Sami Hyypia joined Liverpool as a relative unknown in 1999, but left a decade later with the reputation of one of the club’s greatest ever defenders.
We celebrate all sorts of players and teams on Planet Football. We regularly pay tribute to Legends of the game, but we also honour Cult Heroes that are loved for slightly different reasons, and Fallen Giants that are no longer the force they once were.
We are also working our way through the small group of One-Game Wonders players with a solitary Premier League appearance to their name, but now it’s time for a new series. It’s time to give acclaim to the players that cost their club pittances but were worth fortunes, the bargain buys that can make a scout a hero.
First up, Sami Hyypia.
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In the summer of 1999, Liverpool were in transition from the ‘Spice Boy’ side of the Roy Evans era to the more pragmatic squad of internationals that Gerard Houllier would eventually leave behind for Rafa Benitez.
Houllier’s instincts were always towards the defensive in any case, but in his first full summer in sole charge at Anfield he had good reason to make the back line his priority.
Liverpool conceded 49 goals in the 1998-99 season, four more than Derby County and only three fewer than relegated Blackburn Rovers. None of that year’s top four had conceded more than 37, with Arsenal shipping just 17.
Liverpool had made numerous attempts to address these issues over the previous years, with disastrous results.
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Bjorn Tore Kvarme, Frode Kippe, Rigobert Song, Vegard Heggem and Djimi Traore were all brought in and proved to be flops (though Traore, of course, would somehow last into Benitez’s reign and even play in the 2005 Champions League final).
Meanwhile, the more experienced members of the squad, like Phil Babb, Stig Inge Bjornebye and Steve Staunton, were showing they didn’t represent the formidable rearguard required for a team with ambitions of mounting a serious title challenge.
To get to that level, Houllier needed to recruit a new pair of centre-backs to provide stability at the back while giving up-and-coming young full-backs Jamie Carragher and Dominic Matteo some much-needed direction.
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Jaap Stam had set a world record for a defender when he moved from PSV to Manchester United the year before, in the summer of 1998. The big Dutchman had been brilliant at Old Trafford, looking worth every penny of the £10.75million United paid for him.
The following year, that record would be smashed as Leeds United paid £18million to sign Rio Ferdinand from West Ham.
Lacking the enormous commercial revenues of Manchester United or the reckless abandon of Peter Ridsdale’s Leeds, Liverpool were operating on a stricter budget – Dietmar Hamann’s £8million transfer from Newcastle in that summer of 1999 represented the second-highest fee Liverpool had ever paid for a player, behind only the £8.5million Stan Collymore had cost in 1995.
That effectively meant Houllier would have to look for bargains to bolster his defence. He raided relegated Blackburn to sign Swiss defender Stephane Henchoz for £3.5million, but it was Henchoz’s new partner who represented perhaps the best signing Liverpool have ever made.
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For the cost of one Sami Hyypia (£2.6m), Liverpool could have signed:
Less than half of either Christian Dailly (Derby to Blackburn, £5.35m) or Marcelino (Mallorca to Newcastle, £5.8m)
Just over half of Alain Goma (PSG to Newcastle, £4.7m)
Two-thirds of either Chris Perry (Wimbledon to Spurs, £4m) or a 33-year-old Colin Hendry (Blackburn to Rangers, £4m)
Jaap Stam’s right leg (PSV to Manchester United, £10.5m)
Rio Ferdinand’s right leg from the knee down (West Ham to Leeds, £18m)
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Hyypia had already become a staunch fan favourite at Dutch side Willem II. The 25-year-old captained the side to an incredible second-place finish in 1998-99, which remains the best ever season for a club whose ambitions are usually limited to fighting relegation and maybe grabbing a decent mid-table position.
At 6’4” with striking features and distinctive blond hair, Hyypia certainly looked the part, but Liverpool fans naturally greeted his signing in muted style.
He was so unknown in England that nobody really seemed quite sure how to pronounce his name, with commentators variously pronouncing that unfamilar first syllable “herp”, “hype”, “hip”, “hup”, and the (very nearly) correct “hoop” over his first couple of years at Liverpool.
He quickly became indispensable to the club. With a calm presence and leadership experience, he was the perfect partner for the erratic Henchoz, and the ideal role model for 21-year-old Carragher.
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Not only that, but with captain and vice-captain Jamie Redknapp and Robbie Fowler both so often on the treatment table, Hyypia was the man who often took up the armband and inspired the team.
He was the de facto captain through much of Houllier’s 2001 treble of FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup victories, playing in the back four alongside Carragher, Henchoz and Marcus Babbel.
This actually led to the first-ever appearance of my own name in print, as at age 12 I was so impressed by Hyypia that I wrote to the Liverpool Echo suggesting he should permanently relinquish Redknapp of the captaincy.
They disagreed, but history is on my side. In your face, Liverpool Echo.
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As Carragher told the Liverpool Echo earlier this year: “What followed was a decade of supreme consistency. He transformed our defensive record and won 10 trophies.
“The only thing he lacked was pace, but he was the best partner I had at club level, and our numbers over eight years were excellent.”
Hyypia made 464 appearances for Liverpool. Splitting his transfer fee over all those games, he cost Liverpool just £5,603 per game, during which time he helped deliver two FA Cups, two League Cups, two UEFA Super Cups, one UEFA Cup, and the Champions League trophy.
After helping Carragher graduate from full-back to centre-back, he formed a formidable partnership with the Liverpool native, representing perhaps the only time since the era of Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson that Reds fans have been unequivocally assured that they had the very best possible defensive pairing to rely on.
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Hyypia also had a pretty decent goalscoring record, netting 35 times in his 10 years at Anfield – none more important than his decisive strike against Juventus in the quarter-finals of Liverpool’s triumphant Champions League campaign in 2005.
As the man who inherited the armband from Hyypia, Steven Gerrard has the final word on the big Finn.
“He should be regarded as a one of the greats of this club and I don’t say that lightly,” he said when Hyypia left for Bayer Leverkusen in 2009, when Liverpool finished just four points behind champions Manchester United.
“He has certainly helped transform Liverpool and got us back to where we should be.”
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