When a bona fide legend of Liverpool Football Club, like Ian Rush, says that you have "got to be up there with the best signings the club has ever made," it's safe to assume that you have had more than a modicum of success with the Liverbird on your chest. Such is the Welshman's opinion of Sami Hyypia, the Finnish giant who commanded the Reds defence for ten years, making 464 appearances, scoring 35 goals and helping the club to ten trophies.
Hyypia is currently ensconced as part of an unusual managerial double-act with Sascha Lewandowski at Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga. Nominally, Hyypia is team manager, with Lewandowski, who holds the training licence, as head coach. It is a peculiar arrangement and has been described by the Finn as "not ideal," but it is one that has yielded success, with Leverkusen third in the table and holding a six point cushion in the automatic qualification slot for the Champions League.
How his former employers at Anfield would relish such a position. Alas, as we are all too keenly aware around this parish, Liverpool is at a different stage in its evolutionary process and we can only dream that next season will see us reach similar heights. Speaking to the BBC, Hyypia recalled his Liverpool years with tremendous affection and he reflected on the relationships he built over a decade in red.
"The day I signed my contract with Liverpool, that's one day I will never forget because Liverpool was my favourite team when I was younger and it was a dream come true. I was there a long time and I had to leave friends there - it was a bit emotional."
As one who was privileged enough to witness those years Hyypia spent at Anfield and to watch him live on several occasions, I would say he was the best defender I have seen don the Liverbird. I've watched Alan Hansen, Steve Nicol, Mark Lawrenson and Jamie Carragher, but I've never seen as imposing a defender as Sami Hyypia. He was aerially dominant, fierce in the tackle, technically adept with great distribution and even carried a goal threat - he scored in each of his seasons at the club.
"Now I think of my Liverpool career with joy, especially the fans," said the Leverkusen manager. "I always had a good relationship with Liverpool fans. I guess they saw that I always tried my best on the pitch. I made mistakes as well and hopefully they forgive me for those mistakes and hopefully I did more good things than mistakes."
Hyppia claimed that his strategy as a manager has been to harness the finest traits of those he has worked under, whilst trying to dispense with what he perceived to be their weaknesses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Finn retains his highest praise for Rafael Benitez, with whom he won the game's most coveted prize.
"If we are talking about football tactically," he offered, "maybe I learned the most from Benitez. Tactically, he was good and maybe I'd say I've learned the most from him."
As it seems to have fallen to me to be the resident nostalgia-monkey around here, a status due more to my comparative old-age than to anything more noble, I shall finish by exhorting you to wallow with me in some mawkish sentiment as we reflect on Sami Hyypia's time as one of our own.
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