WORDS: RICH NELSON
Jari Litmanen arrived at Anfield after a testing spell at Barcelona had led to the loss of his place and his beloved No.10 shirt, but the all-time great of Finnish football suffered more bad luck in Liverpool, the place he had always dreamed of playing. For many, it is hard not to imagine what might have been…
Image: Phil Noble/PA Archive/Press Association Images
In ‘Kuningas Litmanen, the King’ - a 2012 documentary about Finland’s greatest footballer – Jari Litmanen explained how he had grown up idolising the Liverpool side of the late seventies, with Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish at the forefront of his love affair.
Yet, when Litmanen made his dream move to Anfield in January 2001, his brief stay on Merseyside ended in rather tepid circumstances. So what went wrong?
Litmanen’s opportunity to move to England arose when he lost his place in the Barcelona side (and his No.10 shirt) to Rivaldo after falling out of favour with Louis van Gaal’s managerial successor, Llorenç Serra Ferrer. Seizing the opportunity to bring the former Ajax star to Liverpool, Gerard Houllier waxed lyrical about Jari’s qualities at his unveiling, but in 18 months at the club, the Finnish forward only featured in 43 matches, scoring just nine goals.
“I really liked Liverpool,” he says of his time at the club. “There, however, the manager was the boss and the players simply did what they were told. I never thought that I could go and voice my opinion without this leading to negative repercussions. It’s strange that he (Houllier) was so pleased when he signed me and then decided to not use me. I cannot explain it.”
The problems began when, seven weeks after signing for the Reds, Litmanen broke his wrist playing a World Cup qualifier for Finland against England – ironically at Anfield. Subsequently, he missed all three of Liverpool’s cup final wins that season, in the League Cup, the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup.
It must have been difficult to watch from the sidelines as his team-mates ended the campaign in such glorious style, but on his return at the start of the 2001/02 season, Litmanen began to make an impact from the bench.
It looked as though a run in the team would help him to find his feet, but instead he would regularly start matches on the bench, struggling to dislodge Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Emile Heskey from the starting eleven. Even when Houllier missed five months of the season due to ill health, his assistant Phil Thompson was of a similar mind.
“The old English saying was never to change a winning team,” Litmanen recalled, “and Thompson told me I wouldn’t be playing much again”.
Nobody questioned Litmanen’s ability and it became a mystery as to why he was never given a chance to shine. Indeed, on his return to the dugout, Houllier struggled to explain why he allowed Litmanen to return to Ajax.
“I let Jari go because I have always believed he had great potential which could benefit other teams,” he said, rather bafflingly. “He had a lack of opportunities in the team but I really liked the reaction of the Ajax players towards Jari when I sold him.”
It’s not often a manager is so happy to strengthen another team, even if Ajax were not a direct rival at the time.
When the film-makers approached Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, he was happy to speak to them, hugging Litmanen on camera, and expressing his own surprise at his lack of game time in England.
“I wish Jari had stayed longer,” he admitted. “He’d sit on the bench, not being used. We all knew he could create something from nothing”.
Revealingly, Van Gaal talked to FIFA’s website about Litmanen’s struggles in Spain, which could quite easily have translated to his time in England.
“Litmanen was a different player at Barca than he was at Ajax,” the great Dutch coach pointed out. “You have to adapt to a new culture when you move to a different club, and not every player is able to do that.”
In short, English football in 2001 was probably the wrong move for Litmanen at the time. Plagued with injuries (he was nicknamed ‘Man of Glass’ by Ronald de Boer), his struggles to adapt to Spain were perhaps an indicator of things to come. Yet, while Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola were iconic figures at Arsenal and Chelsea, and providing an exotic flair, Litmanen was never in the same mould.
The young Jari, dynamic and injury free, would have been a tremendous signing for an English club. He had been invited to a trial with Leeds in 1992 – how different would English football have been if they had signed him instead of Eric Cantona?
After all, Wayne Rooney recently spoke about modelling his game on Ajax-era Litmanen, and there are plenty of comparisons to be made.
The final cut of the movie – which was hugely popular in Finland and the Netherlands – showed Litmanen touching the famous This Is Anfield sign and walking around the pitch at Liverpool in front of the empty stands.
While promoting the film, Jari spoke to journalist Kari Räisänen of HS about his disappointing Liverpool career, but was typically enigmatic.
“There was something mystical about it, and I never did find out what it was,” he said wistfully. “I always tried to do the job well, but it seemingly made no difference.
“But it’s just a game, isn’t it?”