Underrated Reds: Jari Litmanen

Dan Thomas takes a look back at some of the under-appreciated players to have graced the Anfield turf in the past, starting with Champions League winner Jari Litmanen.

Posted by Joel

Jari Litmanen during the press conference at Liverpool's training ground

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We’ve been lucky to have some of the finest players in football ply their trade at Anfield. From Dalglish down to Suarez, we’ve had the European and World elite playing their football on our doorstep.

In that time, we’ve had some fantastic players who will likely be largely forgotten. So I will take a look back at the underrated Reds, the players who should be talked about a lot more fondly than they are……

I am going to start with Jari Litmanen. The Finnish legend, who obtained 137 caps for his country in a 21 year international career, is without a doubt one of my favourite ever players. Growing up in a world where foreign football was not readily available on British television, I was only ever able to see Litmanen on the magical Champions League nights.

Having gotten to two consecutive Champions League finals with Ajax, Litmanen would become a figure of legend in Amsterdam. Teammate Frank Rijkaard once said of the Finn:

“Dennis Bergkamp was brilliant for Ajax but the best No.10 we ever had was Jari.”

Unfortunately, at the tail end of his 7 glorious years he had also inherited the title of “The Glass Man” and injuries would plague his time at Barcelona, who he joined for a nominal £4m fee in 1999.

The injuries ultimately saw him fall out of favour and he was allowed to move to Liverpool on a free transfer in January 2001. Litmanen was a self-confessed Liverpool fan and was delighted to join his boyhood club.

“We have signed a world-class player,” enthused then manager Gerard Houllier. “He comes with a massive reputation and I believe he’s one of the most exciting signings we have made.”

“It has always been my dream to play for Liverpool. I have supported them since I was a child and there has been talk about me joining them before,” is a direct quote from Litmanen in his introductory press conference. Even though he would get off to a strong start, he would play only 9 games for the Reds in his first season.

I was present to witness his debut at Villa Park. Starting in midfield, Litmanen was a joy to behold. His appreciation of space was incredible and he played the role of the classic number 10 to perfection. Villa’s defence and midfield had no answer to his movement and his passing game. He linked up with Markus Babbel, playing right back, as though he had been playing with him for a decade and Liverpool cantered to a 3-0 win.

When Litmanen was substituted after 71 minutes, he had mauled Villa. He had barely broken a sweat but had made us tick all afternoon. I was in with the Villa fans that day due to being on a corporate freebie and they applauded him off. It is honestly one of the most impressive debuts I can remember for the club.

Unfortunately, his injury problems resurfaced and he broke his wrist on international duty (of course) which means he missed the rest of the season. 2000/2001 was the season we won the cup treble and Litmanen missed all three finals due to this.

He would never really be able to displace Michael Owen, Emile Heskey , Robbie Fowler and latterly Nicolas Anelka. With Houllier preferring his two men up top it was a difficult task for the Finn to gain any traction. But he always popped up with important goals, including three in a run to the Champions League quarter final.

While injuries were playing their part and he wasn’t able to train fully due to an ankle problem, Litmanen didn’t stylistically fit into Houllier’s plans.

The Frenchman was at the peak of his powers having just masterminded the cup treble win and a key component of that team was the strength of Emile Heskey coupled with the pace of Michael Owen. That partnership (amongst a training ground fall out with Phil Thompson) was the end of Robbie Fowler’s time at the club.

Litmanen wasn’t strong or quick, he was all about space, movement and intelligence. He was at his very best playing between the lines – not something that Liverpool of the time did particularly often. And as such, he was free to move on at the end of the season. This was a maddening decision for me as he had made a telling contribution when he had played, but after 9 goals in 41 appearances, the prodigal son returned to Ajax. It was made all the worse by Houllier’s decision to let Nicolas Anelka leave the club too and paying £14m for Senegalese joker El Hadji-Diouf.

Unfortunately, the injuries would continue to haunt Litmanen and his glittering career fizzled out in relative ignominy before his retirement in 2012. He made less than a hundred appearances in the 9 years after he left Anfield.

He will barely be remembered for his time at Liverpool or beyond that, but Litmanen had an excellent career and he was truly a joy to watch. He was one of the reasons I got into football – the opportunity to watch him and his Ajax team of the mid 1990s play. He would probably be more fondly thought of than he is had he played a part in any of the three trophy wins but unfortunately that wasn’t to be and history is dictated to by the winners.

He was still a joy to watch for Liverpool when he got onto the field – and in spite of how well Houllier did for Liverpool in the first three years of his reign, there was definitely an argument that Jari Litmanen should have pulled on the Red shirt a lot more times than he did.


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