He entered Lille University to do a degree in English, but in the first year his father's serious illness forced him to drop out of full-time study and start work, eventually as a schoolteacher, while he completed his degree part-time. As part of his degree, he elected to spend a year in 1969-70 in Liverpool as an Assistant at Alsop Comprehensive School, and while there he attended his first Liverpool F.C. match on 16 September 1969 - a 10-0 thrashing of the Irish side, Dundalk. He became a confirmed Liverpool fan during his stay in the city.
He was a natural Football player, and at the time French football was a mixture of amateur and professional players. Although he had become deputy headmaster of the Ecole Normal d’Arras, at the age of 26 in 1973 he began his full-time managerial career as player-manager of Le Touquet. He later moved to Arras as youth coach, and Noeux Les Mines as Head Coach where he won two consecutive promotions into the French Second Division before moving to Lens F.C. in 1982. He took the Lens team to promotion and qualification for the UEFA Cup before moving to Paris St. Germain in 1985 - PSG won the French title the following year.
In 1988 Houllier was appointed technical director and assistant to the French national team, under manager Michel Platini. He became manager in 1992, though resigning in 1993 after the team failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup; however, he remained as technical director. In 1998 France won the World Cup and Houllier's contribution was recognised with the award of a special medal.
In 1998, at the age of 51, Houllier was invited to become joint team manager (together with Roy Evans) of Liverpool F.C. Unfortunately the arrangement did not work well and Evans resigned a few months later, leaving Houllier in sole charge of the team. In 1999 he began a programme to rebuild the team, which resulted in the extremely successful 2000-01 season, when Liverpool won the Worthington Cup (League Cup), the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup, as well as finishing third in the English Premier League, as well as the European Super Cup and the Community Shield.