It was as Gerard Houllier told me the story of how he had spotted Steven Gerrard that I began to realise the enormous differences that divide the English and French football systems.
Houllier told me the story in the bar of a Paris hotel the evening before he gave me a tour of Clairefontaine, the French football academy, which he runs as technical director of the French Football Federation.
The story went as follows:
He had been asked by Steve Heighway, then the Liverpool youth development coach, to come to a match where there was a promising youngster who it was felt might solve a problem position for Houllier in the Liverpool first team.
But during the course of this youth match Houllier’s eye was caught by another youngster: lanky, technically gifted, and capable of taking charge of a game.
Houllier asked who he was and was told he was Steven Gerrard.
At the end of the game Houllier asked a surprised Gerrard to report for training with the senior squad the next morning.
Houllier then went on to tell me how a year after his departure from Liverpool, as he walked into the Liverpool dressing room in Istanbul on the night of their epic 2005 Champions League triumph, Gerrard was the first to embrace him, call him “boss” and say it was his team that had won the Cup.
Now, of course, it would be wholly understandable that Houllier would want to present his time at Liverpool in the best possible light.
But the point about the Gerrard story was not just to embellish Houllier’s Liverpool CV. It was to demonstrate that in the English system players are often discovered quite by accident while the French have a system that leaves nothing to chance.
Even meeting Houllier at the Paris offices of the FFF, before he drove me to Clairefontaine, had revealed how very different the entire French system is.
I was only allowed into the inner sanctum of the FFF after I had deposited my passport with the receptionist. If this showed the security concerns in the centre of Paris then a tour of Clairefontaine, as Houllier took me round this lush, splendidly equipped academy, demonstrated why the French are not exaggerating when they call it the house of football.
This French house not only has five-star hotel facilities where the national team stay before matches but the sort of cuisine Gordon Ramsay would be proud of and budding players as young as 12 developing their skills under expert guidance.
The French believe that you need to get players young – one of the most remarkable of Houllier’s comments was that once a player reaches 16 a coach’s ability to improve him is limited, he can only improve another 20%.
In contrast to England, where club versus country is a recurring theme, the French have a system. I saw the French Under-21 coach instructing the coaches of first division clubs – unimaginable here.
As the French see it, the English don’t lack facilities but their attitude to coaching displays a distrust of anything planned or systematic.
Andre Merrelle works for Houllier and coaches the boys every day from 4pm. He took me to the changing rooms before we stepped on the training ground and it was clear his charges saw him as a father figure. He has been to various English clubs, proudly showed me his Blackburn shirt and just before we met had been entertaining Liverpool officials in charge of the Anfield academy.
“You know,” he said, “the Liverpool youngsters train four-and-a-half hours a week, my boys train ten hours a week. Liverpool’s training schedule is what a Paris amateur club might have.”
So is it all down to a distrust of planning and systems that the English traditionally have?
Houllier would not go quite that far but he did make the point that in France they would not dream of just appointing a player as the coach of a top team the moment he took off his playing boots. He went through the names – Bryan Robson, Stuart Pearce, Gareth Southgate – then wondered if a company would put someone in a top position if the person had no experience.
But perhaps it was best the English did not have a system because as we were about to part, Houllier, who had told me that the FA needed to get a Clairefontaine of their own, said he was frightened that if the English did get a proper system, they would be world beaters.
There was a twinkle in his eye as he spoke, making me feel that somehow he didn’t believe this would ever happen.