THAT Gerard Houllier wore a smile of satisfaction at Melwood yesterday was understandable.
After all, it isn't every day that you sign the player Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish both wanted but never got; the player Real Madrid and a host of Italian clubs were all unsuccessful in persuading to stay on the continent.
And it isn't every day he costs nothing.
Markus Babbel's impending arrival at Anfield may have been something of an open secret in the football world, but his signature on a four-year pre-contract deal nevertheless represents a massive coup both for Houllier and Liverpool.
"When we were made aware he wouldn't sign a new contract for Bayern Munich obviously we showed some interest, who wouldn't?" said Houllier, whose foresight and understanding of the Bosman ruling means he is currently working on a transfer strategy for the 2002 season.
"We have been interested in the player for nearly two seasons, but Bayern refused to sell.
"The player has always wanted to play in England and he nearly joined Newcastle and Manchester United. We also tried to sign him last summer.
"We had a bit of competition from other clubs so I am pleased he will be coming to us. There were Italian clubs and also Real Madrid interested in him.
"He is a full international, experienced and I think he will do well in English football. He is a winner and has a good character, which is important.
"I would say he is a bit like Vladimir Smicer; always smiling and he has a good temperament."
A product of Bayern's own youth system, having joined the club aged eight, 27-year-old Babbel has spent his entire career, barring a two-year sabbatical with Hamburg SV, at the club. He has collected 41 caps for Germany.
His departure is a massive blow to the German champions with coach Ottmar Hitzfeld insisting: "Markus is one of the best markers in the world."
With his official check-in date delayed until the start of pre-season training next July, it is ironic that the majority of Liverpool supporters will see that theory first tested when Babbel tackles new team-mate Michael Owen in Euro 2000.
But even being unable to select the latest piece of his jigsaw until next season couldn't douse Houllier's enthusiasm at having won the battle for the versatile defender, who will be rekindling a partnership with international colleague Dietmar Hamann.
"By coming here it shows he understands the challenge ahead for us," he continued. "At Munich he represented a lot to them, but the presence of Didi here probably helped to keep his desire alive to come here.
"I am pleased that he kept his word in the sense that he said he would like to come to us.
"He is a defender; mainly right-sided. At the moment he is playing right-back. But he can play right centre-back and that is a bonus for me."
Houllier added: "Everybody keeps saying we have spent £30million but we have really re-shaped the team for £14m. That is the net balance.
"The thing about Markus Babbel is that he comes for free and I consider that a snip because you don't find international players of that calibre on the free market. Because of the Bosman ruling we have to work two to three years in advance. That is what we are trying to do at the moment.
"I swear we haven't broken the wage structure to bring him here. He hasn't become the top earner at the club. I wouldn't do that. It is too dangerous for team spirit.
"He has always been a Liverpool fan and he has always followed this club's glory years."
Having watched an successive era from afar, Houllier will be hoping Babbel's arrival will further help to bring the good times back.
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