Oh Sami, Sami ...
Posted by Mark_P on May 13, 2009, 06:07:06 PM
It's July 1999. As Gerard Houllier and assistant Phil Thompson proudly show off the fruits of their close season labour, a Czech, pair of Dutchmen, Guinnien, Swiss, and Finn nervously smile for the camera in Anfield's Main Stand. Whilst Reds fans, still smarting from much heralded 'missing pieces' such as "the guv'nor" Paul Ince, could be forgiven for feeling underwhelmed by these low-cost buys from around Europe's bargain basements, had half the influence the £2.5m Sami Hyypia would have on Liverpool Football Club in the next decade been predicted, there would have been a Newcastle-esque crowd outside Anfield that July day for the man who would win medals galore and win the adulation of the Kop.
Ten years on from that summer, we prepare to say "hyvästi" to Hyypia, who leaves for pastures new in Leverkusen, taking with him the best wishes of the Kop, tributes from all who've played alongside him in the decade he's spent in Red, and a fair few medals thrown in that suitcase bound for Germany for good measure.
Prior to his arrival at Anfield, Hyypia had a brief trial with Kevin Keegan's free-scoring yet goal-gifting Newcastle in 1995. It's never easy to look back and predict how things may have panned out had history been different and Keegan decided to go with Sami, but his influence would've surely ensured that not only the Toon's much maligned defence not been their Achilles heel for so long, but our own pegging back and overtaking of Newcastle in the English football hierarchy since those few 1990s seasons would've been a lot harder.
And, being talked about as someone who could've stemmed the Geordie back line who later included the likes of Titus Bramble and Jean Boumsoung is praise indeed.
After the dark days of Babb, Ruddock, Scales and the ever-trying but ultimately inept Song, it is little surprise a central defender who could defend, keep concentration for ninety minutes and a model professional rather than a suscriber to the 'win or lose, we're on the booze' mentality of those who came before, it is little surprise Hyypia took little time to win over fans and teammates alike. It's often overlooked when looking at the early success of Houllier's reign; it seems only the dark days '03 onwards are remembered; but the partnership of Stephane Henchoz and Hyypia was a bedrock of the success enjoyed early on. From successfully shutting out Rivaldo, Kluivert et al in the Camp Nou, to ensuring Giggs, Scholes and the media's best team of the century were nullified at Old Trafford. Finally, ably aided by his solid and dependable future central partner Jamie Carragher, Henchoz and rapid right back Markus Babbel, we had a back four that could be depended on. By the end of the treble season, the £2.5m fee paid to Willem II had already been paid back in full. What came in the next eight years ensured Hyypia has paid back ten times that figure (Not literally Hicks and Gillett, before you go checking those accounts for £25m!) - with interest.
For much of the treble season, Hyypia's impressive displays had earnt his the captain's armband, and whilst Hyypia faded into the background at Cardiff and merely shared cup-lifting duties in Dortmund, there was little doubt who would be the captain of the club when Redknapp succumbed to various knee problems and was shipped off and Fowler's long running spat with Houllier and Thompson was ended when he was sold to Leeds.
After the steady rise of Hyypia's profile at the club earnt him the armband, consistant, highly commited performances became Hyypia's speciality; up to and including his most recent display at Old Trafford. But. whilst the goal that gave us the belief that we could beat Europe's best when Sami volleyed home against Buffon in the Juventus goal, the goal against United that marked his arrival at Anfield or his shackling of Europe's finest across the decade immediately spring to mind when looking back at Hyypia's LFC career, three things spring to my mind.
Middlesbrough in the 2005/06 season. It was a home match just prior we went to Japan for the World Club Championships, and with the game already won, there was an end of season feel to the game, as with a fortnight break, it was time to cheer the lads off to the Far East. Sami in typical Sami fashion bravely won a header late on in the game, clashing heads with the Boro centre forward, receiving a nasty gash to the head for his troubles. Whilst off the pitch for treatment, Sami received Vaseline, a bandage, and a swig of water, ran back on, and in his first action since returning to the action proceeded to rise above the same forward to meet a long Boro punt up field full on with his near crimson head!
Whilst that incident is a more obscure one to remember, the next one certainly isn't. Injuries in warm-ups are always drummed into substitutes minds prior to a game, and the phrase “always be ready” a byword for reserve wannabes and standby goalies alike. But when that call comes minutes before kick off at Old Trafford with the team's title hopes hanging by the weakest of threads, there aren't many who could step in and deal with Berbatov and Rooney among others with such aplomb and coolness, illustrated with his superb trapping of a ball that had travelled half way up the pitch, before picking out a midfielder with minimal fuss. It may seem like a trivial incident if you don't remember it. But with Rooney waiting to pounce, it was a crucial intervention that if many defenders had pulled off would be still on loop on Sky Sports. Sami typified in one moment – get the job done, and let others take the plaudits.
But, my favourite Sami Hyypia moment didn't occur on the field. It was an incident that sums the man up more than any article could. A change of captain can mean many things, and none of them can be interpreted in a positive way. Lack of faith in current captain, acts of ill-discipline, looking to get rid of the skipper are the usual reasons behind a shock captaincy change. It would be a lie to say when Steven Gerrard was handed the armband in 2003 things were going smoothly on the field, but Sami could've moaned and sulked. He'd have been well within his rights to look at his standing in the game and been able to take his choice of any European side after a move that was widely seen as a way of keeping Gerrard at the Reds. In age when footballers can pull over their sport car "shaking with rage" at their paltry offer of an extra £20,000 a week, or look for a move due to not feeling loved, footballers are an extremely sensitive species.
But Hyypia's response? Congratulate Gerrard and prove those critics who backed Houllier's decision with a baffling excuse his Liverpool career had fizzled out - it had hit a plateau certainly, but Hyypia's response was excellent. Dignified, professional and very much Sami Hyypia.
If the Dutch cameraman who brought Hyypia to Liverpool's attention in the mid-90s was to make himself known, he would be surely a quivering, alcoholic mess by next week such would be the demand to buy the man a pint by hundreds of thousands around the World. Let's hope for his own well-being he doesn't slip his identity into a conversation on Slater Street anytime soon.
And when Sami's “blonder than last May” head isn't clearing the ball from Singapore's finest in late July, it will be a strange sight. Hopefully it's “inabit” rather than “tara” for good, but one thing is for sure: when defensive heavyweights such as Smith, Hansen, Hughes and Lawrenson are mentioned in Liverpool all time XIs pub debates, and when the time comes to bore my Grandkids rigid with stories of great players I've had the privilege of seeing in Red, the name of that previously unheard of Finn who sat uncomfortably with a French hand on one shoulder and Kirby hand the other in 1999 will roll off the tongue as effortlessly as those afore mentioned legends.
"Hyvästi" for now, to a Liverpool legend.
"From corners he will score some, he's Sami Hyypia ..."
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