Before we start, take a pen and put it between your second and third fingers. Don’t keep reading, get the pen and place it between the fingers. Now take your other hand and squeeze your fingers inwards.
You know why I did that? Because at least one of you will have listed Vladi Smicer as one of the average players Rafa Benitez inherited in that 2005 Champions League-winning squad.
Vladi was inconsistent and injury-plagued; he was in not any way average. If you class him with the likes of Djimi Traore or Igor Biscan (although both cult heroes for their own reasons), you are not welcome on this site.
Like so many of Liverpool’s cult heroes, it’s in Istanbul that the story should begin.
Clarence Seedorf moves towards Dietmar Hamann, opening up space for a smart lateral pass to Vladi. Seedorf twists and jogs towards him, he takes one touch and suddenly the golden Dutchman of trivia questions quickens up the pace. Too late. A low shot squirms in past Dida and the comeback continues. You let a man who’s punctuated a career with exactly those kind of strikes out of nothing, take one relatively unopposed and you’re not unlucky. You are stupid. Very, very stupid.
It got better. Vladi scored the winning penalty of the shoot-out with what would be his last kick in a Liverpool shirt. He knew it; everyone knew it. Yet he still managed to take the penalty with no drama. A quiet walk to the spot, then a determined looking run-up – it looked like it what was going to be one of those dramatic driven thuds a la Stuart Pearce against Spain, but instead he switched at the last second, flicking it the opposite way to Dida had been expecting. Still his celebration was relatively muted, a few shakes of his fist. For a second as he turns, he looks glazed over, then, boom, it happens: he looks at the emblem on his shirt and takes a long kiss. Badge kissing’s lost its effectiveness through frequency and insincerity, but that was genuine.
The Czech had arrived on Merseyside for Â£4 million with high expectations, having starred in his country’s run to the final of Euro 96 and Lens’ first French title in 1998. He was handed the legendary number seven shirt by Gerard Houllier, but it was departing winger Steve McManaman he was expected to replace, rather than emulating the closer role of Kenny Dalglish. He struggled to adapt in his first season and, while his form picked up for the 2000-01 treble winning season, injuries plagued his time at Anfield, ensuring he never got a run long enough to build consistency.
Despite this, he did show flashes of brilliance, particularly when played centrally. Too often he was shunted to the wings where his intelligent movement and vision wasn’t as effective, but, when given an opportunity in the centre, he tended to deliver.
An injury crisis meant that when he returned from a lengthy knee injury in February 2005, Smicer slotted back into the team under new manager Rafa Benitez. The Spaniard did, however, decide that Vladi’s contract wasn’t to be renewed at the end of the season. The injuries played their part, though it was probably more that he simply wasn’t the type of player Benitez needed – truth be told, he didn’t seem Houllier’s type of player either – so Vladi headed to Turkey knowing, should he get on, it would be his last game for the Reds.
Vladi may not have lived up to initial expectations, but Istanbul was the perfect send-off for one of the nicest men in football.