In the summer of 2002, Gerard Houllier and Liverpool were at a crossroads.
The Reds had finished second in the season just ended, their highest league finish in over a decade and the first time in the Premier League era that they’d finished ahead of Manchester United. The future looked bright.
They weren’t the finished article, but with their young English core of Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, Danny Murphy and Jamie Carragher complemented by wizened, got-the-T-shirt types like Gary McAllister and Jari Litmanen, they weren’t far off.
Arsenal, that season’s champions, were good but hardly insurmountable: their defence was creaking with age and their repeated failures in Europe betrayed a lack of elite-level nous.
Liverpool, on the other hand, had the best defence in the land and nous by the bucketload.
If their three-trophy season the year before had hinted that the momentum was with the Merseysiders, their steadily improving league positions of fourth, third and now second (as well as the dilly-dallying non-retirement that had capsized their pals down the M62) proved it.
Their old perch was in sight: a good summer’s transfer business could reshape English football.
Houllier’s transfers that summer indeed did exactly that, but not in the way he would have liked as he turned down one proven goalscorer in favour of a big-money striker who would go a whole season without finding the net, while a poor attempt to ape his compatriot in north London saw him bring in a French playmaker and a Senegalese-born destroyer, both unmitigated disasters.
A discussion of the transfers that helped forge the Premier League’s power bases will likely throw up the names of Cantona, Henry and Ronaldo ahead of Diouf, Diao and Cheyrou. But the latter trio played their part, too. Rarely has a bad buy had such a seismic and wide-ranging effect.
If that summer’s errors came as a proverbial catalogue, the most glaring involved Nicolas Anelka. The Frenchman had spent the second half of the 2001-02 season on loan at Liverpool and had impressed only in flashes, but the hope around Anfield was that if and when he and Owen clicked as a duo, they would be deadly.
Hints at the partnership’s potential had come on the season’s final day, when a gorgeous pick-out from Owen and an impudent finish from the Frenchman had polished off a 5-0 win trouncing of Ipswich Town.
Anelka was a player still reeling from the after-effects of the crippling early-career move to Real Madrid, where he had gone as a brittle 20-year-old after a whirlwind breakout season at Arsenal.
“The first day I arrived at Real Madrid in the dressing room, no one introduced me to the players,” he recalled.
“There was no locker for me, no place allotted, so I had to wait for everyone to sit down before I could decide where I was going to get changed. I wasn’t welcome.”
A grim year there was ended when he rejoined Paris Saint-Germain, but behind-the-scenes issues with his coach, Luiz Fernandez, saw him scarper to Liverpool to work under Houllier, who had managed him at age-group level for France.
When the season ended Anelka had made 15 starts, scored five goals and finished the campaign on a high with a goal in each of his last two games.
He has since claimed a permanent deal had been promised to him and Houllier went back on his word. Either way, Anelka was sent back to Paris, and would sign instead for Manchester City.
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If the reluctance to buy a combustible forward was understandable, the eagerness to snap up El-Hadji Diouf in his stead was rather less so.
Houllier was a coach who prided himself on doing due diligence on his players’ character – and rightly so: his last-minute U-turn on a move for Lee Bowyer, a decision made after meeting the player face to face, is one of the more enlightened moments in Liverpool’s recent transfer dealings.
It’s a cruel irony, then, that his chief undoing would be a signing who failed as much off the pitch as he did on it.
The £10million cash, a fee that made Diouf the second costliest player in the club’s history, would have been better used as firelighter.
His failings are well documented, but suffice to say he was a dreadful striker and an even worse human being, departing two years later with more enemies than goals (of the latter he delivered a grand total of six, strewn across 77 appearances) and leaving a diabolical hex on the No.9 shirt that only Fernando Torres has managed to lift since.
To borrow a line from Miller’s Crossing, Diouf was not a bad guy, all in all – if looks, brains and personality don’t count.
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To add depth to his midfield Houllier again plundered his home country.
Bruno Cheyrou was brought in for £4million and had barely kicked a ball before his new manager had sounded the death knell on his young career by comparing him to Zinedine Zidane; inevitably, Cheyrou turned out to be nothing of the sort, his first season a particular ordeal.
The unholy trinity was completed by Salif Diao, who had starred in Senegal’s miraculous World Cup campaign, scoring one of the goals of the tournament.
Diao was an honest trier but woefully out of his depth, a possession-sieve who functioned mainly as a handbrake on a team that were best playing at speed.
He lasted three years at Liverpool but barely figured after the first.
Compare that signing to the one by Arsenal of Gilberto Silva – who didn’t score any wondergoals at the World Cup but quietly dictated play for the winners, and would become a mainstay of Wenger’s Invincibles – and it looks all the sillier.
It was a dire way to spend £20million – no little money way back when – and the reverberations would be felt far and wide.
Liverpool’s next campaign took a nightmarish midseason plunge, the team desperately hamstrung by a reliance on Owen for goals.
What was envisaged as a title charge quickly became a scramble for the top four and on the penultimate day Liverpool, in the driving seat for fourth place, stumbled to a shock 2-1 defeat at home to Manchester City.
The scorer of both the visitors’ goals? You guessed it. The second, just for kicks, a belting stoppage-time volley in front of the Kop.
It meant Liverpool had to go to Chelsea on the final day, in what amounted to a straight play-off for the last Champions League spot, needing a win.
They didn’t: Jesper Gronkjaer scored, a financially crippled Chelsea finished fourth, and Roman Abramovich parked his chopper in Kensington to snap up a cut-price club in Europe’s top competition. English football entered the era of the sugar daddy.
The season after that, it was Anelka’s 16 goals that steered a turgid City side clear of the drop, safety confirmed on the second-last day. Four years later, City’s status in the top tier consolidated, Sheik Mansour and the gang decided, after much forensic consultation, that this was the club for them.
While Liverpool tripped over their own feet, cursed not for the last time by that inability to make the all-important final step, to heave the boulder all the way to the top of the hill only to see it tumble back onto them at the last, United were busy reclaiming their place as champions, driven by the fury of a man who had allowed his grip on the crown to negligently slip.
United made sure their lowly season was a stark exception; Liverpool proved their title challenge to be something similar.
As for Houllier, he never recovered from the ignominy of that summer, eventually departing in 2004.
By that point, the butterfly flutter of a summer’s transfer dealings had led to the tectonic plates of English football shifting irrevocably. Liverpool have been cut adrift ever since.
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