IT’S a day etched in my memory. October 4th, 1998. That afternoon Liverpool were entertaining a Chelsea side overflowing with foreign flair. One would have thought such attacking elegance would be complimented adeptly by the likes of Fowler, Owen, Redknapp and Berger. Instead, these two perennial underachievers played out a dross filled draw.
This otherwise unforgettable game however is remembered for a dash of comedy which transpired after 10 minutes. A raking 50-yard pass from Roberto Di Matteo split the reds defence and enabled fellow countryman Pierluigi Casiraghi to round David James and slide home the simplest of goals at the Anfield Road end. As the classy Italian wheeled away in celebration a hapless Phil Babb was seen hurtling post-wards, his testicles as exposed as his sides backline. Whilst many a man would squeal in sympathy when reviewing such an incident I can’t help but smirk.
Phil Babb – the scourge of my childhood. To say this Irish international was prone to the odd mistake is to say the Sahara has a little sand. A decent World Cup in 1994 somehow earned him a transfer to England’s biggest club, from whence he proceeded to undo so many title challenges. For all their mesmerising forward play, Liverpool could never overhaul Manchester United throughout the 90s due to their sheer incompetence at the back. Babb, along with fellow circus-acts John Scales, Neil Ruddock and Bjorn Tore Kvarme conversed to wreck season after season with dire errors when it mattered most. Call me heartless but I still laugh when I see that crotch-post union. At that moment he felt just some of the pain he’d inflicted on me those past five years.
Evident was a desperate need for someone, anyone with half their wits about them to sort this defensive calamity. Eight months later our prayers were answered, not that we would have guessed. When Sami Hyypia arrived from Willem II in summer 1999 he was hardly a household name. Indeed, he was actually seen as the understudy to newly signed Stephane Henchoz – our real saviour. Within weeks though seasoned Kopites would discover both had great credence and offered hope of an organised rearguard.
Before long Liverpool could boast the most dependable defence in the land, perhaps Europe. Big Sami, accompanied by Henchoz, Markus Babbel and the emerging Jamie Carrgher could shut-out the very best. Barcelona, Roma, United – nobody could crack the code to this superb quartet. When they did, Henchoz was usually on standby to handle, quite literally, the inevitable. Impregnable doesn’t suffice. It was from that bedrock that Gerard Houllier built his treble winning side. Confident in those behind them, the Reds counter-attacked with devastating effect, Owen and Gerrard amongst the beneficiaries.
Our Big Finn’s qualities were seemingly endless. Aerially he is a colossus, dominating in both his and the opposition penalty area. Though never the quickest he can read the game better than anyone. His anticipation of danger to this day remains shaper than a steal-blade knife. In possession he is always calm. Then there are his goals, which make no mistake, will be a huge loss. He’s struck 35 times in all, most of them memorably.
That stunning volley against Juventus en route to Istanbul still triggers the hairs on the back of the neck to rise. Many forget he had actually been dropped by Rafa Benitez for the two games beforehand, Mauricio Pellegrino inexplicably dislodging him.
That was another interesting facet of Hyypia’s Anfield tenure. Many pretenders have come and gone, none ever truly dislodging him. Think Pellegrino, think Biscan, Xavier, Paeletta, Hobbs, Traore (I know it’s difficult but do grim and bear it), even Agger and Skrtel – neither totally exiling this loyal servant.
On the theme of goals, last season’s precise header against Arsenal in the Champions League quarter final truly dragged Liverpool back into the contest. Before that point we had hardly seen the ball, were a goal down and heading for a definite exit.
I was there for the last gasp winner against Wolves. In terms of significance that strike is outweighed by the aforementioned but at the time we were chasing fourth, proof he has endured both the rough and smooth.
There are indeed too many to mention, a controlled volley at home to United, the winner in Auxerre, another quarter final strike against his future team, Leverkusen…
Ten years service evokes such vivid stories. I’ll always remember the game against Wigan at home when he was forced to leave the pitch to receive multiple stitches to a head wound. After a five minute absence he emerged from the changing rooms, galloped onto the turf and immediately won a clearing header, his temple masked in bandages.
Quite simply, Hyypia has never let Liverpool down. What better case in point than in the Lions’ Den two months back, when called into the side due to a late injury. Lesser men would have frozen in such trying circumstances, not our Sami. He bossed that defence, marginalising Rooney and co and thus allowing his team-mates to staple an almighty victory.
That day showcased how much of a team player Hyypia is and always has been. Though viewing the decision to give Steven Gerrard club captaincy as destiny, I, along with fellow supporters felt desperately sorry for the big man. Rather than groan he simply upped his game however, instrumental in the resurgence of the side under Benitez and leading by example all the way to Istanbul. But that’s Sami, a professional until the end.
It is no exaggeration to say he has proven the club’s greatest ever foreign buy, and for just Â£2.5 million! History will rank such a purchase alongside the signing of Dalglish for Â£550,000.
He will go down as one of the finest footballers to adorn the red shirt, his place in history cemented alongside Hansen, Yeats, Smith and Thompson. The only black spot on his CV is the absence of a title medal, but nobody has given more to that torturous bid than himself.
When news broke that Hyypia had agreed to join Bayer Leverkusen I stopped in my tracks. I harked back to my youth and those fruitless title charges, realising I’d shared almost all of my favourite memories as a fan with Sami. I’ve grown up with him.
When taking my place on the Kop I’ve always expected to see that blonde mop out there marshalling whatever back four selected. I’ve always expected that guilty smile to manifest when he’s chopped someone a little too fast for him. I’ve always expected at least a dozen headed clearances a game. Most of all I’ve always felt safe. Safe in the knowledge that our defence is solid and containing no trace of Phil Babb!
Sunday will be a sad day for me personally. It will be an afternoon for the hardest of Kopites to shed of a tear or two. No, not in light of another trophy-less season but the exit of someone who’s simply become part of the furniture.
“I won’t like being the centre of attention, not at all. But in this case I have no choice.’
Sami Hyypia – Legend