Sami Hyypia - The rock at the back

Sami Hyypia is one of few players who amount to legend status at Liverpool in the last 30 years. From the moment he wore the Liverpool shirt for the first time the dominant Finn became the bedrock of Gérard Houllier's defence and showed incredible consistency. Hyypia was a virtual nobody in English football circles when he arrived at Liverpool in 1999, having only had a trial at Kevin Keegan's Newcastle as a youngster and made his name in Finland and Holland.

It is no secret that I [Arnie] hold Sami in the highest regard. Our paths had crossed first in October 2000 when I awarded him with a framed portrait (drawn by ex-pat Brian Pilkington, born barely a stone's throw from Anfield) for being voted "Player of the year" by the Icelandic Liverpool Supporters' Club. Incidentally I met him 12 months later at Melwood as he was voted the best player again and then I did a totally unplanned interview with him after training, which could not happen today, given how protected the players are. Sami lives in Helsinki now with his wife and two sons. He is a genuine guy who happens to be bloody good at football and we sat down for what was effectively our second interview, only 16 years later since the first!

Sami with me [Arnie] left and Stonie from the LFC supporters' club in Iceland in October 2000.

My father, Joucko, was my team's coach from five until 16 in Finland. He created a good atmosphere for us to have football as a hobby. We did a lot of things with the ball. He told me that physical things I could practice later on. When you have the basic technique in football you have the possibility to improve the physical things later on. We did a lot of technical work and didn't run too much.

I was always quite close to football. Both my dad and mom played football. I grew up from a young age next door to a football field. When my mom was playing the substitute players took care of me at the side of the field. I started to play football because I loved it. You should do whatever your passion is. I have done some other sports as well but football was always my number one.

"I never had to press Sami to practice and I don't believe that any success in sports is achieved through coercion. The will to work for one's own success has to come from within. There were times when Sami didn't feel like going to training and he might complain about a sore foot or something else. I always told him to stay home if he felt like it and then left to go to training, and usually Sami followed me a few moments later. Sami has always been very dutiful and he has always been able to concentrate on what he does. Still, I wish his temper wasn't as short as it sometimes is. He may explode at times, but he also calms down quickly." - Joucko Hyypia in Sami's autobiography: "From Voikkaa to the Premiership."

My strengths and physical attributes mean... that I don't know... if I could play another position. When I was younger I was mostly a midfield player. I played in the centre of the field and sometimes I played up front as well. When the years went on the centre-back position was the position for me. I am quite happy I went down that road.

Nowadays it has become more important that centre-backs can play football. Many of them are better at playing football than defending. I got the quality on the ball because I played midfield and also that they encouraged you to play in Holland. 

When I was a teenager it was my target to play in the highest league in Finland. When I did that I started to think it would be nice to play abroad. When I went to Holland I worked hard for my next goal, maybe to go to a bigger team. I put realistic targets. When I reached that then I go forward. I didn't want to upset myself too much. I didn't know at all to which level I could reach. From a young age I learnt how to adapt and how I need to play against better boys. I wasn't the quickest. I needed to think how I could solve situations. That helped me later in my career.

From my group of friends there were two who played in the highest league in Finland and two others who played in the second league in Finland. So from the core of friend's group of 6-7 from a small village, five have played at an ok level and three of us played in the Finnish national team.

Was it a big step for you going from Holland to Finland?

It was a good step for me. The style of play in Holland was a little bit different. In Finland we played zonal game more and In Holland it was almost always man against man. It was one of my strengths that I understood the game. If you play man against man you have no cover. I remember one situation. Henrik Larsson was playing for Feyenoord then. He scored easy because I was too close to him. They played the ball just behind me and he ran and scored. My coach wasn't happy. I thought about the situation. That kind of things I needed to improve. I went back to zonal play when I went to Liverpool. That was easy. Then I was much better man against man. 

Liverpool started watching Sami because of a tip from a TV cameraman. Former Chief Executive at Liverpool, Peter Robinson, tells the story: "It was mid-way through the 1998/99 season when there was a knock on the door of my office at Anfield. I had never met the chap. He came in and introduced himself as a cameraman who covered football in Europe. He knew we were looking for a strong defender and recommended we take a look at Sami."

Sami confirms the story, not impressed though when we suggest Sami owes the cameraman royalties for his vital part in the move... It was an English cameraman working as a freelancer for Finnish TV. I met him later on and he told me that he was this cameraman who said to Peter that he should check out this Finnish guy in Holland. 

 - This soundbyte is transcribed in the next two paragraphs.

It was a long process. We had a game at Sparta Rotterdam. I think it was Ron Yeats who came to see me. We lost 4-1 and I didn't play particularly well that game. I was thinking that the chance had gone now. They saw me once and I didn't impress. Six months later they came again. My performance was much better that time. I had found the consistency. I knew that they were watching me many weekends. I called this Dutch agent after the games. "What did they say?" I thought I had played well. He said: "They're coming next weekend again." "Fucking hell", I thought. That took like ages. It was such a long time for me. It became a little more serious when Houllier came himself to watch a game. I met him after the game and he was telling me his plan a little bit.

There were two games left in the season. My ex-girlfriend was into dancing and we had tickets to go to Riverdance in Rotterdam. That day I got a phone call, I should fly to Liverpool to sign my deal. Of course we didn't go to Riverdance, rather went to Liverpool. That was straightforward. I saw the stadium and signed my deal. I went back, had the second last game on Saturday. We had a chance to secure the second place in the league and go straight into the Champions League with my Dutch team. We won 3-0. That was a great achievement for a little club like Willem II. That was an emotional day. I knew we had achieved something and I was going to go. Nobody knew at that stage that I was going. Then we played the last game at home. The coach said he is going to take me off at the end of the game to say goodbye to the crowd and get some applause. It was a home game against Twente. We were leading 1-0. It was the 87th minute. My number came up. All the guys came to me and carried me off the pitch. Then my very good friend who played the same position as me came on and we managed to lose the game 2-1.

It was one moment that I will never forget to sign the deal. I was a Liverpool fan when I was younger and it was like a dream come true. I remember still what I thought when I signed my deal. This is just the beginning. I need to work hard to get some games. To be honest, if somebody had said: "You'll be here for the next ten years and you will play almost 500 games for the club," I would have said: "You're crazy."

From Sami's autobiography proving he was truly a Liverpool fan as a kid

Sami Hyypia captained the Liverpool side for the first time in only his seventh game for the club against Hull in the League Cup on 14 September 1999 and when club captain Jamie Redknapp got injured Hyypia effectively replaced him as skipper from the West Ham game on 27 November onwards. 

Did you expect making such a huge impact right away? 

Preparing for the season was quite easy for me. Nobody knew me. Nobody expected anything from me. It was easy for me to concentrate and show that I can play football. Later Phil Thompson said that he was amazed how I coped with the English game. Three months after I came we played away at West Ham and before the game Houllier came to me to tell me that Jamie Redknapp was injured and Robbie Fowler was injured... so you have the armband. Of course that surprised me a lot but I was happy. That didn't change me at all. He had a reason to give the armband to me and I felt that I didn't need to change anything. I continued to be myself because when he gave it to me he didn't expect that I would change somehow. It was a great honour. From the beginning I always had a great relationship with the fans. They saw on the field how I was. I always try to give my best.

It definitely helped you to arrive there as an unknown bought for a small fee.

Sometimes this happens. Over the years when I was there it hasn't worked out that way. It worked with me. If you take a gamble and you take an unknown to Liverpool... I don't know how big percentage of those have worked out. 

Ron Yeats was Liverpool chief scout at the time and when asked by a a decade ago which Liverpool signing he had been most happy with, only one came to mind. "I was glad we signed big Sami Hyypia. I went to see him after we was recommended. I thought this boy looks a good player. At centre-half he was a great passer of the ball which is unusual for centre-halves. I was really taken with Sami. When I was told how little money Liverpool had spent on Sami, I nearly fell off my chair!"

From the Kop Magazine

From January 2000 to October 2001 you played 87 matches in a row without getting booked. 

It wasn't my style to be nasty. If the ball was there I sometimes went in hard. If I kicked the guy as well and took the ball... the next time he might think I was coming in for a challenge. That was one way to be dominant on the field. 

Did you talk with the opponent during the game?

Sure. Not like in a bad way. Many strikers tried that against me to get me out of my game, but they don't know me at all. Ibrahimovic was one to try, in a friendly. He was saying some nasty things. I liked to talk to the referee. That helped my concentration. It was not only I was complaining about situations. Many times I said to the referee during the game: "Well done."

Vocal with other defenders?

I knew it was very important to communicate on the field. My voice was a little bit lower than Carra's so it didn't come through the microphones as much. On the field it is better to talk too much, than too little. I didn't have any problem with Carra shouting like this. When I had moved to Germany and was watching a Liverpool game I heard Carra's high voice through the TV.

Did you need a kick up the backside if you weren't performing to your standards or just an arm around the shoulder?

I didn't need encouragement. I didn't need criticism. I was quite good in analysing my game. I was a perfectionist. I analysed every situation almost in my game and in training as well. I wasn't happy if I made a bad pass and I made sure that the next pass was perfect. If I didn't control the ball well I made sure I controlled the next ball perfectly. I think I was quite easy for the managers. I could analyse things and was quite steady all the time. I didn't have big changes in my mood or whatever. ..

Did you never get a rollicking from Phil Thompson?

Phil was like Gordon Ramsay with the F word. 

How did you cope with pressure?

I took it very personally if we lost. If it was my fault or not my fault I took it very personally. I felt more pressure when I was captain. The day when Houllier decided to give the armband to Stevie, it was like a relief for me. I got some of the pressure off my shoulders and I started to play better. It was a difficult time for me and of course when you are dedicated to something you take things home. That is normal. I never had any serious problems at home. When we lost I wasn't laughing or smiling at home but I didn't go nuts when I came home. 

Alan Hansen looked so composed on the field but had terrible pre-match nerves. Were you nervous at all?

I was always nervous before matches. I didn't throw up, but I had to go like five times to the toilet. Not to throw up but to have a shit. To be nervous is good. I didn't lose it. When I was nervous I got more out of myself. If I lose the nervousness nothing matters any more for me. 

You had fantastic partners in the centre of defence..

Henchoz and I had a good understanding with each other from the first game. I felt I had played a long time with him already. Henchoz needed his rest in between. He wasn't a very good runner. When we were running in training he was almost all the time the last. I could run all day at a certain pace. I needed someone who was quicker than me. It was great to play with Carra as well. The biggest difference between them was communication. I never heard Stephane but I heard Carra too much. I think I have never played with a better defender than Jamie Carragher. 

Sami with the shirt I bought when saying goodbye to Sami at Anfield in 2009.

What changed when Rafa came?

All the French out, the Spanish in! That changed. We needed to learn Spanish instead of French. Always when a new manager comes you need to prove yourself. Is he going to like me? I took that quite calmly. I tried to do my best and if that isn't enough there are clubs who would want to take me.

He effectively replaced you with Pellegrino in the 2004-2005 season. Thankfully he had featured earlier in the campaign against Werder Bremen in the Champions League so you played instead of him in Europe because he was cup-tied.

Carra said that's why we finished behind Everton, because Pellegrino played. It wasn't a nice time for me. I wanted to play. Every player says that when they haven't played for a while, then they play shit. They say: "I need to play games to get my rhythm." You get your rhythm in training. If you train like you play you don't need to find rhythm. You have the rhythm already. I have always been a good trainer. I couldn't train 50%. When I needed to do something I did it in the tempo of how I played. That was one of my strengths. If I had trained 50% in the period when I didn't play a lot I couldn't have performed how I did. Before the Juventus game when I scored, I didn't start a game for one month. What I wanted to do after I scored was to go in front of the dug-out and show Benítez something. But I held my head not to do it. It was a great feeling to score that goal. I scored a few goals. My Juventus goal is a favourite. Also the Wolves one. The goal against Arsenal in the Champions League. That brought us back into the game. We didn't start well and Arsenal was leading 1-0.

What about your own goal against Everton?

It was a good finish and good that Everton got a goal. Every time I touched the ball the Everton fans were shouting: "Shoot!" We managed to win that game so I don't remember that own goal in a bad way. In the season after that when we went to Goodison I was on the bench. I went to warm up. We were leading 2-0 in the second half. You get all kinds of shouts from the crowd. Where you used to warm up at Goodison there was a family stand in front of you. What kind of language you heard from there. One guy shouted: "Hyypia! Go on the pitch so we can get a goal!" I started to laugh. It was so funny. 

Half-time in Istanbul

The dressing room was quite quiet. We were just sitting there. We were looking at each other. What's happening? At first Benítez didn't say anything. He didn't show, at least, he was angry. He was quite calm. Then he just said to give the crowd something to cheer in the second half. There was many more Liverpool fans than Milan fans. We could hear them sing "You'll Never Walk Alone" at the stadium. I don't think that when Benítez said to give them something he thought we would come back and win it. Djimi Traore was coming off. Didi was going in. Djimi took off his gear and went straight to the showers already. Steve Finnan had a problem with his calf and wanted to continue but the physio said it was a big risk so Steve Finnan was coming off as well. We had two guys coming off and only one going in. Are we playing one short? Somebody got Djimi from the showers. He dried himself off and put his gear back on. 

Hyypia wanted to party after the victory in Turkey

We didn't celebrate. Somebody kept the bottles hidden. The game finished so late in Istanbul and we knew we were going to fly very early in the morning back to Liverpool to make this open bus tour. After the game we had a chance to eat at the hotel but it wasn't like we ate together. We could eat there and then go to sleep. I went to the dinner hall and it was totally empty. I had a few drinks there but I wasn't going to stay alone there and went to bed. We woke up early and flew to Liverpool and went to the open bus tour. Rick Parry said to me: "There is no drinks on the bus." "What, no drinks on the bus?" I went to a member of the staff at Melwood and said we must find something somewhere. We managed to find two or three boxes of champagne and I smuggled them on the bus. But I only got a small sip of it because everyone else was drinking it. The best thing that happened on the bus was when we were going past Goodison Park and Rick Parry was standing there on the open bus, talking to somebody. I saw something fly in the air. It was an egg and it hit the back of his head. I couldn't stop laughing.

Who was your most difficult opponent?

There were many of them but if I have to say one name.. it would be Thierry Henry. I played a few times against the Brazilian Ronaldo. He was a player! I faced him when he was at PSV Eindhoven. He was young.. What a player! I think he scored four goals against us or something. I played in the UEFA Cup with my Finnish team aganst PSV. We drew 1-1 at home but lost 7-1 away! (Highlights from the Ronaldo show on YouTube - Hyypia is number four.)

A return to Liverpool

Roy Hodgson rang me and wanted to know what the chances were I would come back. That was after my first year at Leverkusen and everything had gone as planned. I was happy there. I went to the people who decide such things at Leverkusen. I don't want to do a hassle about it but I know there is some interest from people who want me back to Liverpool. They said it was not possible so I left it like this. I said to Roy: "Sorry, they won't let me go." I had on my Leverkusen deal that I still had two years to go as a player and then two years as an assistant coach.

What if Klopp came now and asked you if you could fix our defence?

I would definitely consider it. Liverpool still has a big place in my heart. If I can help in any way... I like Klopp. He is very passionate about football. He lives football. I like his dedication. I know that he would like to spend more time on the training field than he can, but when you play so many games it is not possible

The best period of your career at Liverpool

The last week of the 2000-2001 season was the highlight for me. The FA Cup final against Arsenal. We got battered by Arsenal for 80 minutes. Then Michael scored the two goals. Performance wise, that was the best of those three finals. Both as a game and an achievement for me. Against Alaves we conceded four goals. It is important to win something. It was great to win those cups, but in the league we improved every season. We were one step higher every season until when we were second and then the next season we couldn't go higher. When you sign somebody who is maybe a gamble... more times it doesn't work than works. Both Diao and Diouf played in the World Cup. I thought that they were a little bit of a gamble to buy. You can't sign 4, 5, 6 players every summer. When you have the core of the team ready you sign quality for bigger money. There we went a little bit wrong. When United were dominant every summer they signed 1 or 2 players, but big names. We didn't need the quantity. We needed the quality. 

We should have won the title in your final season, 2008-2009.

We had a bad period in January. When the focus was on the extension of Benítez's contract. That's one of the reasons we lost our way a little bit.

Why didn't you start in your final game for Liverpool? I was in the Kop and we were going crazy as we were waiting for you to come on.

"It's not good for you. If you play badly everyone will have a bad feeling about you," Rafa told me before the game why I wasn't starting. Honestly I think he was scared that I would play well and everyone would ask him why he let me go. He made this decision and I always accepted the decisions of the manager. It was a pity I didn't score from that corner kick. In the last game in my career at Leverkusen, I didn't play a minute. I didn't even play six minutes. 

"The sale of Arbeloa, Hyypia and Alonso was an important loss. Alvaro was a player who did a vital job for us, always played to a high level and his flexibility was a huge bonus. Sami may not have played every week but he was a 10 out of 10 on and off the pitch, bringing calm to the ground and having everyone's admiration. And Xabi … players like Xabi are very rare. He was the team's engine and you know that when you change an engine, it takes time to work again." Fernando Torres on Liverpool's downfall in the 2009-2010 season

We haven't had a good organiser of the defence since you left.

Fernando was right. I didn't expect to play all the games. I knew my presence in the dressing room and in training. How I trained still... I was 35-36 years old and I trained 100% every day. If a young player sees this old guy flying in training he can't do anything less, can he? I haven't talked with Benítez if he feels it was a mistake to let me go. I hope he has a bit of a regret he didn't give me a contract extension. When I left Kyrgiakos came. I saw him play. I have nothing against him. I don't want to blast other players. I was one of the best centre-backs in Germany so I knew I could still play at a high level. 

By age you lose your pace... but as someone quipped you never had any pace to begin with...

Yes, my game didn't change at all. It was based on reading the game and anticipating. I tried to be there where the striker was thinking of going. 

Interview by Arnie ([email protected]) - Copyright

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