I usually begin any post on The Long Ball with some form of set-up but for this it feels impersonal. This is not a career retrospective nor a detailed analysis of why you were so good. This is a personal piece, something that I wanted to share with whomever would be in the slightest bit interested about a player and a man who really was a hero for me growing up.
I didn’t know who you were when you joined my club, Liverpool, back in the summer of 2004. I was just nine at the time and we didn’t have Sky or the technology at our fingertips that we have now but when I heard that you were coming from Real Sociedad and for £10 million that meant something. I’d seen Real in my Match! magazines when I was allowed to get one and knew that they were so close to beating the great Galacticos to the title. I had no idea that you would help shape, change and inspire how I watched and appreciated football.
I watched you throughout that debut season, amazed at how easy you could ping a ball from side to side without ever losing it. My formative years had seen the likes of Gerrard, Murphy, Hamann and McAllister in the middle of the park, all of whom were decent technicians but when you arrived, it was otherworldly. I’m sure my dad had seen players like Molby in the past who could do similar but this was nothing that I had ever seen before.
That run to Istanbul was special, nights of sitting and watching football way past my bedtime that will remain unforgettable. That night against Juventus at Anfield was special, the second leg in Turin a battle, that cheating bastard Gudjohnsen getting you suspended in the first leg of the semi-final but messing it up right at the end at Anfield and, naturally, the equaliser in the final. I’ve watched some of those moments back multiple times as you strode round the pitch effortlessly providing a platform from which the likes of Gerrard and Garcia could build from.
I watched that mental FA Cup tie at Luton the following season where you pinged one in from our half with your weaker left foot like it was nothing. I saw the one against Newcastle where you even had time to take on the referee. I saw all the big games in your five years at Anfield, saw the big moments and loved the little ones too. The long raking passes, the commitment for the club, the sometimes brilliant goals. You were brilliant, the finest pure technician I’ve ever seen grace the Anfield pitch.
And that is why it makes Rafa’s obsession with Gareth Barry so difficult to understand. No offence to Barry who was a good player but you were better in every way. What’s more, you were Xabi. You were cooler, you were better to watch. You were the player every club would love to have. And we had you.
It hurt when you left. Sure £30 million was great money but the amount we lost on the pitch made it a hollow, empty profit. Watching Liverpool became difficult. There wasn’t our Spanish metronome to keep it going. Alberto Aquilani was supposed to be the better version of you but it just felt wrong. The moment you were cloaked in the crisp white of Real Madrid, an entire club changed. When you were around being a Liverpool fan was exciting and you looked forward to every game. Now, there is a sense of trepidation around what should be the most routine of wins.
But none of that was your fault. Rafa didn’t want you any more and you went somewhere that wanted you. Real needed you and despite the fact you were part of the footballing atrocity that was Mourinho’s Real, you managed to make it palatable. You were the glue for that team just like you were the glue for my team. You were always the coolest, you were always the calmest and you always were the best.
So, as you have announced that you will be retiring at the end of this season, I felt this was the right time to say thank you. Thank you for five years of being my favourite player. Thank you for helping me to appreciate football as I went from child to young adult. Thank you for giving me and my club so many joyous memories. Thank you for being the best.
Lived it. Loved it. Farewell beautiful player.