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Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher loved Liverpool team-mate but one angry outburst and his contract was cancelledl/

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Jari Litmanen’s long-awaited arrival at Anfield soon had his Liverpool team-mates marvelling at his sublime talents but injuries and misfortune left all concerned regretting it hadn’t happened sooner.

There are some footballers who just seem like they are born to play for certain clubs.

Those who possess certain qualities – sometimes to do with their approach to the game, sometimes relating to their values or look, sometimes indefinable – which just feel the right fit.

The trick of course is getting them on board at mutually beneficial junctures for both player and club which is not always possible as Liverpool discovered when they were finally able to get Jari Litmanen to Merseyside.

The Finnish attacker had long been on the Anfield radar with his eventual arrival in 2001 a case of third time lucky after two previously unproductive attempts to bring him to the club.

It looked like a marriage made in heaven with Litmanen widely known to have idolised Liverpool as a kid and maintaining an affinity to such an extent he reportedly irritated Ajax players with his constant references to the Reds during his time in Holland but circumstances conspired against making his time in the red shirt the success all involved hoped and expected it to be.

The man who would go on to be regarded as Finland’s greatest ever footballer began his professional career in his homeland with Reipas, making his top flight debut at the age of only 16 in 1987. The son of parents who had both played international football, he would move to the country’s biggest club, HJK Helsinki, four years later and twelve months later would move to MyPa 47 who he helped win the Finnish Cup. It was his goalscoring performance in the final against FF Jaro which alerted Ajax’s scouting network.

A number of European clubs had expressed an interest in the 21-year-old including Barcelona, Leeds United and PSV Eindhoven but the Dutch side’s long-established reputation as a breeding ground where young talent would be nourished and could develop was enough to secure Litmanen’s signature and here it very much was a case of the right place at the right time.

There was an acclimatisation period as the modest youngster found his feet both on and off the field, his first-team path initially blocked by Dennis Bergkamp who played in Litmanen’s preferred number 10 role just behind the strikers and Ajax coach Louis van Gaal was not initially overly impressed with the Finn’s early performances in training and for the reserves. But the future Netherlands and Manchester United manager’s eyes would be opened when – at the suggestion of the team physiotherapist – Litmanen adeptly filled in for the injured Bergkamp and when the Dutch forward left to join Inter Milan in the summer of 1993, the Finn inherited the number 10 shirt as well as his place in the team and truly began to show what he was capable of.

It was the dawning of a golden age for the Amsterdam club with young homegrown talents Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Edwin van der Sar, the de Boer brothers and Patrick Kluivert emerging to blend effectively with shrewd buys like Litmanen, Marc Overmars, Nwankwo Kanu, Finidi George and the returning 80s legend Frank Rijkaard to take Ajax to three successive Eredivisie titles as well as putting them back on the European map they had graced in the 1970s.

Litmanen would finish as the league’s top scorer with 26 goals during the 1993-94 campaign as Ajax won their first championship in four years, his overall tally of 36 in 39 appearances in all competitions also helping him win the Netherlands’ Footballer of the Year award. But it was the following campaign when the Finn and his team-mates wrote themselves into history by embarking on a remarkable run which saw them go the best part of a season and a half undefeated in both the Eredivisie (52 matches) and the Champions League (19).

Van Gaal’s side easily retained their league title by seven points after becoming Holland’s first ‘Invincibles’ but it was in Europe where they captured hearts and minds with their attacking, free-flowing and tactically fluid approach which harked back to the club’s glory days of the early 1970s when stars like Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Ruudi Krol led them to three successive European Cup victories. After topping a group containing reigning champions AC Milan who they beat home and away with Litmanen scoring in both matches, Ajax eased past Hadjuk Split to reach the semi-finals where following a goalless draw away to Bayern Munich, they destroyed the German champions 5-2 in the Amsterdam decider with Litmanen scoring twice and pulling the strings to set up another meeting with AC Milan in the Vienna final.

Patrick Kluivert’s 85th minute winner secured an unlikely victory which took the European Cup back to Amsterdam for the first time since 1973 and the following season, having again retained their Eredivisie title, they threatened to emulate their 1970s predecessors by reaching a successive final against Juventus in Rome. Litmanen would get on the scoresheet this time, cancelling out Fabrizio Ravanelli’s early opener with a clinical close-range finish to take his season’s tally in the competition to nine, and notched in the shoot-out after the match went to penalties but the Italians prevailed to take the cup back to Turin.

Van Gaal would leave to manage Barcelona the following year and, although another Eredivisie title followed in 1997/98, the cream of the Champions League winning side inevitably was increasingly being cherry-picked by Europe’s moneyed elite with Litmanen among those being eyed. Roy Evans tried to entice him to Anfield without success during that unusual summer of 1998 when Gerard Houllier was installed alongside him in Liverpool’s ill-conceived flirtation with the idea of joint-managers and 12 months later the Frenchman, now in sole charge, tried again to bring the Finn to Merseyside but the financial package offered by Barcelona and the opportunity to link up with Van Gaal again proved impossible to resist and he was off to Catalonia.

His propensity for picking up niggling injuries at Ajax had earned Litmanen the unwanted nickname ‘The Man of Glass’ and, now 28, his unavailability increased with him only able to make 32 appearances and score just four goals during his 18 months at the Camp Nou, familiarity counting for little with Van Gaal who was critical of the former Ajax forward’s attitude, saying “There are some incredibly talented players who haven’t got the character or the personality to suit my methods. Players count for nothing, the team is everything. I set more store by a player’s character than by his on-field qualities, and particularly whether he is willing to give everything to the cause. Litmanen, for example, was a different player at Barca than he was at Ajax. You have to adapt to a new culture when you move to a different club, and not every player is able to do that.”

Van Gaal would be replaced as coach by Lorenzo Serra Ferrer after a trophyless 1999-2000 campaign but there was no change in Litmanen’s fortunes and, having lost his number 10 shirt to Brazilian star Rivaldo, the call of Anfield this time was just what he wanted to hear. Gerard Houllier’s first season in sole charge had seen the Reds look certs to qualify for the Champions League for the first time before a barren run in the final five games of the campaign saw them fall just short and, having bolstered his squad with experienced internationals like Markus Babbel, Nick Barmby, Gary McAllister and Christian Ziege, the Frenchman was looking to similarly bolster his youthful frontline led by Michael Owen, Emile Heskey and Robbie Fowler.

After completing the mid-season free transfer of the 29-year-old Finn on a two-and-a-half year deal rumoured to be worth £55,000 a week, a delighted Houllier said, “We have signed a world-class player. He comes with a reputation which needs no improvement. He’s one of the most exciting signings we have ever made. Jari knows all about Liverpool. He’s a fan of the club and he wanted to play for us. He can play in a variety of positions in attack and will bring a different style of play than some of our other strikers. He is a player I’m aware this club has wanted for a long time and to get him on a free transfer is a snip. Another bonus for us is Jari is not cup-tied in Europe and so can play in the Uefa Cup.”

For Litmanen, it was the fulfilment of a journey which began with his earliest memories of watching football and the Reds’ all-conquering sides of the 1970s as a youngster back home in Finland. Despite his passion for the club, he had never played at or even visited Anfield until signing and his excitement at finally gracing the pitch where so many of his childhood heroes starred was compounded by the promising new side Houllier was putting together, as the Finn would later explain to Liverpool’s official website.

“I grew up with Liverpool and still remember Kevin Keegan playing there. He left the club in ’77 after winning the European Cup. Then Kenny Dalglish came. There was Ray Clemence, Phil Thompson, Phil Neal, Terry McDermott, Graeme Souness, I remember all those guys. I started to remember those early years of mine in the ‘70s when I started to follow football and I started to follow Liverpool. When I came to Liverpool it was a good moment to come. That team was growing and there were some young talented players coming through. Michael Owen was already in the international team; Robbie Fowler had shown his quality; Steven Gerrard was in his first or second year in the squad; Emile Heskey had been bought from Leicester. There was a really good squad of local guys, English guys and then the internationals. Sami Hyypia was important, Didi Hamann, Gary McAllister was there and was really good for us, Markus Babbel and of course Patrik Berger and Vladi Smicer. We had a squad of 20 players who were all really good for the team and the club, and when I came we were just growing.”

Liverpool’s season so far had been something of a curate’s egg with progress in the League and Uefa Cups off-set by inconsistent Premier League performances, particularly away from Anfield, although consecutive victories just before Christmas against the country’s dominant sides – Manchester United and Arsenal – was an indicator of the direction Houllier’s side were headed. Litmanen’s debut came as a second-half substitute in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final away to second tier Crystal Palace where, despite asserting their superiority for much of proceedings and missing a host of chances, the Reds slipped to a 2-1 defeat which highlighted the distance they still had yet to travel, the Finn creating the goal for Vladimir Smicer which got Liverpool back in the tie after going two behind.

He was handed his first start the following weekend at Aston Villa however and produced a superb performance in a resounding 3-0 victory before being substituted twenty minutes from time, his capacity to place the ball through the eye of a needle evident in the stand-out goal of the match (and one of the best of the 127 in all competitions Liverpool scored all season) when he spotted Danny Murphy’s break forward, the former Crewe man’s first-time lay-off being crashed into the roof of the net by the on-rushing Steven Gerrard.

“In a 70-minute masterclass, Litmanen offered an exciting glimpse of why his signing could take Liverpool to an extra level”, the ECHO’s match report afterwards read. “This was the best passing performance the team has produced all season. The passing and movement in midfield was precise, fast, forward thinking and clinical. Many experienced judges suspect Litmanen could be the ‘missing link man’ Liverpool need. The Sheringham/Yorke/Bergkamp figure who has the vision and skill to think one yard ahead of the rest of the players on the pitch. Gerard Houllier even mentioned his name in the same breath as Eric Cantona after this match, and he should know.”

The Finn kept his place for the following weekend’s goalless draw at home to Middlesbrough and four days later Anfield got a first real glimpse of his latent talent, Crystal Palace being swept aside 5-0 as Houllier’s men easily overturned the first leg deficit to reach their first cup final of the season with Litmanen producing an exquisite pass for Danny Murphy to put the Reds in front on aggregate just moments after Vladimir Smicer’s early opener.

The Finn’s new team-mates were already in awe at what he was bringing to the team with Steven Gerrard among those immediately impressed at his football brain and ability to bring others into play. “From the moment I saw Jari Litmanen at Melwood, I was bewitched”, he wrote in his first autobiography. “He was like a chess grandmaster, always anticipating three or four moves ahead.”

“It felt like a big statement to sign someone of his quality”, Dietmar Hamann later told the Athletic. “I’m not sure Liverpool would have been able to attract him a few years before that. He was a very serious guy who tended to keep himself to himself. But he loved talking about football. He was so knowledgeable about the game. We already had another Finn in Sami Hyypia and they got on well. Jari was always one of the first ones at Melwood every day. He was always working out in the gym. He did his best to look after himself but the shame was that his body just didn’t seem to be able to handle the demands. He suffered from a lot of niggling injuries. I remember him taping up his ankles before every session. He was always adamant that he had to do the strapping himself. He wasn’t the quickest but he didn’t need to be. His great strength was his vision and ability to pick the right pass. In terms of skill and technical ability, he’s up there with the best if not the best I ever played with. In five-a-sides in training, some of the stuff he did in small spaces was just unbelievable. He had eyes in the back of his head. I always thought I had good vision, but then I watched him.”

With Houllier now having four top-class forwards at his disposal, the Frenchman’s rotation policy came into full effect and Litmanen would be in and out of the side in the coming weeks, scoring his first Liverpool goal from the penalty to earn a point at Sunderland after coming on as a substitute and notching at Anfield for the first time by grabbing the opener again from the spot to open the scoring in the 4-2 FA Cup fifth round victory over Manchester City. A calf injury caused him to miss the League Cup final triumph over Birmingham City on penalties in Cardiff but he returned to come off the bench in the FA Cup and Uefa Cup quarter-final successes over Tranmere Rovers and FC Porto respectively to bolster Houllier’s attacking options with the Reds’ season continuing to build to an exciting climax as club action paused for the final international break of the campaign in late March.

With Wembley Stadium being developed, the fates would have it that Finland’s World Cup qualifier against England was to be played at Anfield but the dream scenario turned into something of a nightmare for Litmanen when he fell awkwardly following a challenge with Rio Ferdinand and, despite returning to the pitch in agony after treatment, later discovering his wrist was fractured in several places. The Finn was initially ruled out for Liverpool’s upcoming European semi-finals against his former club Barcelona but hopes he might be able to be patched up to play some part in the run-in did not materialise and he was unable to feature at all for the rest of the season, having to watch on in frustration from the sidelines as Houllier’s men added the FA and Uefa Cups to complete an unprecedented Treble while also securing third place to confirm Champions League qualification for the first time.

Litmanen was fit enough to start the opening game of the following campaign back in his homeland as Liverpool cruised past FC Haka in the first leg of their Champions League qualifier and was also named in the side for the Premier League opener against West Ham at Anfield as a training ground row between Robbie Fowler and Phil Thompson overshadowed the Reds’ start to the season. The Toxteth-born forward was soon be back in the side even though he would be sold to Leeds United three months later and Litmanen would have to wait a month for another start, grasping the opportunity when it was presented by firing home a superb winner against Tottenham and four days later following it up with the only goal in Liverpool’s first ever victory in the Champions League proper against Dynamo Kyiv. Remarkably though, they would be the only consecutive games the Finn would start all season. He found himself back on the bench the following weekend as the Reds travelled to Newcastle and it would be another five weeks before he started in the league again, the Finn increasingly feeling he was not getting a fair crack of the whip.

“There was lots of politics involved in me getting play time”, he claimed. “When I joined Liverpool, Emile Heskey was considered too expensive an acquisition who didn’t meet the expectations, Robbie Fowler wasn’t in a great shape, and Michael Owen suffered from constant injuries. In about three months, they all were in the England national team, often all three in the starting line-up. The competition setting was as hard as it gets: Owen was the club’s own boy and European Footballer of the Year. Robbie Fowler was one of Liverpool’s all-time top scorers, who had earned the nickname ‘God’ from the fans. Emile Heskey represented England in international football and was very physical, which the coaching team kept in high value. I, on the other hand, was a foreigner. Statistically, I should have played more but I was still on the bench.”

It was an autumn of turmoil at Anfield with manager Houllier falling ill during the mid-October draw with Leeds United at Anfield and having to be rushed to hospital where an 11-hour heart operation was required to save his life. It proved successful but meant the Frenchman would require months of rest and rehabilitation with assistant boss Phil Thompson taking over as caretaker. The Kirkby-born former European Cup winning skipper kept Liverpool in contention for the top prizes at home and in Europe but Litmanen’s chances of getting more game time were not helped, despite Fowler’s late-November departure to Leeds, when two more strikers – former Arsenal frontman Nicolas Anelka on loan until the end of the season and Czech Republic youngster Milan Baros – arrived shortly before Christmas.

The Finn responded well to the new challenge, coming off the bench to score in the home defeat to Arsenal and then three days later scoring a bizarre opener in the Boxing Day win at Aston Villa, calmly rolling the ball into an empty net from thirty yards out after goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel’s throw out had hit referee Andy D’Urso and rebounded into his path. But goals in successive games again weren’t enough to prevent him being back on the bench for the following game at West Ham and it would be early March before he found the net again, showing great composure to calmly sneak in front of former Ajax team-mate Edwin van der Sar who had come racing out of goal and steer home the clincher in a 2-0 victory after coming on as substitute.

It was result which kept Liverpool firmly in the title race in third place, only a point behind both Manchester United and Arsenal, and hopes of another exhilarating finale like the year before were boosted soon afterwards by Houllier’s return to the dug-out on an emotional Anfield night against AS Roma. With the Champions League briefly experimenting with two group stages, the Reds needed to beat the Italian champions by two clear goals to reach the quarter-finals and the Frenchman’s appearance on the touchline just before kick off took an already-electric atmosphere up a notch, his side taking advantage early on when Litmanen – in for the injured Michael Owen – nervelessly converted a 7th minute penalty. Emile Heskey’s second-half header secured the necessary result and when Vladimir Smicer’s 92nd minute volley the following weekend beat Chelsea to put Liverpool top of the Premier League, the Reds were potentially ‘ten games from greatness’ as the manager would memorably phrase it.

They proved to be words which would sadly come back to haunt him, the extent to which his illness had taken something from him being starkly highlighted as the Reds crashed out of the Champions League in the last eight to unfancied German side Bayer Leverkusen on a night which perhaps summed Litmanen’s rotten luck during his brief spell at his boyhood club. Defending a one-goal lead from the Anfield first leg, Abel Xavier’s headed equaliser after Michael Ballack’s opener had put the Reds firmly in command with an away goal under their belt before, just after the hour mark, defensive midfield lynchpin Dietmar Hamann was bizarrely replaced with Czech schemer Vladimir Smicer despite Houllier’s side just needing to see the game out. Two quick-fire goals put the hosts suddenly ahead on aggregate but twelve minutes from time Litmanen struck with arguably the best (and last) of his nine goals for Liverpool, picking up the ball on the left side of the penalty area and shimmying past two challenges before curling a precise drove into the bottom corner to put Houllier’s men back in front on away goals.

A mouth-watering semi-final against a Manchester United side Liverpool had already beaten twice that season, along with a potential final at Glasgow’s Hampden Park, loomed but the Reds couldn’t hold out and Brazilian defender Lucio’s 84th minute strike took the Germans through to the last four, where they would beat Alex Ferguson’s side before narrowly being defeated by Zinedine Zidane’s stunning volley for Real Madrid in Scotland.

Litmanen would start the following game at Sunderland as Michael Owen’s second-half winner kept the title dream alive but made only two more substitute appearances, the final of them being in the defeat at Tottenham – the Reds’ first in the league since early January – which confirmed they would have to settle for runners-up spot despite accumulating a club record Premier League points tally of 80. It had been a season of undoubted progress despite the frustrating conclusion, with many in the game feeling Liverpool were now only one or two choice additions away from making that final step to being champions again.

Houllier’s decision not to make Nicolas Anelka’s loan deal permanent and instead pay £10m for Senegal World Cup star El-Hadji Diouf proved fatal however and, only weeks into the new campaign, Litmanen’s frustration at his lack of involvement boiled over.

“I really wanted more out of this move but when you are not playing it is difficult to remain enthusiastic”, he told the press. “If I look at the last two seasons I have to admit that it has not made me a happy person. Liverpool might have a problem keeping everyone happy at the club if they are not playing regularly. I would really like to play a bigger part in our championship race. It is purely the manager’s choice and he does not explain why I’m not getting in. All I hear is that ‘we have a big squad and everybody will play some games’. I know that Michael Owen and Emile Heskey are first-choice players, but if one of them was not playing last season it was either Robbie Fowler or Nicolas Anelka who would play. Houllier is the boss and at Liverpool nobody argues with him. I will not either. I just have to accept my situation, even if it makes me miserable at times. I don’t think Liverpool expected me still to be here,. They expected every player to turn up for pre-season training except me. I have to accept that I will probably be here for another 12 months, as I can see no solution to the problem.”

His comments did not go down well with the manager, who the following day issued a scathing response without actually naming Litmanen as to what his ‘solution’ to the Finn’s perceived problem would be.

“The atmosphere is good here”, the Frenchman insisted. “Provided a player’s attitude is right then there is no problem. He will be given a chance. But if it’s not right, then their performance will mirror their attitude. What I don’t tolerate is people sulking and people chipping away. If that happens I can be extremely ruthless and nasty because I am the protector of the team and of the club. If there is a cancer, it has to be eradicated immediately.”

It was no empty threat as just days later Litmanen was released on a free transfer and returned to Holland to join former club Ajax having made only 43 appearances in a season and a half at Anfield, 24 of them as substitute. He helped them reach the Champions League quarter-finals that season but injuries continued to take their toll as he approached his mid-30s and he returned to Finland in 2004 with Lahti. Further spells with Hansa Rostock in Germany and Malmo in Sweden followed before in 2008, at the age of the 37, he briefly returned to the Premier League with Fulham.

The Cottagers were managed by Roy Hodgson, who had previously coached the Finland national team and was said to close to Litmanen, but it was not a happy reunion with the Finn never making a senior appearance at Craven Cottage due to further injuries and a bout of arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat condition, the future Liverpool manager expressing his dissatisfaction after Litmanen managed 79 minutes for Finland on international duty despite continually being unavailable for Fulham.

“Strangely, Jari’s fitness periods seem to coincide with the Finland matches”, Hodgson sniped. “He has not completed more than 10 per cent of the training sessions we have done since I have been at the club and has not played one game in the Fulham shirt yet has now played twice for Finland.

“He must be the unluckiest fellow in football. When I first went to the Finnish FA, he was standing next to the sporting director of Malmo who opened a can of Coke and the ring popped into Jari’s eye.”

Litmanen soon returned to Finland with Lahti, who he helped qualify for Europe for the first time, before finishing his playing career back at HJK who he helped to a league and cup double before retiring at the age of 40 in 2011, making him one of the few footballers to play at professional level in four different decades and having become his country’s oldest international goalscorer the year before when bagging the 32nd goal of his 137-cap Finland career against San Marino.

Litmanen’s Liverpool career may never hit the heights it promised to and left many wistful it didn’t happen earlier – Jamie Carragher later admitting, “He was brilliant, I wish we’d have got him years before. When we got him, I thought, ‘Wow what a player’ – but his reputation as one of the great talents of his generation was assured by virtue of his time at Ajax whose former legendary defender Frank Rijkaard once said, “Dennis Berkgamp was brilliant for Ajax but the best No.10 we ever had was Jari.”

And although his time at Anfield did not live up to his or anyone’s expectations, just being able to pull on the red shirt of the club he loved and still does ensures Litmanen is still able to look back on his eighteen months on Merseyside with fondness.

“I was there for one-and-a-half years and I was really happy to be at Liverpool because it was my favourite club. So to be part of Liverpool Football Club was something special, I just expected to play more and it didn’t happen. Anfield is something so special to me. I was so happy as a former player but also as a fan that we didn’t go to Stanley Park, to a new stadium, that we stayed at Anfield. That was a really good decision. I remember those old houses behind were really close to the former Main Stand; now the houses are gone and this new stand is bigger, it’s so nice, there is so much space. It’s really lovely.

“Liverpool is Anfield and when you go there to watch a game or go to the stadium to see the pitch, you really feel there is something special. The history of the place, this is Liverpool. If there is a game on TV and I can see it, it feels so nice to see a game at Anfield, especially the Kop, that’s something special. I know the history of the Kop and I have a feeling as a fan of the club, of course, with the Kop.

“When I meet Liverpool fans, the first question is always, ‘Why didn’t you play more?’ I don’t know. I just saw it as a really good period, one-and-a-half years where I could play at the club I have loved. I’m happy that I have done something for the fans that they have nice memories of me as a player. For sure I would have played longer there but I still remember my stay at Liverpool in a positive way.”

A version of this piece was first published in 2022

 

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