WRITING about Steve Finnan is a paradox. How do you pay tribute to a man who simply doesn’t want praise?
Much like his performances for Liverpool over the five years he spent at the club, Finnan has kept his head down and stayed out of the limelight since hanging up his Adidas Predators. He was the most unsung of all the heroes that brought the European Cup back to Liverpool — and the FA Cup too, for good measure.
A resolute defender, not particularly quick or strong, but with the footballing nous to keep wingers and forwards quiet. As part of a back four that saw Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher take plaudits and Djimi Traore take flack, Finnan himself was as quiet as he kept opponents, going about his business up and down the right flank with no thrills whatsoever. Whether it was a cross that needed blocking or a cross that needed delivering, he’d just get it done. As such, there’s a dearth of YouTube montage highlights to refer to, just a solitary goal in an early season fixture at home to West Brom in 2004 and an array of quotes from team-mates and former Reds — including Carragher, who felt there was a stage when Finnan was the best right-back in the Premier League.
“He’s the best right-back I’ve played with. He doesn’t get a lot of credit, but when the PFA Team of the Year awards are announced, I’d be amazed if he isn’t right-back. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to vote for your team-mates. If you could, he’d be my first pick.”
The actual right-back in that PFA Team of the Year? Not Finnan. Not Gary Neville. Not Paulo Ferreira, the right-back of champions Chelsea. Rather, it was Pascal Chimbonda; the soon-to-be Spurs outcast whose two headline-grabbing goals in consecutive games against Fulham and Portsmouth put him in that side ahead of the Irish defender, despite the latter being a near ever-present, helping achieve a club record 22 clean sheets in one Premier League campaign. Finnan’s praises were not only not sung by the media, they weren’t even mumbled, coughed or whispered.
Grabbing the headlines like Chimbonda had done in an over-achieving Wigan Athletic side, was never going to be of interest to Finnan, who told the club’s official magazine in 2005: “I think I preferred how I was, in being consistent, rather than score three or four goals a season and be a little up and down form-wise. I was never really that flashy of a player but I guess the consistency is what people remember me for.”
There were question marks when Finnan arrived from Fulham; his debut season was unspectacular at best, compared to the consistent and assured full-back that wore the number three shirt after Rafa Benitez took the reigns. The solid foundation of defence that the Spaniard built Liverpool’s Champions League glory upon was evident on all of those European nights — from Turin to Stamford Bridge, to back home at the fortress of Anfield. Not a peep out of Alessandro Del Piero on that tense night at the Stadio delle Alpi, while neither Arjen Robben or Ashley Cole could do trouble him enough to provide a goal for a Chelsea forward in either leg of the semi-final. The only game where Finnan wasn’t at his usual reliable standard was the final itself — perhaps less scrutinised than Djimi Traore was in that torrid first half, yet still a part of a back four that allowed Kaka, Hernan Crespo and company to wreak havoc for 45 minutes.
But, as he said to the Echo in a rare interview in 2015, he often tells people: “I changed the game that night.” A comment that would have been assumed to be tongue-in-cheek but it’s an accurate statement. It was his thigh strain, his wonderfully, fortunately, fragile thigh muscle that had let him down, causing him to be substituted for Didi Hamann. Thank goodness Rafa’s infamous rotation didn’t result in resting Finnan for even one extra game. Thank goodness for Finnan’s dodgy quadriceps femoris. Hamann went on to change the game and, along with every single other player with a Liverbird on his chest, become stitched into the legendary fabric of the football club — Finnan, somewhat fittingly, was an unsung hero once more.
Yet, even with the realisation that his previously unsung praises were due to be showcased at the 10th anniversary of that night in Istanbul, the quiet Irishman was nowhere to be seen. This cued a typical millennial Twitter storm that started as many rumours as it did answer questions, ranging from the ridiculous to the saddening. It transpired that Finnan had actually settled down in London to start a property business and was looking to keep a low-profile after hanging up his boots.
Benitez tried to replace the full-back not long after arriving, bringing in Josemi, a long-haired Spaniard whose existence on Merseyside ceased after a red card at Craven Cottage. His suspension gave Finnan the chance to impress and win back his starting berth. Josemi was later swapped for Jan Kromkamp, another right-sided defender who couldn’t dislodge the consistent Republic of Ireland international.
In fact, it wasn’t until the arrival of Alvaro Arbeloa on Merseyside, a man whose performances in red earned him a move to Real Madrid not long after, that Finnan lost his place in the side. A spell at Espanyol and at the less exotic destination of Portsmouth finished off a playing career that took this model professional from the non-league to the Champions League. He’s the only player to feature in the conference, all four tiers of professional English football, the Champions League and at a World Cup.
After being released by Wimbledon in 1993, Finnan went on to have one of the most subtly brilliant careers in modern football and established himself as one of the most reliable right-backs in Liverpool’s history. Whether he wants to hear them or not, his praises should be sung.