When they attack he's always back …

Posted by Olly on February 1, 2005, 10:30:40 AM

In the summer of 1999 Gerard Houllier made, in my opinion, his most important signing for our club with the capture of Stephane Henchoz.  Countless perfect tackles, well timed interceptions and the odd handball later, and the Hench has moved to Celtic on a short-term deal.

Henchoz started his professional career in Switzerland at an early age and played for both Stade Payerne and Bulle.  English manager Roy Hodgson spotted Henchoz's potential and took him to the delightfully named Neuchatel Xamax where his career took off and he secured a transfer to Hamburg in the German Bundesliga.  In 1997 Hodgson again signed Henchoz, taking him to Ewood Park, where he made 70 league appearances.  In the summer of 1999 Houllier handed over £3.5 million and the Hench swapped the blue and white of Blackburn for the mighty red of Liverpool.

When Houllier first arrived at the club he made it clear that he wanted the team to have a strong backbone.  We had struggled defensively for a few years with simple set pieces causing us no end of problems, and so Houllier made strengthening the defence a priority.  Along with Henchoz, Sami Hyypia was brought in from Holland, in a bid to create a firm foundation upon which the rest of the team could be built.  Due to a groin injury we had to wait until September before we saw the mild, unassuming Swiss international in the red of Liverpool, but it quickly became apparent that Sami and Stephane would hit it off.  They had an almost telepathic understanding, and quickly became regarded as one of the best central defensive partnerships in England.  Henchoz was strong in the air, and an excellent, uncompromising man marker who wasn't afraid to put his body on the line to prevent an opposition attack.  He was often found covering Hyypia, and although not the best distributor of the ball he always made himself available giving his team mates an option if under pressure.  As a fan, the difference that our two new centre backs made was incredible.  In previous years my head would be in my hands every time the opposition gained a corner, unable to look until I heard the Kop sigh with relief when the ball was cleared.  It wasn't long after Henchoz joined however, when I began to watch corners again, saying to myself "Ah, we've got nothing to worry about here."  At long last we looked solid.

The 2000-2001 season will live long in the memory.  This was the season that we all got our pride back.  We could all walk tall as the red men destroyed all before them.  And instrumental to our success was the partnership between Sami and Stephane, which was arguably the best in Europe at the time.  Although it was our big Finn that received all the plaudits, our number 2 was absolutely outstanding and the fact that he was very rarely credited with the praise that his performances deserved just seemed to motivate him further.  A number of times during that season he gave world class examples of dogged defending, throwing his body in the way of shots and clearing the ball off the line.  Against Arsenal in the Mickey Owen FA Cup Final, Arsenal tore us apart, but time and again Stephane or Sami got their bodies in the way preventing certain goals - the Hench acting at times as a second goal keeper!  Commitment and determination pulled us through that match, and lay the platform for ten of the best minutes of my life.

Those handballs by Henchoz are talked about to this day, and his song pays testament to his ability to snuff out danger, but for me there are 2 defining moments that I'll remember the man for.  One was a challenge at Fulham in 2002 - with Liverpool 1-0 up a long ball over the top saw Malbranque clean through with just Dudek to beat.  As Malbranque pulled the trigger to score, Henchoz threw himself at the ball from fully ten yards away to hook the ball away from danger and out of play.  I'm not sure even he knew how he'd done it, but it was typical of the man to never give up a lost cause.  The other defining moment was just before our away game in Boavista in the European Cup in 2001-2002.  Me and a mate were sat in Speke airport waiting to board our flight, when the whole of the Liverpool squad walked past us on the way to their plane.  Everyone seemed in a good mood and we chatted to a few of the players.  And then along shuffled Henchoz, looking like he'd just got out of bed and in a right old mood.  As he walked towards us we cheekily quipped "Cheer up Stephane - give us a smile?!" To which he looked up and said "Piss off lads!" then gave us a wink and a massive grin. Brilliant.

The 2001-2002 season saw the mighty red men storm to the top of the league as their form from the end of the previous campaign continued.  The mighty reds looked a good bet to win the League Championship for the 19th time, as once again the central defensive partnership performed admirably.  Liverpool that season conceded just 30 goals in the league.  Unfortunately a combination of Gerard Houllier's terrible illness and Arsenals incredible form prevented Liverpool from winning the trophy the fans so craved, and the reds finished the season in second place.

It was during the following season that Henchoz first started suffering from injury, and he missed most of the second half of the season.  It was no coincidence that the mighty reds lost their way somewhat during that season as the continuity at the back was disrupted for the first time.  Sami Hyypia mentioned how difficult he was finding life without his trusty sidekick, and that although the likes of Traore would all make good players in the future, the instinctive understanding of each others strengths and weaknesses was lacking.  Although we restored some pride with a resounding League Cup Final win against the Corporation, the club missed out on the lucrative Champions League finishing in 5th.  It was a similar story last season.  Henchoz spent much of the first half of the season injured, but when he recovered was unable to force his way back into the side.  Gerard Houllier decided to retain Biscan, a fairly average centre midfield player, at centre back as if to prove that the Croatian was worthy of his place in a Liverpool team.  This decision back fired though as the reds continued to struggle.  Henchoz started a few games at right back, before eventually he was restored to his rightful position at the heart of the defence but it quickly became apparent that his injury problems had affected him.

Pace is an extremely important attribute in English football nowadays.  Henchoz was never lightening quick, but his injury problems have taken their toll.  When Benitez took over the helm in the summer, he quickly installed Jamie Carragher in alongside Hyypia.  Henchoz, for so long used to playing every week, became disillusioned with life at Anfield, and in a way one can't really blame him.  He played a few times in our successful League Cup run this season, but looked half the player he was a couple of seasons ago, and I believe it is the right decision to let him go.  But his contribution to our treble success should never be underestimated, and I'm sure that his goal keeping exploits will be talked about for plenty more years yet.

Good luck at Celtic Stephane.  You'll never walk alone.

© Olly 2005

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