Our new ‘An Ode To..’ series takes a long-read look at some of the biggest figures in the history of Liverpool Football Club.
In the first of the series and on the week of his 33rd birthday, Alex Miller presents the Liverpool career one of the most enigmatic, electric and indeed divisive Liverpool players of recent years.
The moment the ball left Steven Gerrard’s foot, it felt like something incredible was about to happen. Liverpool’s new number nine, the one who wore the armband and had said all the right things and that had looked really rather sharp in his previous two outings, had picked up the through ball and was bearing down on the Chelsea goal.
The blue shirt closest to him belonged to Tal Ben Haim, and to all lucky enough to be at Anfield that night, it looked as though he had successfully shown Fernando Torres inside and that the Spaniard would hold the ball and wait for reinforcements.
And then it happened. No sooner had Torres shown Ben Haim the ball then he had whisked it away, leaving the defender as confused as he was twisted in two. With the defender a distant memory, he opened his body up and from an impossible angle, slipped the ball past Petr Cech and into the bottom right hand corner of the net. All of this, unbelievably, in three esquisite touched.
Fernando Torres, the one with the armband, had scored his first Premier League goal for Liverpool. El Nino had arrived.
Anfield erupted. Anfield always erupts when Liverpool take the lead against Chelsea, but this time it felt a little bit different. There had been so much excitement around the signing of Torres, and the feeling of relief, of ecstasy, was palpable. Fernando Torres was the signing that would return Liverpool to year on year title contention after all, and as it turned out, just for a moment, he turned out to be just that.
He signed from Atletico Madrid a long time before Diego Simeone had transformed them into perennial Champions League contenders. The club was built in our image, on a proud and esteemed history but without the recent successes a club of its size should merit. Atletico was and remains a club built on working class values, shrouded in the feeling of a ‘proper’ football club, with the glitz, glamour and gluttony of the Santiago Bernabeu inescapable from view. Torres’ super-cult status there, developed from the age of 11 and ramped up after taking the club’s captain’s armband aged just 18, felt a good fit.
He said all the right things, too. Rumours spread that Torres had near-cleared the Anfield club shop of books and DVDs, desperate to garner a better understanding of Liverpool Football Club. He went to dinner with Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Sammy Lee, as well as the hugely respected Spanish language broadcaster and LFC midfielder Michael Robinson. This superstar was one of us.
These tales spread and resonated with Liverpool fans. We’re suckers for romance, and when it comes to a big money signing throwing himself into the club, it’s likely he’ll receive more time to bed in than others. Actions speak louder than words, however, and luckily, Torres’ ‘bedding in’ period took no time at all.
His first season was a ballistic blur of blonde. The near-telepathic partnership with Steven Gerrard was something no Liverpool fan is likely to forget, and to say it took the Premier League by storm would be something of an understatement.
He scored three hat-tricks in his first season, and in February, Torres had bagged his first Player of the Month award, thanks in part to a stunning treble in the match against a bemused Middlesbrough. Liverpool finished in fourth place, 11 points ahead of next best alsorans Everton. In May 2008 he equalled a club record held by Roger Hunt by scoring in eight consecutive home matches, and soon afterwards became the first red to hit the twenty goal mark since Robbie Fowler in the 1995/6 season.
Of their 67 league goals that season, the Spaniard had scored 24, the best ever return for a foreign player in their first season in England. With exception of Luis Suarez, no player before or since has come from abroad to make such an incredible instant impact on Liverpool Football Club. The feeling was that something special was brewing at Anfield, and Fernando Torres was the posterboy for that success.
Despite the impact of his incredible debut season in English football, it is perhaps the 2008/9 season which leaves Liverpool fans with the dearest memories of Torres’ red hot mastery with a football at his feet. He scored the only goal in the season opener at Sunderland, and in September bagged a brace in the Merseyside derby. Liverpool were being talked about as title contenders again, and with Manchester United the side most likely to stand in their way, it was gearing up to be one of the most exciting Premier League seasons of all time.
Among extraordinary highs, what the season did bring was the genesis of Torres’ eventual decline. A hamstring injury in an early season stalemate with Aston Villa saw him rushed back to action all too early, and the same injury came back to haunt him later in the season during a World Cup qualifier for Spain.
The fact that Torres’ involvement in Liverpool finishing runners-up that season was reduced to just 24 of the 38 games will surprise many. The hazy, rose-tinted memories of that season paint Torres as an ever present, his terrorising of Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic a warming hark back to a fond time, his performance in the 4-0 slaying of Real Madrid a vivid reminder of his very best. Who could forget the travelling Liverpool support serenading themselves to the Torres Bounce in an otherwise empty Old Trafford? All of a sudden, Liverpool were dynamite again, and that was in no small part due to the fact Fernando Torres was our striker. Some of Liverpool’s best performances in living memory came that season.
Liverpool finished with more points than any other runner up in Premier League history, and lost only two league games all season, but the 2008/9 season was the crescendo of the Benitez era. Torres was the crown jewel in the manager’s Spanish Armada of success, and had a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Manchester United not pipped us to the title, both Spaniards would have been steeped even further into Anfield folklore.
The rest, as they say, is history. By now, the cracks in the Hicks / Gillett ownership of LFC had begun to show and Liverpool Football Club was a figure of derision. Their own working relationship ground to a damaging halt, their wallets proved to be full of powder puff, and Benitez was left to run a club running on empty. The chaos above transferred to the pitch, of course, and despite Torres’ 22 goals in 32 games, Liverpool whimpered to a seventh-placed finish.
Rumours spread that Torres would be sold to ease the club’s crippling debts, and after Benitez had left the club, new manager Roy Hodgson was forced to deny the likelihood of his sale in his first press conference.
Amidst a report by auditors KPMG that Liverpool Football Club carried a great deal of ‘material uncertainty’ in terms of being able to continue as a business, Torres found himself playing alongside Christian Poulsen and Paul Konchesky. The foundations of success that had felt so solid just a few years ago had crumbled beneath him, and the feeling amongst Liverpool fans was that, in terms of Torres at least, the end was near.
In a private meeting with LFC managing director Christian Purslow, Torres was denied a move and promised that key players would stay. Javier Mascherano was sold to Barcelona three weeks later.
The appointment of former Tottenham Hotspur talent-spotter Damien Comolli was seen as a wise one by many, but in reality, it only served to push the unsettled Torres closer to the exit door – Torres was told the club’s transfer activity would be re-focussed towards younger players, and that the club was being forced to rebuild.
Hamstring issues, knee surgery in April 2010 and constantly failing surroundings was met by a dip in form by Torres, and the fact is that after the opening weeks of the 201/11 season, the Spaniard never regained his form. Chelsea’s interest in Torres grew and grew, and a transfer request by Torres was rejected, the club sold him for £50 million on January deadline day 2011.
In a move orchestrated by Liverpool’s vast PR machine time and again with the likes of Michael Owen, Mascherano and more recently Raheem Sterling, Torres was quick to be painted as a money-snatching traitor. The issue continues to be divisive among Liverpool fans to this day, and in seasons to come he would become accustomed to the sound of boos upon his return to Anfield.
The Chelsea move couldn’t have gone worse for Torres, who quickly became a figure of fun despite winning the FA Cup and Champions League in his first season with the club. His form entered terminal decline, and he left for AC Milan having scored only 20 league goals in 110 games for the London club. His spell there was a short one, and on the 4th January 2015, he was unveiled in front of 45,000 adoring Atletico fans. El Nino had returned home.
In March 2015, in the name of charity the Kop did the Torres Bounce once more. On returning to Anfield for an LFC legends match alongside fellow erstwhile hero Luis Suarez, speculation bristled as to how Torres would be received. Thankfully, all had been forgiven, and the two dovetailed predictably beautifully. Torres’ warm welcome was a happy glimpse at Liverpool’s fan base at their very best.
It seemed light years since that same fan base climbed to their feet to watch Fernando Torres run at Tal Ben Haim. And for a few years in between, they shared some of the finest memories in the club’s history.
We salute you, El Nino.