Replacing A Legend

Posted by Paul Tomkins on April 22, 2005, 01:46:49 PM

Replacing A Legend - Sample Chapter from Golden Past, Red Future

The signing of Djibril Cissé proved to be Gerard Houllier's final piece of business as Liverpool manager before clearing his desk and bidding his colleagues farewell. The young French striker was also the last in a lengthy line of replacements Houllier tried to find following his most controversial transaction: selling 'God' (otherwise more modestly known as Robbie Fowler) in October 2001. Houllier was sacked before Cissé –– the club's record signing at £14.2m –– had even arrived for his first training session session: three years spent pursuing France's hottest young prospect, and the deal coming to fruition too late to save the manager his job. The striker chose Liverpool ahead of other tempting offers, on account of the club's long-standing interest, and also the involvement of Houllier, who Cissé felt had great trust in his ability.

   Following the dismissal of his compatriot, Cissé quickly clamied that he was equally happy to play for Benítez (while he may also have been nervous at how the new man regarded him, he would also have approved of Benítez' pedigree), and Benítez made it perfectly clear how pleased he was to be inheriting a player he'd coveted while in charge at Valencia: he was quick to relate that his technical director and chief scout always talked about Cisse, saying 'If you'd had him you would win the league for another three years'.

   It could be argued, with hindsight, that Cissé's chances of settling quickly were hindered by the exit of the club's French manager, its Gallic coaching staff, and a whole raft of French-speaking players. As it was, settling into the English game and learning the language proved to be the least of the player's problems, as tragedy –– in footballing terms –– struck, and he ended up in hospital undergoing surgery to repair his shattered leg.

   The curse of the Liverpool no.9 shirt –– which dates back to the late 1990s –– lived on for yet another season. Such a potent symbol for so many years –– the bold white numeral '9' on a blood-red shirt shorthand for the word 'goal'. Now a symbol of hex, as goals scored by the players wearing the famous shirt dried up.

   First Fowler succumbed to a succession of serious injuries, to the point where, when he was fit enough to play, it was blindingly obvious that while still gifted, he was no longer the player once so venerated by the Kop. Struggling for peak fitness, he was low on the one thing he once seemed replete with: confidence. Weighed down with the worries of the world, and a few extra pounds, he was no longer playing with the carefree enthusiasm had been his greatest strength. (What a sad sight in subsequent seasons, seeing Fowler as a pale –– and sometimes overly-large –– shadow of the player so fondly remembered by the Anfield faithful). Eight years in the Liverpool team, and it was a career of two halves: the first four years producing a sackful of goals, the second four resulting in a far less impressive return. If Manchester United fans still mourn the exit of George Best at the age of 26, and all the unfulfilled potential (despite achieving much, and being brilliant for most of his time at the club), then Fowler –– while clearly not Liverpool's greatest-ever player –– must go down as its greatest under-achiever. Or rather, to put it more accurately, the player who lit up the pitch for a number of seasons, only to leave in his mid-20s, denying the fans the later years of a career that seemed destined to be played out in red, and in  so doing, leaving a sense of incompletion and unfulfilled promise. If it seems daft to suggest someone who scored 171 goals for the club in 330 games failed to deliver on his potential, then such were the standards he set from 1993 to 1997, as he edged towards 40 goals a season.

   Next Nicolas Anelka had a short spell in the shirt, but was overlooked by Houllier when it came to a permanent deal; a situation which led to recriminations in the press, and bafflement from many fans. If the sale of Fowler, for £11m, looks better business with each passing season, the nagging reminder is that £10m of that fee went on El Hadji Diouf: a player who would hardly cover himself in glory at Liverpool, either on or off the pitch. Even in Fowler's last full season he scored 17 (mostly crucial) goals for the club. Diouf became the first ever no.9 in Liverpool history to go a goalless league season at the club, and scored only one further league goal after his bright home debut. (Diouf, while on loan at Bolton, scored eight goals, and was hailed as a great success. And yet eight is hardly very many by Liverpool standards.)

   Finally, Cissé arrived with a massive reputation and rampant expectation, but before he'd even had a chance to adjust to the English game he suffered a comminuted fracture of the tibia and fracture of the fibula. A truly gruesome injury, from an innocuous-looking challenge at Blackburn Rovers in October. (How on earth can one league fixture throw up –– and that is an apposite phrase following the slow-motion replays of Cissé's leg snapping –– three broken bones to Liverpool players in just 180 minutes of football over a 15 months period?). A little over two months into the season, and his campaign was over. Reports later confirmed that a complication with damaged nerves in his leg meant it came close to being amputated, but a full, and speedy, recovery appears to have taken place. Cissé taking to the pitch as a late substitute at the Stadio Delle Alpi on April 13th, with Liverpool leading Juventus 2-1 on aggregate, was one of the sights of the season. It was also slightly surreal, in that not only was he back four months earlier than anticipated, but Liverpool were just minutes from the semi-final of the Champions League. It capped a perfect night.

   The first couple of months of Cissé's Liverpool career were, on balance, little more than average –– displaying some promise without hitting the heights expected. While comparisons between Cissé and Thierry Henry were inevitable, given both are tall, black, turbo-charged players of French descent, their styles are actually rather different: Cissé preferring to work centrally on the shoulder of the last man (like a taller, faster Michael Owen), while Henry's unique talent sees him drifting all over the pitch looking for space to influence the game, especially favouring the left wing. To those who wrote off Cissé's career after an inauspicious start it is worth noting that Thierry Henry started his Highbury career even less-impressively. It took the Arsenal man 17 games to reach the three goal mark, while Cissé had three in fifteen when injury struck (plus three more on the pre-season tour of America, including two fine finishes against Celtic). As Cissé works his way back to full fitness via a number of brief cameos, his stats will surely only look less impressive, but 2005/06 is when the club can expect to see the player at his best.

    Cissé was also not a regular starter in those early months of 2004/05, as Benítez  experimented with a lone striker; Cissé and Baros tending to take it in turns to start and then replace one and other around the 70 minute mark. Then, as the autumn approached, Cissé either started or ended matches on the right wing, where he proved surprisingly effective. There were no fancy tricks, just the simple tactic of knocking the ball past the full-back, safe in the knowledge that he could give anyone a five-yard head-start and still beat them over twenty. While centre-forward remains his true position, with Benítez, like so many of his peers, employing the 4-5-1 formation in many  games, it could be that Cissé spends more time on the right once he regains his fitness –– especially as Fernando Morientes is ideal for the lone striker role. If that proves to be the case, then there is still much Cissé can offer, as well as the prospect of dovetailing with the Spaniard when the manager opts for a 4-4-2 formation.

   Anyone who saw the goals Cissé regularly plundered in France will tell you what a special talent he is. Instant judgments in England have tarnished his reputation somewhat, but he looked a 'proper' finisher in his homeland, scoring all kinds of goals: volleys, chips, headers, poacher's goals, as well as the obvious examples where his blistering pace left defenders not so much for dead as readily embalmed and placed in a mausoleum. But make no mistake –– he is not some quick 'headless chicken' type, but a player with capabilities on the ball (as his reverse nutmeg on his home debut against Man City evinced), even if he will obviously never have the guile and craft of a Dalglish or a Beardsley. Cissé's record of 72 league goals in 123 starts (and a further 14 substitute appearances) for Auxerre is absolutely top-rate by anyone's standards. Anyone who claims, in the hope of demeaning Cissé's achievements, that the French league is easy for strikers, should note that the top scorers in that country rarely match the amount of goals plundered by the Premiership's top scorers. Goals are more difficult to come by in Ligue Une. French football is one of the five major leagues in Europe, along with Spain, Italy, Germany and England. The pedigree is there.

   For example, Didier Drogba managed 18 Ligue Une goals in 2003/04 at Marseilles, and as second-top league scorer in France that season earned a £24m move to Chelsea (based also on his fine European record during that campaign). At Monaco, Fernando Morientes managed just nine league goals, but of course also scored that many again in a dazzling run to the Champions League final. So when put into context, Cissé's 26 league goals during that campaign are not to be sneezed at, especially as he wasn't playing in one of the truly outstanding French sides. In fact, during his time at Auxerre, the club had spent most of its time just outside the top three: a good side, but never a great one.

   There was one moment, in the home fixture with Charlton, when Cissé appeared to break the speed of sound –– or possibly even the speed of light, as as he appeared to catch a ball he knocked 30-yards into space before it had even left his foot; he was near the halfway line, and in the blink of an eye down by the corner flag. It is harder to recall a quicker burst of pace in the history of Anfield. (Paul Steward certainly never came close) As the quickest striker in the country –– all being 100% well in his rehabilitation –– Cissé will force defences to drop a lot deeper than they need to against the sprightly (but not super-quick) Baros. Teams know their quickest defender can catch Baros –– that won't be true of Cissé. Of course, the deeper a defence sits, the further forward Fernando Morientes can position himself, and therefore the threat of him scoring from crosses into the box greatly increases. If teams push out to negate Morientes' aerial prowess, to keep him 40 yards from goal –– and even he doesn't score 40-yard headers –– then that provides the space for Cissé to run into. Only time will tell how effective the partnership proves, or indeed, if Benítez opts for something, or someone different. That Cissé got himself back into contention so quickly owes a lot to the fine medical staff, but also speaks volumes of the player himself. He was told he'd have to work hard, and work hard he did. Many reports from inside the club emphasised his diligent approach and positive attitude. The hairstyles may suggest a flash young man preferring style over substance, but the way he reacted to adversity, and the dedication shown in his rehabilitation, clearly proves otherwise.

   The best thing, from Liverpool's point of view, was the perspective it gave the player. His comments, as his return to first team action beckoned, were extremely refreshing: "I want to say that to all the football players in the world, all the professionals who think they are hard done to or have things to complain about," he said, speaking in April. "They all complain, you know, about things like having to run for 30 minutes or do something they don't fancy, and they moan. But that is ridiculous –– we are so lucky and I really appreciate that now. I just wish all footballers could realise that. It is a job, sure, but it is a passion. Can you believe we get paid to do that? You see so many stupid things happening in football, and I just want to tell those guys how lucky they are. I'm not exaggerating to say that it is close to a miracle that I am playing again at this stage. It is miraculous and I count my blessing that I can be playing now in this game."

   Amen to that.


El Hadji Diouf
Djibril Cissé arrived at the club to find negative parallels instantly drawn with a previous expensive signing of Houllier's from France, El Hadji Diouf. Such a judgment was pronounced, by the Daily Mirror, after just one game –– in which Cissé also happened to score a great striker's goal. Others took a little longer to reach that conclusion, but it was still a premature assessment. The 'logic' ran, that even Diouf scored two goals on his debut. (A statement in itself incorrect: it was his home debut, and his second league start –– the first being at Villa Park). As such, Cissé would prove equally useless.

   That paper's opinion that Cissé didn't even look like a footballer would remain one of the most bizarre pronouncements of the season. The hairstyle and bleached-blonde goatee may have differed from the 'norm' (and certainly wasn't something stylistically akin to World Cup-winning footballers like Nobby Stiles and Bobby Charlton, while it is equally implausible to imagine Ron Yeats or Tommy Smith sporting a peroxide-blanched style), but aside from his tonsorial extravagance it's hard to think how much more you could want in terms of physique –– surely the only thing to judge whether or not someone looks like a footballer. If Cissé was fractionally less muscular than Emile Heskey, the man he was replacing, then that was more to do with Heskey having a heavyweight boxer's musclebound build (despite an all-too-frequent failure to punch his weight).

   That Cissé later found himself utilised on the right wing seemed to compound such bizarre and hasty parallels drawn with Diouf. The two players couldn't be more different; they just happen to come from French football, be black, and cost £10m or more. Beyond that, there is little linking the two as players.

   Both arrived in England at roughly the same age and an identical stage of their careers, but whereas Cissé had 72 league goals to his name, Diouf had only managed fractionally over a quarter of that amount –– a very modest 20. To be blunt, Diouf had never been a goalscorer, so it remains a matter of some puzzlement that he arrived with the nickname 'Serial Killer' when his scoring record was never outstanding. Cissé, by contrast, was a thoroughbred. In fact, despite a decent scoring run during his loan period at Bolton, the Senegalese is still nowhere close to matching his league goals tally to the amount of league bookings he has accrued. While he has undoubted skill on the ball, such statistics over the course of a series of seasons don't lie –– they merely confirm that the player doesn't score enough goals, and gets himself into far too much trouble. Houllier's thinking in signing Diouf seems to have been along the lines of deploying him just behind Owen, in the 'hole', to link the midfield with the attack –– a long-standing problem for his side. (Something Nicolas Anelka had shown promise with during his brief stay at Liverpool, and a role Jari Litmanen had earlier been earmarked for, without ever getting the chance to fully prove it).

   Diouf's international record for Senegal was fairly impressive, but due mostly to plundering hatfuls against minnows in qualifying campaigns. In the finals of three major tournaments –– two African Nations Cups and a World Cup –– when up against superior opposition, his record stands at just one goal in close on 20 games. While the World Cup of 2002 brought him to the world's attention (and to the attention of Liverpool fans), it was more for his work outside the box, not least turning an ageing Marcel Desailly inside-out on the left flank in the build up to the winning goal in Senegal's shock 1-0 victory over holders France in the showpiece tournament-opening game.

   Things could have been very different for Diouf, Houllier and Benítez. Before the World Cup, Diouf had been close to signing for Valencia. It is unclear how much involvement Benítez had in the decision to pursue the player, given transfers were handled by the club's Director of Football. Liverpool then made their move, and secured the player's services, after which Houllier claimed the deal was agreed before the France game. It's fair to say the Liverpool fans would have been far from impressed by the club paying £10m for a player they'd never previously heard of. The game in June 2002 changed that overnight, so fans were understandably excited by the arrival of a player who had played a large part in destroying the reigning world champions. Hindsight tells of the distortion of that game: France went on to have a truly atrocious tournament, and Diouf had just played the game of his life. If Liverpool fans were to conclude that this –– on their first glimpse of him –– was the level the player reached on a weekly basis, they would be very much mistaken –– and not a little disappointed. The deal that would take him to Anfield was announced shortly after that memorable World Cup opener, and it was a truly exciting time. While many fans had hoped to see the Robbie Fowler fee spent on Anelka, given the player's abilities were well known and tested, they were also happy to accept the possibility that a relative unknown could present a pleasant surprise. The fact that the Italian press contained mournful editorials about how another gem had eschewed their league and instead opted for England, seemed to merely confirm that Liverpool had captured a real prospect. The Liverpool strike-force would be led by the reigning European Footballer of the Year, and his African counterpart. The side which finished 2nd in 2002 would now have the attacking quality to make the push for the title 2003. In theory, at least. How different it proved.


Emile Heskey
A perennial under-achiever at Anfield, Emile Heskey promised so much but ultimately delivered far less than was wished for. Aside from his first full season, when at times he looked a world-beater (despite the familiar periods of ineffectiveness), his contributions –– still often telling –– were just too few and far between. It's hard to think of a player any central defender would less like to face, assuming Heskey was fired up and on top of his game; alas, that wasn't always the case. There were no physical frailties, just mental ones.

   Heskey wasn't purchased to replace Fowler per se, but Houllier long had the burly Leicester player in mind as a more suitable partner for Michael Owen (dating back to an England U21 match he watched), and the Heskey-Owen axis duly became Houllier's no.1 pairing.

   That great debut season was as good as it got. There was a two-month spell when he could do no wrong, and was simply sensational. He tried things, and they came off –– such as the subtle lob with the outside of his foot, arcing over Coventry City's Chris Kirkland and into the Kop net. Heskey played his part in the run in on the way to securing the treble, but the goals had dried up –– and such barren spells became the norm, not the exception. Like Diouf he has since scored a reasonable amount at a club with less pressure and expectation, but both have been considered successes without reaching double figures. Liverpool expects twenty goals.

   There can be little doubting Heskey's ability –– witness his demolition of the Argentine defence on his England debut at Wembley, or when he ran Maldini, Canniavaro, Nesta and co ragged in Italy –– but the self-belief was never what it should have been, and his positive contributions, hard work aside, became increasingly fitful. Houllier fought an ultimately futile battle to try to rouse the big man, repeatedly stating that the player just needed to believe in himself. The sale of Heskey to Birmingham, for £6m, was rubber-stamped by Houllier, and Cissé –– a less introverted player on the pitch –– was signed as his replacement. 


Nicolas Anelka
The loan signing of Nicolas Anelka in December 2001 signalled one of the more surprising transfers in Liverpool's history, but an intriguing one nonetheless. Houllier remembered how jaw-droppingly impressive Anelka was in the French youth system, and the Liverpool manager had seen some wonderful talent emerge during his time at Clairefontaine, the French national coaching centre, in the mid-1990s. Thierry Henry was an outstanding player, as was David Trezeguet, and were partners in the side that won a European Youth Championship trophy. But on the bench for the final was Anelka, 18 months their junior, and seen as having even more natural talent. Subsequently it became clear that the main difference between Anelka and those two superstars was purely down to attitude. Anelka's was possibly not as bad as the press made out, but it was far from perfect –– he trained hard, and got on reasonably well with his colleagues, but he remains one of those strange personalities who never quite fits in wherever they go, and who says the wrong things at the wrong time. Perhaps he just refuses to say what people want him to, and transgresses the diplomatic etiquette of football.

   In 2000 Houllier had stated that Anelka was a future European Footballer of the Year. (Perhaps without realising that he had the next European Footballer of the Year on the staff already: one Michael Owen, who would win the award in 2001). And yet at the time of his arrival at Anfield, Anelka's career was in decline. After his stunning breakthrough into the Arsenal side as a 18-year-old –– supplanting Ian Wright alongside Dennis Bergkamp and scoring the goals that led the side to the double in 1998 –– he went on to complete just one further season at Highbury, before the £500,000 signing was leaving for Real Madrid at a 4600 percent mark-up. The youngster's knack of procuring major medals was as strong as ever, as Madrid won the 2000 Champions League. But his time at the Bernabeu was not a happy one, and he was soon moving back to his first club, Paris St Germain, for another £20m fee. Before too long he was on the bench, and not getting a look-in. When Houllier rescued him from the team he himself had guided to the title in 1986, Anelka was out of condition, and low on confidence. It seemed like he needed someone to show faith in him, and to get him enjoying his football again.

    The Frenchman, nicknamed 'Le Sulk', slotted back into English football with relative ease, and scored a fine goal in the 3-0 FA Cup win over Birmingham City, where he linked impressively with Michael Owen. Surely a sign of things to come? As it transpired, Anelka never really managed a regular run in the side, and found himself behind goal-shy Emile Heskey in the pecking order. Anelka's arrival perhaps helped provide Heskey with the kick-up-the-backside he'd been in need of –– it won't have helped his fragile confidence, but it did appear to make him more proactive for a while –– but it was no accident that the fine end to the season coincided with valuable contributions from Anelka. His link-up play was at times exceptional, and his positive approach with the ball at his feet when drifting wide put Heskey's 'safety first' attitude to shame. (Funnily enough, Heskey had impressed in his early days at Anfield by running at defenders, but perhaps his sizeable self-doubt stopped him taking these 'risks' more often, and had him opting to play it safe). There were several memorable moments of brilliance from Anelka, not least in the 3-0 defeat of Newcastle –– whose defenders simply could not get to grips with the way he dropped deep to collect the ball, before sprinting at pace at their back line. It was an electric display, and with his increased fitness came greater sharpness, and the old confidence –– or arrogance –– came flooding back. One single drop of the shoulder at Middlesborough sent no fewer than three defenders the wrong way, before his pinpoint cross set up Didi Hamann for a shooting chance, the rebound of which Heskey tucked away from close range.

   If Anelka had promised much, it was also true that he didn't make it impossible for Houllier to refuse a permanent signing, when the time came to make the loan deal permanent with a £13m transfer from PSG. It was fair to say that a consistent run in the side –– which all strikers need in order to find their form and rhythm –– would have helped him make his case more emphatically. If managers are ultimately judged by the players they sign –– and what those players achieve –– then overlooking Anelka was arguably the one mistake Houllier made in terms of players he opted against. There can be no guarantee that Anelka would have been an outright success at Liverpool, and you can never accurately predict an alternative version of future realities, but his full seasons at Arsenal and Manchester City –– who pounced when Houllier said non –– suggest a consistent goalscorer and, judging by his Opta stats, a player who created goals for others, and who was involved in all of his teams best attacking moments. That Diouf was instead chosen led to direct comparisons between the two, and while Diouf struggled to procure anything other than yellow cards and trouble during his two years at Liverpool, Anelka was banging the goals in for City, and scored more in the league against Liverpool in four games than Diouf managed for Liverpool in 66.

   Whereas Anelka had a reputation for being difficult, no-one had a bad word to say about him during his time at Anfield (nor did anyone at Arsenal –– Wenger always spoke highly off him, despite the nature of his exit), while Diouf brought shame on the club. He was late back from the African Nations Cup, and broke late-night drinking curfews. Diouf's greatest crime at Liverpool was spitting at a Celtic fan during a Uefa Cup tie, and he continued to cultivate this habit while on loan at Bolton. Not so much Serial Killer, more Phantom Phlegm-Flinger.

   Anelka had many advantages over Diouf that, looking back, Houllier may have paid more heed to. The Frenchman had played in three top leagues, as opposed to the Senegalese's one. Anelka had played for major clubs –– Arsenal, Real Madrid, and Paris St Germain (twice), so knew what it was like to handle the pressure and expectation; Diouf had only experienced life at less-fashionable French clubs. Not only that, but Anelka had helped two of these clubs to major honours –– proof that he could handle the big occasion. Most crucially, Anelka had played –– and been an undoubted success –– in the Premiership. He knew how to beat English defences. When plenty of overseas players fail to settle or adjust, the chance to sign something as as close to a 'sure thing' has to be seriously considered. As he had on many occasions, Houllier went for youth and inexperience ahead of proven quality –– although the reasons behind the change of heart remain something of a mystery. The official reason was difficulty negotiating with Anelka's brothers, but they were always part of the player's posse. Anelka had claimed he was happy to take a wage cut, and even be third choice (although that was surely a calculated gamble, trusting he could displace Heskey, given time).

   Whatever went wrong with the signing of Anelka, the failure of Diouf played a large part in Houllier's downfall. After his dismissal, Houllier openly admitted that signing Diouf was a mistake –– and that the player, while talented, just didn't have the specific mentality required to play at a club like Liverpool. Even in the winter of 2004, Anelka was still being linked with a return to the club, to finally make the move permanent. Benítez went as far as to publicly praise the player, but his first choice was always Fernando Morientes, and Anelka ended up in Turkish football, with Fernebache.

   Morientes, upon his arrival, would suffer a fate similar to Anelka in 2002, in that he joined Liverpool when decidedly ring-rusty after half a season of inactivity, and was then in and out of the side (in the case of the Spaniard, down to a thigh injury, and being ineligible for Champions League games). But once El Moro is fully into his stride, Benítez knows the fans will see the qualities of a world-class striker, to supplement the other attacking he options he now possesses.

© Paul Tomkins 2005

This is an unedited version of the chapter which will appear in Golden Past, Red Future, which will be available in June. For a limited time people can pre-order the book at £8.99, £1 cheaper than it will when it hits the shops. Simply go to www.paultomkins.com for details on how to order.

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