Two iconic seasons from the last 20 years stand out for their success and inspiration. The 2000-01 season for Liverpool’s treble of the FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup victories and the 2004-05 season for the Champions League victory over AC Milan, otherwise known as “The Miracle of Istanbul”. When you think of those two seasons, as the silverware rained on Anfield, there were only 3 players that featured in both of them. The first, Steven Gerrard will always be THE Scouser Legend and, the second, Dietmar Hamann will always be in our consciousness because of his presence on TV and social media. So, let us shine this humble written spotlight on the third player. A man who spent 6 great years at Anfield and walked away with a clutch of medals – Czech International midfielder Vladimir Smicer.
Filling the Void
Steve McManaman, or “Macca”, moved on to Spanish giants Real Madrid after he helped spark a youth revival at Liverpool with the likes of Robbie Fowler and Jamie Redknapp. He made an impact at Anfield with his energy and speed and had become popular among the supporters for being a big factor in the club’s exciting attack. In the summer of ’99, “Vladi” was bought in from French Ligue 1 club Lens to fill in the big shoes of McManaman. Smicer had a good track record of success before arriving in England, and that was just the kind of player that a club with high aspirations needed.
He was part of the giant-killing Czech Republic national team that reached the final of the 1996 European Championship. He had also starred in a Lens side that won their first (and only) French Ligue title in 1998. He possessed a great football IQ, a mallet of a right foot, and the speed and tenacity of a ferret. A player of such courage and steel would be a great fit at Liverpool and those qualities would serve Vladi well in the challenging life of a Premier League footballer.
The 1999-2000 season was not one to remember for Smicer. He was struggling to find his rhythm in a new league and country. To make matters worse, the little niggling injuries just never seemed to stop. But I was happy, at the time, that Liverpool were faring better after the previous season ended with a 7th place finish. To call that team inconsistent would be an understatement. The talent was there but they just never seemed to play as a cohesive unit. But, similar to many times before, I felt optimistic thanks to the rise of Michael Owen, Stevie starting to make more first team appearances. The defense started to look stronger too, with Stephane Henchoz and Sami Hyypia.
Vladi began to feel more at ease with the playing style and speed of the league in his 2000-01 season. And it was a vintage season for the Merseyside Reds as they brought in 2 major domestic trophies and one prestigious Continental trophy. This signaled their return as a force in England and Europe. Liverpool also made a long-awaited return to Champions League football after a long hiatus, by finishing 3rd in the League. Smicer’s chemistry on the pitch with the three goalscoring machines that season – Owen, Heskey and Fowler -was a major factor in the deluge of titles.
That Liverpool squad was like few others constituted, with wily veterans like Gary McAllister, Markus Babbel, Christian Ziege, Danny Murphy and Nick Barmby combining seamlessly with strong leaders like Jamie Carragher, Hyypia, Hamann and Gerrard made for a formidable force that was built to prevail over a crowded fixture list. It was the kind of Liverpool squad that later made for a sustaining memory during those barren seasons under Roy Hodgson and Brendan Rodgers. It was a roster that stood up fairly well when compared to the Continent’s bigger clubs.
Vladi fit into this group well because they were largely a unit of guys who quietly just went about their business and were focused on winning football games.
His playing style and standing as a midfielder was always going to be overlooked. This was a time when immortals like Kaka, Zinedine Zidane and Ryan Giggs dominated. These players were possessed of a superior level of creativity, success, and health and Smicer was nowhere in the same league. But one cannot argue that he did step up for Liverpool on the big stage, when they needed it the most. Every time I saw him score one of his midrange belters, it always seemed to be against the run of play.
His feistiness was also pretty obvious. More than most, he would badger the goalie to get the ball back right after scoring the goal. Blessed with better injury luck, he would have been a mainstay at the club for way longer than he was.
Highs and Lows
I can’t stress this enough, but there is no “Miracle in Istanbul” without Smicer’s 62nd minute screamer past Dida. Liverpool were back in the game with that strike. The lead was cut to 1 goal and the rest as they say was history. As fate would have it, it was also the last game of his career at Liverpool before he moved back to French club Bordeaux.
Rafa Benitez’s Reds were a team of modest, yet supremely talented and committed professionals. Any other team would have backed down and withered away after staring into the sarlacc pit that was an 0-3 halftime deficit. And they were up against the likes of Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Paolo Maldini, Gennaro Gattuso, Cafu, Kaka and Andriy Shevchenko. The supporting cast of players like Smicer, Milan Barros, Luis Garcia and Djimi Traore always seemed to disappear into the background of that famous win.
Smicer’s recurring injuries throughout his time at Anfield always seemed like rude interruptions to his career, but he never let them define him or cast a dark shadow over him. I always regarded him as a player who gave our attack that extra dimension and he was one of many mid-range scoring threats for Liverpool. His strikes are regarded with as much fondness as the more memorable goals by Xabi Alonso, Gerrard and John Arne Riise.
As mentioned earlier, he collected a lot of team honors at Liverpool. He was always happy and proud to wear the shirt too. His workmanlike efforts at the midfield position brought a lot of delight to me personally. As a result, I have always had a preference for the likes of Ngolo Kante, Luka Modric and Thiago and he educated a lot of us on how integral and important the position was and still is. He will go down as one of many Reds who gave their full effort and earned the everlasting respect of all Liverpool supporters.