Gerard Houllier took sole charge of Liverpool Football Club in November 1998, following a disastrous few months as joint-manager with Roy Evans. Fans were excited to see what gems Houllier - appointed in large part because of his pivotal role in the hugely successful French youth system - would bring to the club in his first transfer window the following summer.
Key to this would be fixing the team’s long-standing defensive frailties: the Reds had leaked 49 goals in the 1998/99 campaign, more than all but two of the top 10 teams that season.
Eyebrows were therefore raised when it became clear that his two primary defensive targets were the largely unknown (to pre-YouTube England, at least) Sami Hyypia and Blackburn's Stephane Henchoz.
Hyypia was a 25-year-old Finn playing in Holland for the unfashionable Willem II, and signed at Anfield for £2.6m in May 1999. Doubts over Houllier’s key signing not being a big European name were somewhat assuaged, however, by belief in the manager’s supposedly-encyclopaedic knowledge of football on the continent. Had it become common knowledge earlier that Liverpool were actually alerted to Hyypia by a TV cameraman rather than their extensive scouting network, supporters might have panicked.
His soon-to-be defensive partner Henchoz arrived a few weeks later, when Houllier surprisingly met a £3.5m relegation clause in his Blackburn contract. While football has changed beyond recognition in the intervening 20 years, one thing has remained constant: supporters of ‘big' clubs will always lose their collective shit at the thought of signing defenders from relegated sides (hello there, Andy Robertson).
And so Liverpool entered a crucial season with what seemed to be an uninspiring new defence, signed for a combined total of just over £6m. To put this into context, Leeds paid £18m for Rio Ferdinand just a year later.
But it soon became clear that Liverpool had got themselves a pair of bargains. Hyypia was imperious, dominant in the air and decent on the ground, and Liverpool finally - finally! - had a defender who could both defend and attack set-pieces.
While Hyypia took the plaudits, Henchoz’s more prosaic skill set nonetheless endeared him to the Kop - an unfussy, dependable everyman whose ruddy complexion three minutes into every game suggested a man who would struggle as much as anyone on the terraces to run for a bus while carrying a bag of shopping.
Best of all, Sami and Stephane were a proper defensive partnership who covered each other’s occasional mistakes; a genuinely intimidating challenge for opposing attackers. Where once Liverpool’s defending had been ramshackle, Hyypia and Henchoz ensured it was calm; a source of reassurance rather than palpitations - a truly novel feeling for 1990s Liverpool supporters.
In the 1999/2000 season, Liverpool conceded just 30 goals – the best defensive record in the division. More importantly, the foundations were laid for their treble season in 2000/01, during which Henchoz infamously exhibited the most heroic piece of FA Cup final goalkeeping since Bert Trautmann played on with a broken neck.
Hyypia became a true Liverpool legend, making over 300 appearances for the club and playing a key role in the 2005 Champions League run. Henchoz unfortunately found his Anfield career blighted by persistent injuries, and was a bit-part player by the time he left the club on a free transfer in 2005. But for those first two seasons together they were a brilliant double act; the first Liverpool defensive pairing worthy of the club in a decade.
Twenty years later, the effect that Virgil van Dijk and Alisson have had on a previously shaky Liverpool defence is undeniable, and in spite of their world-record fees both now represent undeniable value.
But what brilliant business the purchases of Sami and Stephane were; to buy a solid defensive partnership at relatively bargain basement prices is testament to the vision of Houllier, his scouts... and that cameraman.
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