Football fans are notorious for having short memories. It wasn’t that long ago that some of us were chanting for Houllier’s head – in one notorious case, with fifteen minutes to go in the FA Cup final, although this was from a unique ‘fan’ that has received his/her just desserts on the message boards. You have to wonder whether those people who wanted Houllier to do a Charles I were to be found among those who were nodding vigorously at the man who told the BBC during the victory parade in May that Ged was “the best coach in Europe”.
But while this article may seem like a tut-tutting of such fickleness, the truth is that I firmly believe people are entitled to be that fickle. It’s an emotional thing, following a team, and we can’t expect folk to constantly demonstrate a Bertrand Russell-like commitment to pure logic.
Besides, I hope people’s memories are so short-term that they forget that this column is essentially a regurgitation of a column first presented in the previous incarnation of this site about eighteen months ago. But while this may seem like a case of plagiarising my own work (or you’re too lazy to write an original column – James/Chris Mc), it is an important topic of discussion that needs to be brought to the attention of a wider audience (yeah, right – James/Chris Mc).
<Okay, if the Statler & Waldorf in the balcony have quite finished, I’ll begin. And, as often with me, I’ll begin at the end. When Sami Hyypia received the Uefa Cup with Robbie Fowler in Dortmund, it was the deserved reward for two years work that has seen him catapulted into the pantheon of Liverpool legends. It may seem like an exaggeration, but he is already been spoken of in the same hushed tones as Hansen and Lawrenson – that’s right kids, there are positive things to be said about Mark Lawrenson!
In hindsight, it seems obvious that he was going to be a class act. Purchased for a couple of million pounds from Willem II, he had just been part of an extremely unfashionable Dutch team that had qualified the Champions League. Even more encouragingly, his departure from Tilburg had led to many anguished wails from their fans. One Willem II supporter came onto the Shankly Gates.co.uk message board to damn us all to Hades for our act of grand larceny in taking Hyypia for such a small fee. He also wished Hyypia all the best because he wanted to see this great player do well. With a CV like that, Hyypia couldn’t fail, right?
Of course he could fail. For a number of years prior to Hyypia’s arrival on Merseyside, the Liverpool defence had been the footballing equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. Players entered and mysteriously vanished, never to be seen again. With the exception of Mark Wright, no player seemed capable of entering the Liverpool defence and surviving. It may seem incredible, but there was a time when the likes of Bjorn Tore Kvarme and Torben Piechnik looked like good players, but exposure to the radiation of the Liverpool defence would have cancerous consequences.
Those players were total turkeys anyway, Kvarme having all the football nous of a redneck quarterback and Piechnik had all the mobility and grace of continental drift. But Neil Ruddock, Phil Babb and John Scales – particularly the latter – all looked extremely useful at various stages of their career. But the dreaded curse of the media was upon one all that strayed into the Liverpool penalty area wearing red.
“Here we go again,” I hear you cry, “he’s blaming the press for all our ills.” It’s true, I tell ya, they are all out to get us! Seriously, the extent to which every calamity in the Liverpool defence was microscopically pored over by the hacks got to ludicrous levels. The press may seem like evil monsters bent on the destruction of any virtue in this universe, but they are all-too-human in one respect: they are lazy. Give them an easy story, like Liverpool’s Bambi-on-ice impressions in the defence, and hey presto! they will mine that story like George W. Bush unleashed in the Alaska wilderness. And the “crisis” in the Liverpool rearguard provided them with an inexhaustible supply of copy.
It was into this lamentable state of affairs that Sami Hyypia strode. Blond, blue-eyed (I think; I’ve never gotten close enough to be sure) and square-jawed, Hyypia didn’t just have to be good, he had to be brilliant from the word go if he were to succeed. And he wasn’t. In fact, he looked pretty awful to begin with. Remember his first home game at Anfield, when Tommy ‘I’d rather play with Birmingham than Everton’ Mooney twisted Hyypia around like spaghetti on a fork?
But hell, Sami was stronger than all that. He simply shrugged off the pricks and arrows from the gleefully spiteful press. More importantly, his increasingly commanding performances earned him the respect, then the affection, then the adoration of The Kop. This was the most important battle, because the fans craved a decent centre-back that they could look at with pride. And to our immense disbelief and delight, we gradually realised that we had one of the very best in England, and probably in Europe. Hyypia had been strong enough to weather the early struggles and carry on through to the triumphs of last season.
What Sami did was dispel the Curse of Liverpool. Even the smallest gaffe was going to see him being devoured. If you don’t believe me, just look at the David James experience. Highly rated when he joined us from Watford, he gave us several extremely reliable seasons, but every error he made was condemned as if he had committed genocide. The fact that no other goalie (with the exception of the side of Danish bacon up at Old Toilet) was any better was ignored. He was Calamity James and there was nothing he could do about it. No doubt we would have had Sami Oops-ia had he given them half a chance. But he didn’t give them a chance, and that’s what makes him so great.
It would be churlish to ignore the contribution of Stephane Henchoz. It takes two to tango, according to our resident Argie, and any time I’ve seen the Dynamic Duo in action, Henchoz has been the better player. But it was Hyypia who did the donkey work in building the foundations of our defensive solidity, and this is recognised in the affection within which he is held.
As Sami Hyypia lifted the Uefa Cup, it felt as if he had been a Red since signing forms as a schoolboy. With all due respect to Jamie Redknapp and Robbie Fowler, it seemed right. This player, who none of us had ever heard of just two years ago, has been the cornerstone of a rebuilding process which has go from struggling against Football League nobodies to toppling some of the mightiest names in Europe. It’s been a collective thing, of course. No man is bigger than the club (etc.) But does anyone seriously think we would have come this far without Sami Hyypia? I didn’t think so.