Sander Westerveld: ‘I still don’t know why Liverpool got rid of me’
Just three months after Liverpool had completed a unique treble, Sander Westerveld knew that his time at Anfield was over. Without warning, he went from winning trophies as the club’s undisputed first-choice goalkeeper to being left out of the squad entirely.
The end was swift, brutal and unexpected. On the last day of August 2001, Gerard Houllier signed two new goalkeepers, Chris Kirkland and Jerzy Dudek. Westerveld had made more than 100 appearances over the previous two years, but suddenly he found himself well and truly out of favour.
“I know what happened, but I still don’t understand it,” Westerveld says. “From day one, Houllier told me and the press that you need time to adapt to the English league. Obviously, I was criticised like all goalkeepers are. They’re under a lot of pressure, especially at Liverpool.
“I never felt the pressure, but I could see and hear the criticism. I started off well in my first year, when I was 24, and goalkeepers tend to get better every year. In the first year, we had the best defence in the Premier League, and in the second year, we won the treble.
“I was just improving, but already, from the very first day of pre-season, I heard rumours about Liverpool bringing in a new goalkeeper. That’s normal. I wasn’t nervous, or afraid of losing my place, because I felt I was doing good things.”
From No.1 to fourth choice
Rumours of Dudek’s arrival were mounting ahead of a trip to Bolton for the second league game of the season. A late error proved costly as Dean Holdsworth’s shot squirmed through Westerveld and into the net to give Sam Allardyce’s side a 2-1 win.
“I made a mistake,” Westerveld says. “Afterwards I went away with the national team and Liverpool bought two goalkeepers instead of one. That was obviously a big blow for me.
“I never thought that I would have to leave Liverpool. I always had a lot of confidence. I knew what I was doing. All goalkeepers make mistakes, but I was winning points as well.
“If they had brought one goalkeeper in, even Dudek, I would still have been fighting for my place. Nobody knows what would have happened. But when they buy two goalkeepers and they don’t even take you on a Champions League away trip as the number three, you know you’re number four.
“From number one to number four. That was just a nightmare. There was nothing for me to do. I didn’t have any chance to come back and they made it very clear. I thought it was very harsh, but what can you do? Things happen like this in football.”
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READ: The weird & wonderful world of Gerard Houllier’s first Liverpool signings
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It was a stark contrast to how life had started for Westerveld at Liverpool. Houllier had shown great faith in him, signing him from Vitesse for £4million, then a British-record fee for a goalkeeper. He’d just broken into the Dutch national team, making his debut against Brazil, and his career was in the ascendancy.
“It was all going great for me and the cherry on the cake was Liverpool. English football is very popular in Holland and when I was growing up it was Liverpool who were winning everything. My dream was always to play in England and Liverpool was my club.”
Westerveld had planned to gain more experience in the Netherlands before heading abroad, but he couldn’t turn down the chance to join Liverpool. He was replacing David James as Houllier looked to improve on a poor defensive record that had contributed to a seventh-place finish the previous season.
Bright young things
Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz were also signed in the summer of 1999, laying the foundations for future success. Further forward, two academy graduates were making waves. There was the bounding athleticism of Steven Gerrard and the blistering pace of Michael Owen, who had already been catapulted to stardom.
“You see this guy on television and you see him doing things – this big star, like Messi or Ronaldo now. When you meet him in real life, it’s like ‘Woah, this is Michael Owen!’
“When I came in for training on the first day, I shook everyone’s hand. He was in the gym and, from the very first minute, it struck me that this guy, who was one of the most famous players in England, was so normal.
“He wasn’t arrogant or anything. He was just the nicest guy you could ever meet. He was just one of the boys. He didn’t come across as a big star or a big-time Charlie. The way he dealt with all the pressure and the media attention was a great example.”
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READ: An ode to a young Michael Owen, once England’s most exciting youngster
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While Owen was leading the way for Liverpool and England, Gerrard was just making his breakthrough. “I remember how surprised I was that he was so young,” Westerveld says. “He already played with so much confidence. When he was on the pitch, he already looked like he was a leader.
“He never showed any nervousness and he was so mature in the games. He did everything right. You could see he was a special player, but when they’re so young, so many things can happen.
“It was the same with Xabi Alonso when I moved from Liverpool to Real Sociedad. He was an amazing young player, but I would never have guessed that he would end up becoming a world champion and playing for Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid for so long.”
Liverpool made a slow start to the new campaign, including a 1-0 defeat in a bad-tempered Merseyside derby that featured three red cards. Westerveld and Francis Jeffers were both sent off for clashing, and Gerrard was dismissed in injury time for clattering into Kevin Campbell.
“The day after Houllier called me in his office. I was like, ‘Oh, here we go.’ He said, ‘Obviously I never like players to get red cards, but you showed character and you need to hold onto it. You showed you had the determination and will to win. You could see how important the derby was for you, and I need players with this mentality.’”
Francis Jeffers is 39 today.
Perhaps his best moment in an Everton shirt – having a good old scrap with Sander Westerveld in the Merseyside Derby.
— What If Football ⚽️ (@WhatIf_YouTube) January 25, 2020
Liverpool improved to finish fourth, qualifying for the UEFA Cup, which formed the centrepiece of an epic 2000-01 season. Westerveld made 61 appearances in all competitions on the way to claiming three trophies.
Each of Liverpool’s three finals – the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup – contained plenty of twists and turns, but Westerveld remembers the first most fondly. He got to be the hero against Birmingham City at the Millennium Stadium, saving two penalties in the shoot-out, and it spurred the team on to more success.
“Our strength was that we could play with two teams. Me, Sami and Stephane played almost every week, but Houllier could change everybody. We had so many options in midfield and we had four strikers. We had a great team, not only a starting eleven. We had 25 players.
“It worked in the cups. After a couple of results in the first rounds, it gave us a lot of confidence, and obviously winning the first one in February gave us the experience of winning and the hunger to win more. We really focused on those games. You only needed to beat one team and then progress to the next phase.”
Travelling the world
Two more trophies followed, as Liverpool beat Manchester United in the Charity Shield and Bayern Munich in the UEFA Super Cup, before Westerveld was dropped. By December he had been sold to Real Sociedad, who went from fighting to stay up to challenging for the title a year later.
Westerveld quickly picked up the language and rebuilt his confidence, helping his new club to second in the table, just two points behind Real Madrid. The former Netherlands international, who was restricted to just six caps by the consistency of Edwin van der Sar, also went on to play in Italy and South Africa during a nomadic yet enriching career.
“It gives you a lot of different experiences and makes you a better player,” he says. “Obviously, it’s nice to have a statue at a club because you played there for 20 years, but I had a very different career which took me all over the world and I’m really proud of it.”
The lure of a return to the Premier League took Westerveld to Portsmouth in 2005, but there were few opportunities to play once Harry Redknapp was re-appointed manager. He ended up going on loan to Everton in search of games, and thankfully it didn’t affect his bond with the Liverpool supporters.
“I was on the way to the Chelsea-Barcelona game because a friend of mine had tickets. David Moyes phoned me in the car. He said, ‘I need a goalkeeper. Can you help me?’ I was just thinking, ‘I need to play, and show myself again for my next step.’ It’s just deadly for a goalkeeper if you sit on the bench.
“I was only thinking about the opportunity. I said, ‘Yes, of course.’ I put down the phone and then it hit me. ‘Oh shit, it’s Everton.’ I didn’t know what reception I would get from the fans and the people at Everton, but from day one they were all positive and happy to see me. Nobody ever gave me any grief.”
Since retiring in 2013, Westerveld has stayed involved in football as a coach, agent and pundit. He has helped out the Netherlands’ youth teams and has plenty of insight to share about how goalkeeping has evolved.
“When I started in 1992, they changed the back-pass rule. That changed things dramatically because you had to be better with your feet. I was alright because I was a striker when I was younger, which gave me an advantage with that rule. I was well-known for my kicking.
“Goalkeepers are fitter, more powerful and can jump higher. You have to play like an outfield player, so your team always have an extra man. If you do that well, it gives your team so much confidence. They play more on the ground and you don’t see goalkeepers kicking the ball long to the strikers like we used to.”
Liverpool’s current goalkeeper is a prime example of this new breed and someone Westerveld rates highly.
“Alisson is one of the best in the world. To do that you have to be good at everything and have no weak points. You have to dominate your box and have great reflexes.
“He’s big and he has this aura around him. He has confidence and the way he plays out with his feet is just amazing to watch. There are only a few goalkeepers at the moment who are so complete.
“Great goalkeepers make saves in decisive moments, not when you’re losing 4-0. He makes saves when you’re winning 1-0 and that wins you the game. I think he’s the perfect goalkeeper for Liverpool right now.”
By Sean Cole
This interview was originally published in September 2020.
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