Ask any Kopite who Gerard Houllier’s greatest Liverpool signing was and without hesitation, to a man, they’ll answer, “Christ, and with so many to choose from.”
Then, once the jokes about Bruno “the new Zidane” Cheyrou, Anthony “the other new Zidane” le Tallec, and Djimi “the new…low” Traore have rightly had their moment in the sun, we’ll get down to business, put the Serious Face on and all agree it was Sami Hyypia.
There’s no two ways about it, Gerard Houllier, Anfield’s much-loved-but-not-even-remotely-missed French ex, had a transfer record that at best had him looking high, and at worst like John Gregory. Consequently, being crowned the man’s Greatest Ever Signing is an accolade that carries all the gravitas of a playground stink-palming.
But we’re amongst friends here. So, if at all possible, let’s put aside the Erik Meijers and the Bernard Diomedes for a moment and focus instead on the one bit of business the convalescing Mr Houllier should still be quite proud of. Because if you’re going to collate a Premier League transfer coups Order of Merit (and I’m about to), his snaring of a completely unknown Finn in 1999 from pathologically unfashionable Dutch champions Willem II for a mere £2.6 million can, in my humble opinion, only be bettered by Alex Ferguson’s £1.2 million capture of Eric Cantona and Arsene Wenger’s Viera/Petit £6-million-for-the-pair double-whammy.
Many things have been said of the Suomi behemoth, one of my favourites being, “He’s Tony Adams without the points on his licence.” A flippant piece of alehouse punditry whose blood alcohol level belied its accuracy. For much as Highbury’s foremost mule-faced born-again pseud became legend to all Gooners, likewise Hyypia to the Anfield faithful. A deity, and one so in command of the airspace around his goalmouth I still wonder, had he been in New York that fateful September morning, whether he’d have headed at least one of those planes away to safety as I imagine he would.
Not that I’d have even toyed with such bold sentiments the day we signed him.
“He’s Tony Adams without the points on his licence.”
It’s a sad fact, but centre backs never were and never will be considered marquee signings. Phil Jones may’ve cost a pretty penny, but no matter how much money you blow on them, suet-faced ball-clearers don’t exactly get the pulses racing. They’re just not very sexy. It comes with the territory, I’m afraid – they’re there to stop ‘sexy’ happening. Football’s answer to the cock block. Big, ugly and with a licence to spoil.
And so it was I greeted news of Hyypia’s arrival in the same slightly underwhelmed manner you’d welcome, say, the purchase of a new vacuum cleaner: hopefully it’ll work better than the last one, but it’s not going to get me laid.
Oh, he looked the part, alright – approximately 18ft tall with hair like a polar bear’s ball-sack and a face that could easily have featured in a Leni Riefenstahl showreel. But stood awkwardly next to Houllier in the press shots, despite the modest price tag, I have to admit to being a trifle concerned we’d just invested wedge in a knock-off copy of Dolph Lundgren, possibly from the same market stall I’d bought a pair of Ray Bans the year before. Reticent intrigue rather than giddy excitement, then.
Shows what I know about football.
Never for a minute did it occur to me the none-more-Aryan Storm Trooper staring back at me from the sports pages of the Daily Mirror was about to become the first and only defender since the heady days of Hansen and Lawrenson to enter Anfield’s Pantheon of Greats – some achievement when you consider he spent a large portion of his Liverpool career sharing a dressing room with Igor Biscan.
But triumph over adversity he did. And how.
10 years’ service, 318 games, 22 goals, one solitary red card (against United, naturally), two League Cups, two FA Cups, one UEFA Cup and one richly-deserved Champions League winners medal: all for £100,000 less than we p*ssed away on poor man’s Taribo West, Rigobert Song.
It still feels larcenous today.
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