December 4th: The TBT Advent Calendar continues with John Ritchie taking an in-depth look at the career of a former Liverpool number 4, the big Finn himself, Sami Hyypia.

It was 1999 and Liverpool were bordering on brink of mediocrity. The wave of optimism that had swept the nation with a resounding Labour victory in the 1997 General Election had slowly began to fade. While people got to grips with the idea that ‘New Labour’ wasn’t very Labour at all, Liverpool FC had started to fade into the abyss of modern football.

Gerard Houllier, beginning his revolution decided that things needed to change at the club; out went David James, Rob Jones, Paul Ince, Jason McAteer and Tony Warner and in came Didi Hamann, Stephane Henchoz, Erik Meijer, Vladimir Smicer, Djimi Traore, Sander Westerveld and well, who could forget Titi Camara?

Despite the revolution, fans were more consumed with the departure of Steve McManaman, the man who had ran down his contract and left to join Real Madrid for free. As such, the furore and rage which consumed the Kop faithful focused on McManaman so much that it was hardly surprising to anyone when the signing of Sami Hyypia, a largely unknown defender from Willem II, went unnoticed.

“More mediocrity” was the typical shout of the day, as Sami Hyypia was unknown and unproven at the highest level. During that time however, people’s knowledge of players from Europe was limited at best. Even now I’d guess that the majority of people would be hard pressed to name a player from Willem II first eleven.

What is interesting is that despite him playing in over two hundred professional games, Liverpool’s scouts hadn’t managed to identify the big centre back. The story goes that Peter Robinson, Liverpool’s legendary club secretary had been told of Sami’s ability by a camera man.

Robinson told the story:
“It was mid-way through the 1998/99 season when there was a knock on the door of my office at Anfield,” Robinson said. “I had never met the chap. He came in and introduced himself as a cameraman who covered football in Europe. He knew we were looking for a strong defender and recommended we take a look at Sami, who was playing for Willem, one of the smaller Dutch clubs. That is how it all started. I passed the message on to Gérard and, over the next few months, members of the staff went to Holland to watch him on several occasions.”

The scouts and the manager must have liked what they saw, because the club eventually signed Sami for what now appears to be a bargain price of £2.5m. Almost immediately after he signed, Hyypia began to shine. Finally Liverpool had a central defensive pairing that seemed to have a telepathic understanding. Whilst Henchoz always reliable and dependable, Hyypia had brought back something that Liverpool had never managed to replace since the days of Alan Hansen; he was so intelligent and very rarely did Hyypia get booked, he even managed to go nearly ninety games without a card, which as a centre back, is quite incredible given the demands of the position.

Sami also had a habit of scoring goals and in the big games he wasn’t afraid to stand up and be counted. His Champions League goals helped to get Liverpool through crucial matches with maybe the most important coming at Anfield in 2005 when Luis Garcia flicked on a ball that had come in from a corner, Hyypia lost his marker with ease, ran towards goal and slotted home a classy finish with his first touch. That was Sami Hyypia personified, he had class, leadership, in-game intelligence and most of all he was always calm.

Sami had been the captain of Liverpool since the departure of Jamie Redknapp and Robbie Fowler, however his performances suffered. It’s perhaps the greatest tragedy of Hyypia’s time at Liverpool, outside of never winning a league title, that the captaincy didn’t seem to dovetail well with his performances. He wasn’t awful, however he had lost ‘that’ edge and in eventually Gerard Houllier made the decision to take away the armband and hand it to Liverpool’s local sensation Steven Gerrard. Hyypia never got in the way, he accepted it, his form improved and perhaps without even knowing it, he had been a key part in the rise of the Gerrard dynasty which lasts to this day.

Sami was always there to be relied on, he never had a lazy day at the office and towards the end of his career, it was difficult for fans to witness to final days of Sami’s time at Anfield. He made only nineteen appearances in 2008/9 and at a time when Liverpool were the ‘nearly men’ once more, you have to wonder if maybe things had been maybe have been different if Sami had started more. Would the Redmen have gone all the way had their Big Finn played more often? Rafa Benitez will always by a hero for Liverpool fans, however how he dealt with Sami in his final season left a bitter taste in the mouth of many.

I believe it is telling that when Hyypia did start in games, he made a difference. It’s baffling that his last full game for the Reds came when Álvaro Arbeloa was injured in the warm up at Old Trafford before Liverpool’s game against Manchester United and Sami had to step in at the last minute. Liverpool won 4-1 that day and Hyypia was as classy as ever. He understood what it meant to the fans, he understood the passion in the game and he always tried to play with his heart on his sleeve.

In a recent interview, Hyypia commented that he believes that the passion has gone from the English game:

“I saw a good game the week before last… The Liverpool against United one. The tempo was there, it was really the English game. But I saw a few games before that and I was thinking, “What’s happening?mMaybe the game has developed in a wrong direction that way, that when a player goes somewhere and cost £37million and he’s earning £200,000 a week he is happy just to get the money. Maybe the focus of playing football is the second most important thing.”

Now, Sami was no Jamie Carragher, he didn’t scream and shout but he was very passionate where it mattered with his ariel presence and leadership qualities. He lead by example.

Sami, like all players, had his off days. The one that stands out for me was against Chelsea, where Didier Drogba was the victor in another relentless battle between Chelsea and Liverpool. Often a ‘Mourinho Chelsea’ and a ‘Benitez Liverpool’ had a habit of cancelling each other out but that day was different. The Reds losts 4-1 and it was difficult not to look at Sami who maybe had a hand in all the goals.

Yet the bad performances were no more than a handful, and when they did come, Sami would usually bounce straight back. He had the kind of consistency which is present only in a champion, and when Hyypia left Liverpool he did so with six major honours, not counting his two Uefa Super Cups and two Community Shields. Ever since he arrived on Merseyside, Hyyipa knew how to pick up silverware and he was a crucial part of the 2005 Champions League campaign which saw the Reds return to the top of European football.

The emotion of Sami’s last game for Liverpool is one that I’ll remember for a long time. We were playing Tottenham at Anfield and the consensus of those at the ground was that it would be Sami who lead the team out. By that point the title hopes had vanished, Liverpool were sitting pretty in second and we could see no other option than Hyypia being captain. Yet when the team news came out, Hyypia was once again on the bench; Benitez had struck again, for reasons only known to him! Sami finally got his run out in the 84th minute when Steven Gerrard came off, he passed the armband over to Sami, which he wore with pride.

It was fitting that the captain presented the armband to the man who’d relinquished it for the greater good all those years ago. Gerrard was made the captain more for his ability than his leadership and Sami had done what was important for the team, not himself. In his last outing in the limelight of the premier league, it was fitting that the attention was on Sami; he finally got some of the appreciation that often evaded him due to his playing position.

We all remember the scenes of the crowd chanting his name as yet another legend prepared to depart the hallowed shrine. The players lifted Sami on their shoulders and he was paraded around Anfield to get the hero’s goodbye reserved for only the true Liverpool greats.

As Sami held his head in his hands, overcome by the emotion, I remember standing cheering his name with tears in my eyes. Rarely have I cried at a football match, but despite the optimism and joy in the ground given our league position and finish, me and many more men, women and children had to try hard to hold back the tears. When he walked down the tunnel for the final time, you knew Liverpool had lost someone very special, it was time to say goodbye and none of us were truly ready.

Since going to Leverkusen, Hyypia has made it clear that he’d love to return and manage Liverpool; that’s his dream and given his current level of success, it could well be a reality one day. He’s managed to secure Leverkusen Champions League football and as things stand at the time of writing, Sami has guided his side to second in the Bundeliga; a remarkable achievement given the quality on offer from both Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.

He almost returned under Roy Hodgson, and despite the player wanting the move, Leverkusen had the foresight to see how important Hyypia could be to their future. Their refusal to bow to the pressure has paid off handsomely and Leverkusen now have one of the most regarded young managers in European football.

He has to be careful though. often legends returning to a club as a manager doesn’t always work out. However Hyypia has gone a long way to proving he deserves at least consideration when the club eventually decide to make a change from Brendan Rodgers to a new man. Should it ever happen, I for one will be in the crowd with many others doing the same thing that we all did for ten seasons; cheering for Sami Hyypia.

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