Dirk Kuyt, Liverpool’s big-game hero and embodiment of the Benitez era
English fans can be excused for never been quite sure what to expect when a striker swaps the Eredivisie for the Premier League.
Will they be the next Robin van Persie or Ruud van Nistelrooy? Or are they being sold false goods? Think Ricky van Wolfswinkel. A star in Holland with Utrecht and then in Portugal with Sporting but the scorer of precisely one goal in England during a full season with Norwich.
Dirk Kuyt had plundered 71 goals in 101 games for Feyenoord before Liverpool pressed ‘buy’ in the summer of 2006. In theory the Reds were getting a bargain at just £10million. A proven goalscorer and, those who had seen him in action, the very antithesis of a goal hanger.
Yes, Kuyt ran around a lot. He worked for the team. He put in a shift. Ironically, that was part of the reason why his career at Liverpool will be remembered as that of honest pro rather than superstar.
Kuyt, with those solid legs and neat mop of blonde hair, made his debut in a 2-1 home win over West Ham on August 26, 2006, coming on as a substitute to replace Peter Crouch.
That 2006-07 Liverpool team could be classed as being ‘between strikers’.
Crouch brought something different to the mix and Craig Bellamy was a classy pest with a goal or two in him, while Robbie Fowler had come back for a second stint but was more nostalgia act than genuine first-teamer so there was a goalscoring void to be filled. Was Kuyt the man?
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This, of course, was the Rafa Benitez era at Anfield. His tactical wizardry had guided a genuinely mixed bag of a Liverpool team to Champions League glory in 2005, but now there was the Holy Grail of trying to win the Premier League.
Anyone and everyone can chip in on cup runs, but a title assault needs a genuine and regular goalscorer. A 20 goal-haul from Kuyt and solid contributions from elsewhere could have been the winning formula.
The Dutchman took a little while to settle but scored twice in four days at the end of September, helping Liverpool to home wins against Newcastle and Spurs.
Reds fans were hopeful but cautious too. On the one hand, there was a feeling that could this be the start of something. On the other, there was a nagging feeling that he was good but not great. A seven out of 10 player.
Fans are greedy. They want superstars. They want nines and 10s. Kuyt looked like what he was. A £10million signing from the Dutch league.
He scored 14 goals in that first campaign, a very respectable haul but not a game-changing one.
In the next, he managed 11 while a late flurry in Liverpool’s near-miss 2008-09 season yielded 15.
It was back to 11 in the following campaign but back up to 15 in 2009-10, a tally boosted by one very special afternoon against Manchester United (more on that shortly).
One thing was very clear. Rafa loved him. Or rather, given that the Spaniard doesn’t really do love, Rafa saw how valuable he was to the cause. From being an out-and-out striker, Benitez turned Kuyt into the ultimate workhorse, ploughing a furrow up and down one side of a front three.
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And Liverpool fans adjusted with him. The fanciful expectations of Kuyt being a world-beater had been downgraded to a different type of admiration. He wasn’t Pelé, but good old Dirk would play his heart out for the club and die for the cause. And that goes a long, long way on Merseyside.
While other Reds flickered and flirted with greatness, Kuyt offered a rubber-stamped guarantee. Whatever the occasion, whatever the opponent, whatever the location, he would put in a blue-collar shift week in, week out.
That can sound patronising, but Kuyt had another trick up his sleeve which moved him into a category beyond honest trier. The man from the little coastal town of Katwijk aan See (Dutch for Clacton-on-Sea… well, not really) could score big goals in big games.
When he finally left the Big Anfield House in 2012, his ‘best bits’ were quite something:
– Scorer in the 2006-07 Champions League final against AC Milan
– Scorer of the winning penalty in the 2007 semi-final, second leg against Chelsea.
– First player in 21 years to score a hat-trick against Manchester United
– Injury-time penalty to secure dramatic derby win at Everton
– Extra-time goal against Cardiff in 2012 League Cup final
– Shootout goal against Cardiff to secure League Cup final glory
There were other important strikes against Arsenal, while he netted seven times in the 2007-08 Champions League campaign. Even the hat-trick against Manchester United had added cult value as they were all
five one-yard tap-ins. Those goalscoring instincts had never left him.
Not many can claim to have scored a hat-trick against Manchester United.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) March 6, 2017
In many ways, Dirk Kuyt was the embodiment of the Benitez era. Tactically astute, hard-working and capable of taking it up a level on big occasions.
You don’t build a football team just by throwing 11 superstars together. Even Brazil ’70 had a few in their ranks who provided solidity and balance. That was Dirk Kuyt at Liverpool. Popular, reliable and hugely valuable.
Imagine Kuyt was at his peak now. Would he make this current high-flying Liverpool team? Not as a regular starter, but Jurgen Klopp would have him as a squad player all day long.
Slight injury concern for Mane, Salah or Firmino? Two games in four days? Tough away assignment where you need to dig in but try to nick a big goal?
There would only be one man for the job.
By Dave Tindall