Xabi Alonso – Liverpool’s Pass Master.

On 1 June 2018, the man who, less than a week later, would be appointed as manager of Segunda División B club Real Sociedad B, quietly settled into his seat at Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium. He was there to watch former club, at which he collected a Champions League winner’s medal, and the words inevitably playing through his mind were of a different song, one that asserted no-one who was part of that footballing family – one he felt strongly that he belonged to – should ever feel alone.  Xabi Alonso, was there to watch Liverpool win their sixth title as Champions of Europe.

With typical humility and appreciation of times and events, he would later concede that the 2-0 triumph over Tottenham Hotspur that evening was “not as exciting as Istanbul” – it’s a moot question as to what actually could match the drama of that Turkish Delight for Liverpool, or indeed any objective football, fans – “but a mature performance and a victory that could be even more important in the club’s history because of the base for winning it creates.” Liverpool were developing a new hegemony, not only domestically, but also across the continent. It was something that Alonso both recognised and welcomed. “I am still a Liverpool fan and will be forever, absolutely,” he would later declare. Once a Red…

Xabier Alonso Olano was born in November 1981, in the Basque town of Tolosa, Gipuzkoa, less than 30 kilometres from San Sebastian, and it was in the city that the Basques call Donostia, that Alonso would launch his footballing career with Real Sociedad. Progressing through the ranks with La Real, by 2004, he was an established member of the first team with three consistent seasons of appearances, and a burgeoning reputation, already established him. In that summer’s transfer window though, things would change for the gifted midfielder. Initially, the arrival of Mikel Arteta at the Anoeta – a boyhood friend of Alonso’s was warmly welcomed. It quickly became clear, however, that the new arrival was not to play alongside, but rather to replace him.

Rumours had abounded of approaches to the club from Real Madrid and Liverpool, keen to acquire the developing talent of a 22-year-old midfield player blessed with that all-too-rare quality of always finding space and time to deploy his skills. Playing for Los Blancos is an ambition for almost all aspiring Spanish footballers but when the deal was finally announced, it was a bid of some £10.7million from the Merseyside club that had secured the deal. Los Blancos would have to wait, as Alonso moved to Anfield to join former Valencia boss Rafa Benítez.

The Spaniard’s presence at Anfield was pivotal in persuading Alonso to move to England. “The key for me in making the decision to go to Liverpool was the determination and the seriousness of the club’s board – and, of course, the manager. When Rafa Benítez called me, he explained exactly what the project was. That it was not a short-term project, but one for the long term.” His assigned role would fit him like a hand in a glove. “He told me exactly what he wanted from me,” he explained about the discussion with Benítez. “It was very clear: he wanted me to play in the midfield alongside Stevie Gerrard and Didi Hamann, and to try to give more control, because we know how intense and frenetic the Premier League can be.” It’s clear that Alonso bought into the ‘project.’ Club, manager and player would benefit enormously from that commitment.

For all that, the move still constituted a massive leap of faith for the man in his early twenties. New city, new league, new team. As one of the world’s major clubs, most players would know something about Liverpool but, as Alonso readily accepted, viewing such a unique institution from afar can only ever reveal half of the story. “I knew about Liverpool, but I didn’t know that much,” Alonso has confessed. “The energy and the passion of the Kop. The beauty of a night where the whole stadium is rocking. All of that, and so much more, was going to be new for me. It was a big step to take at the age of 22. But I was ready for the challenge – I was ready to absorb and to learn as quickly as possible.” He identified the missing knowledge succinctly. “I didn’t know about the magic of Anfield.”

Becoming part of the Liverpool family – both club and city – may have been a difficult learning process, although it was one eased by the established players in the squad. “At Liverpool it was mainly Stevie, Jamie Carragher, Didi and Sami Hyypia. They were the leaders of the team. And they accepted me quickly. I think they saw something in me and that made my welcome warmer and smoother.” Out on the pitch however, despite the confidence of his new manager that the skills so valuable in Spanish football were transferable to the oft thud and blunder game of the Premier League, played at breakneck speed, Alonso’s ability to adapt to a new style of football remained to be proven.

Alonso was quite aware of the task facing him. “Trying to adapt to that pace was going to be the biggest challenge for me – and for my game. But I was ready for a challenge. I knew that if you didn’t cope with the physical side of the Premier League, then probably you are not going to make it. So, I was ready for that. But, of course, I wanted still to play my game, too. To control, to organise, to make my teammates play better. That was my idea of football.” Fortunately, it was also his manager’s idea as well.

Donned in the famous red of Liverpool, Alonso would be the enchanting Joaquín Rodrigo guitar concerto to his opponents’ thrash metal. An exquisite Diego Velázquez portrait to their abstract Jackson Pollock, with lines shooting hurriedly off in myriad directions, rather than delicately coaxed into producing an easily understood, but massively beautiful vision. Alonso’s game was classical, not seduced by demands of modernity. An artist deploying delicate brushstrokes, rather than splashing liquid household paint onto a canvas with apparent abandon. He delivered and made it work and, in doing so, he became an icon, not only to the hordes massed on The Kop, but also to those that hold dear to the ideals of ‘the beautiful game.’

Although his first league game for Liverpool ended with a one goal defeat at Bolton Wanderers, the play of Alonso was quickly recognised as a catalyst, offering the way forward for the Reds and, as the season progressed that promise was delivered not only in the domestic game, but also, more productively, in Europe. There was still a bedding-in process to be completed though and, in the early days particularly, Alonso would spend some time on the bench. As his influence grew though, such occasions would diminish. An example was the early season game against Fulham, that saw Liverpool trailing by two goals at the break. Benítez sent his midfielder on and the game transformed into a 4-2 victory, with Alonso netting his first strike for the club direct from a free-kick.

 

Although much of that first term may have seemed like a blur, Alonso recalled a couple of occasions that suggested the club were on the right track. A 2-1 victory over the erstwhile ‘Invincible’ Gunners and their all-star team was an early highlight. “Patrick Vieira, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry. It was an amazing team,” he recalled. “But we beat them 2-1 and I scored the first goal. To have such a boost that early… for me, it was like wow.”

The second of those two memories came in the competition that was define the season for Liverpool, but not before an injury threatened to blight Alonso’s debut season. In that term’s Champions League campaign, Liverpool had stumbled and stuttered through a group containing Monaco, Olympiacos and Deportivo La Coruña. For any club with serious aspirations of going deep into the tournament, it appeared as comfortable an assignment as any. In the final game however, only that dramatic ‘Tik-a-Boo’ moment from Gerrard ensured progress as runners-up to the French club. A goal down at half-time, and needing three in the second period to progress as they attacked The Kop end of Anfield, Alonso recalled the emotion of the moment and the scorching passion of the home fans.  “The energy and the passion they delivered that night – it was unbelievable. Anfield was rocking. You have to be there to experience such a beautiful night. Really, it was magic.”

Just a couple of weeks later however, a challenge by Chelsea’s Frank Lampard resulted in a broken ankle for the Spaniard. He would be out of action for three months. A season that had looked so full of promise, now appeared stymied. It’s to Alonso’s credit that he took the challenge as one of unfortunate those things that happens in the game. “I loved competing against Frank Lampard,” he recalled later. “A very strong but very fair player. Anyone who is competitive and honest – that’s fine with me.”

Alonso would also take a revenge of sorts when Liverpool faced Lampard’s team in the semi-final of the competition. In the earlier knockout rounds, the Reds eased first past Bayer Leverkusen and then less comfortably, but still successfully, eliminated Juventus. The game in Turin marked Alonso’s return from injury. Although clearly not yet fully fit, he played out the full game, compensating for the absence of the unavailable Gerrard, as his cool and calming influence did much to draw the sting from a potentially hazardous encounter. It was a performance lauded in The Guardian, “This marvellously accomplished footballer testified in the Stadio delle Alpi that technique can overcome a serious physical disadvantage.” It meant a ‘last four’ meeting with Chelsea to decide who would contest the continent’s biggest club game.

Alonso savoured the encounters with the club from West London. “Our games against Chelsea in that first era of José Mourinho were like super-battles. That first year, we beat them in the Champions League semi-finals. The next year, in the FA Cup semi-finals. The next year, in the Champions League semi-finals again. We were playing against each other at least four times every year. But I didn’t mind; I loved those games.” Liverpool would end the domestic season in fifth position, albeit almost 40 points adrift of champions Chelsea, but after Luis García’s ‘Ghost Goal’ was raucously acclaimed to have crossed the line by The Kop, the Reds had arguably bigger fish to fry on a night warm May evening in Istanbul that will forever be logged into the annals of scintillating nights of European football.

Facing AC Milan, Liverpool players walked into the dressing room three goals down after 45 minutes.  To so many watching, the game seemed over. Perhaps the most ardent of Liverpool fans kept the flickering flame of hope alight, but surely many more feared the worst. Benítez made a half-time change however, withdrawing Steve Finnan and sending on Dietmar Hamann, shuffling his cards in search of a winning hand. The move turned up trumps.

Had the Italian club’s players also believed the game was over? The sounds of raucous celebrations from the other dressing room certainly suggested that may be case, and perhaps also inspired the Liverpool players, who entered the pitch for the second period with rampant determination. Within 15 short minutes, the game had been turned on its head and Liverpool were level.

In typical Gerrard style, Liverpool’s captain hurried around the pitch taking passionate control of proceedings and inspiring his team-mates. In subtle contrast, Alonso kept the red machine ticking along with his metronomic efficiency. The skipper, of course, set the ball rolling scoring just nine minutes after the restart. Two minutes later Vladimír Šmicer lit the touch paper by scoring the second and, when just six minutes later, Manuel Mejuto González awarded Liverpool a penalty, it was Alonso steeping forwards to ignite the fireworks. Milan goalkeeper Dida, parried his initial effort, but with ice in his veins, it was the fast thinking of Alonso that attracted him to the rebound allowing the Spaniard to fire in the equaliser.

Emotionally, Milan appeared a broken team. It’s said that you can never truly know the darkness of a night, until you’ve experienced the brightness of a day. Milan’s night was moonless, and Liverpool’s day blazed with a summer sun. A penalty shootout confirmed those diametrically opposed scenarios when Jerzy Dudek blocked Andriy Shevchenko crucial penalty. The homecoming, brandishing the trophy, is burnt into Alonso’s memory. “The scenes outside St George’s Hall after returning from Istanbul,” he recalled. “Were like nothing I’ve never seen.”

The following term he added an FA Cup winner’s medal to his collection of silverware, as Liverpool overcame West Ham United in Cardiff, following a run that saw them past both Manchester United and Chelsea. The third round of the competition also saw Alonso net a goal of outstanding quality and perception, firing home from his own half of the field away to Luton Town. The season also saw Alonso established in the Reds midfield, appearing in more than 50 games across all competitions, including 35 in the league. In September, he notched another amazing long-range goal, this time at home against Newcastle United, again firing in from his own half of the field, negating any doubts about his earlier effort against the Hatters being a mere fluke. The following term would almost echo that consistency of appearances, as Benítez continued to improve the squad introducing new players.

The following summer, he penned a new five-year deal with the club, suggesting to all that his stay on Merseyside would be long term. It would not be the case though. After starting brightly, an injury against Portsmouth started a downward slope. Further damage in training led to a prolonged absence, and then a return, ahead of what caution would have counselled. Competition was also heating up in midfield with the arrival of Argentina’s Mascherano and the Brazilian Lucas.

During the following summer, speculation about a move arose, with Benítez strongly rumoured to be pursuing Gareth Barry as a perceived upgrade on Alonso, whilst the player was elsewhere engaged in helping Spain to a European title of their own. The deal failed to materialise though, and, in typical fashion, Alonso delivered one of his best seasons, with Liverpool falling just four points short of Manchester United, tantalisingly close to what had become Anfield’s ‘Holy Grail’ of the league title.

That previous summer though, may well have put down the marker inevitably leading to an Alonso departure. Some reports suggest that the manager let it be known that his compatriot could now leave the club, with Barry identified as the replacement. The relationship between the two Spaniards began to fall apart. Some argue it was caused when Alonso allegedly made himself unavailable for a Champions League tie against Inter Milan to be with his wife at the impending birth of their first child. Others suggest that it was the club’s decision not to play him to avoid him being ‘cup-tied’ and compromising any potential sale.  Alonso has been judicious in his comments regarding these sad times.  Perhaps delivering his answers on the pitch.

In August 2009 however, the saga drew to its inevitable conclusion when Liverpool accepted an offer of £30million, and Alonso moved to Real Madrid, where he would continue to win trophies and acquire medals before indulging in more of the same at Bayern Munich. Some have suggested that Alonso’s departure was widely lamented by members of Liverpool’s squad, with skipper Gerrard particularly declaring that he was “devastated.” It may well have been an intuitive perception by the skipper, as a period of decline followed. Xabi Alonso however, felt it “the right time to look for another challenge. And there wasn’t a bigger or more important challenge than to go to Real Madrid.

Very few Liverpool fans would have known of their former hero’s presence in that Madrid stadium as the club collected their sixth European title. Had they been aware though, there’s surely little doubt that there would have been an added piquant of delight in knowing that ‘one of their own’ was there to share in that special moment. A former player who was “still a Liverpool fan and will be forever, absolutely.” Once a Red…

(This article was originally produced for ‘These Football Times’ ‘Liverpool’ magazine).

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