Anfield, May 24, 2009: Six minutes from the end of Liverpool’s game against Tottenham, Rafael Benitez brought off Steven Gerrard to allow a wonderful, memorable and emotional event to occur. Gerrard removed his captain’s armband and gave it to his replacement, Sami Hyypia, who was playing his final game for the club.
The Kop stood in salute of the Finn, who had served Liverpool with full dedication for a decade, helping the club to a Champions League, a UEFA Cup, 2 UEFA Super Cups and 6 domestic trophies.
When the referee blew the final whistle, it was the end of a remarkable career at Liverpool which included 464 games of no-nonsense and disciplined defending, along with 35 goals, mostly scored from towering headers off set-pieces. There were tears in Hyypia’s eyes (and many others who were present at Anfield or were watching the game live on television), and the Anfield faithful were singing songs in his praise.
Liverpool had finished the season on a high, finishing a strong second in the league, just 4 points off Manchester United. It was an apt farewell for a player who had loyally served the club. Ever since that season, Liverpool’s form has dipped and Brendan Rodgers is the fourth manager at the helm since that season, while Hyypia has now gone on to become the manager of Bayer Leverkusen and has impressed in his new role, leading the team to a 3rd place finish in Bundesliga and Champions League qualification. It won’t be far-fetched to imagine the Finn managing Liverpool at some stage in the future.
Flashback to May 19, 1999: Liverpool signed 25-year-old Sami Hyypia from Dutch club Willem II for a relatively small fee of £2.6 million. Hyypia, who had been a boyhood supporter of the club, was recommended to former chief executive Peter Robinson by a TV cameraman.
Robinson recalled “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, who was playing for Willem, one of the smaller Dutch clubs. That is how it all started. I passed the message on to Gerard (Houllier) and, over the next few months, members of the staff went to Holland to watch him on several occasions.”
Ron Yeats, who was Liverpool’s chief scout, later described Hyypia’s signing saying “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 and I put in a report that either the boss or a coach should go over and see this man. They did and then signed him a few weeks after the recommendation. When I was told how little money Liverpool had spent on Sami, I nearly fell off my chair!”
Hyypia already had seven years as a professional behind him. At the age of 17, he signed for his local club Kumu, then in the Finnish second division, after having spent ten years at Voikkaan Pallo-Peikot where he had made three appearances in the third division in 1989. He decided to undertake his period of National Service early because it could have been a problem if he had to play in another country later at some stage. He turned pro and signed for MyPa in 1992, where he played alongside Jari Litmanen (who later turned out to be his future Liverpool teammate as well). Hyypia spent three years at MyPa and won 2 Finnish Cups in 1992 and 1995.