the mid 90s to his departure during Rafa’s time were never in any doubt over the contribution he made to our development, it was absolutely vital.”
Norman, originally from Dingle, had moved to Portugal in recent years and it was there that he passed away last Sunday with his other son, Jefferson, alongside him, with the messages of love and support from both sides of Stanley Park pouring in as soon Jonathan announced the sad news on social media.
Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard both posted RIP messages on their Instagram feeds, while Everton great Peter Reid tweeted his condolences and fondly remembered the great laughs he had with Norman, Kevin Ratcliffe likewise remembering him as ‘a lovely man’.
Robbie Fowler sent his condolences via social media and said Norman would be ‘enjoying a glass of wine with his mate Gerard, proud of what he’s left behind’, while Xabi Alonso messaged Jonathan directly sending his condolences and recalling how Norman was “a great man” who helped him so much when he came to Liverpool.
Jonathan also received direct messages from Djimi Traore paying tribute to the guidance he’d received from Norman as well as the Reds' former Ghanaian youth star Godwin Antwi, who called Norman “a great gentleman who was a father to many people”.
Istanbul hero Jerzy Dudek, who in his autobiography said Norman was ‘Liverpool's own Winston Wolf' as quite simply he just fixed things got in touch via voice note.
“It is very sad news that Norman passed away”, Dudek said.
“After I finished my football career we met many many times and I went to visit him in Portugal. He also came to see me in Poland where we went to visit Auschwitz and also the salt mines in Krakow as well as playing golf.
“I have great memories of Norman, he gave me a lot of good advice when I first came to Liverpool, particularly over where to live and also where to send my son to school and we were very happy with the decisions he helped us make.
“He never panicked, he would have so many requests from the players and the wives - tickets for the games and he had to organise so many things - but he was so calm about everything we were able to concentrate on the game and that was impressive.
“I spoke with him after Gerard Houllier left us and they were very good friends and stayed very close. It is really sad for us former players who knew Norman and of course his family. I will remember him as a really nice and excellent person with a lot of impressive calm and humility.”
“The best thing I remember is how Dad just treated everyone the same”, Jonathan added.
“Despite him being a boyhood Evertonian, his love for 'his' boys made him at least want LFC to do well. That and the bonuses!
“It was always a challenge when the derbies came round though, as whatever the result, he'd have players in the room slaughtering him the next day.
“He always had his 'worlds best Evertonian' mug on his desk to push back a little bit. But I think being a blue helped, he wasn't starstruck or after shirts every five minutes!
“He'd be in the gym at Melwood, get treatment off the physios and loved the life. He'd always have two phones on the table at dinner, and work was 24-7, but he loved it. If someone had a crash, they'd call him before they called the police.
“I've seen him in the Players Lounge or Managers Room after the match, with the biggest names in football and entertainment, and he treated everyone the same. It's been remarkable that not only have I had messages from players who worked with him every day, but canteen staff, staff on the gates of Anfield and Melwood, people from the club shop, even people from the apartments he'd put people in when they arrived!
“One of his proudest days was when Dirk Kuyt flew him over to his testimonial / final game in Holland. Loads of the lads went and Dad felt so loved. That and going to Xabi Alonso's wedding. Xabi and his wife Nagore loved him so much, they made him feel like it was his day, not theirs!
“We don't need to worry about how he's remembered, as this week has been the greatest eulogy possible for him.”