CHARLIE MALAM

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - WEDNESDAY, MAY 25th, 2005: Liverpool's Vladimir Smicer celebrates scoring the second goal against AC Milan with his team mate Jamie Carragher during the UEFA Champions League Final at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium, Istanbul. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

TERRY McDermott. Tommy Smith. Phil Neal (twice). Kenny Dalglish. Alan Kennedy. Steven Gerrard. Xabi Alonso.

All players who scored in Liverpool’s five European Cup final victories. There’s one other name to add to that list. One that seems so completely out of place with the rest, who are all players of momentous importance throughout different stages of the club’s history.

The missing man is of course Vladimir Smicer – who left the club 12 years ago today.

That name conjures up one particular memory in the mind of every Liverpool fan. Forgetting that he was a player who never lived up to his potential, his final contribution in a red shirt was the kind of farewell that every footballer on the continent dreams of.

But it’s easy to remember Smicer for only that 25-yard strike in Istanbul. Were it not for incessant injuries, Smicer would be remembered far more fondly. Unfortunately, his body prevented from showcasing the quality he very clearly had, as shown by his displays on the international stage for the Czech Republic.

Signed by Gerard Houllier in July 1999, Smicer was brought in to replace Steve McManaman and was instantly handed the winger’s number seven shirt (though he later gave it up for another below-par number seven in Harry Kewell).

Arriving as an unknown foreign import from Lens, Smicer’s first year yielded just 1,171 minutes in the league – an average of just 55 minutes per game.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, September 15, 2001: Liverpool's Vladimir Smicer is tackled by Everton's Tony Hibbert during the Premiership match at Goodison Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Smicer suffered from a lack of form as the culture shock of his transition to England took its toll, the physicality and intensity of this new style of football a completely new experience for the player.

His style of play led to questions and criticism of Smicer for appearing to shy out of physical battles and tough tackles in the first few years and that became a stick to beat him with, masking his quality.

Unfortunately, consistent problems with his fitness would go on to undermine the Czech’s entire Liverpool career – consistently denying him a sustained spell in the team under Houllier or Rafa Benitez. Every time he appeared to be nearing his best, injury struck.

He was taken off in 83 of the 110 matches he started. In 121 Premier League appearances, he lasted the full 90 minutes on only 17 occasions. Smicer’s lack of fitness meant his best form was only ever seen again in flashes.

During Liverpool’s treble-winning season, he made 49 appearances, scored seven goals and featured in all three finals of the FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup as The Reds finished third in the league.

In 2000-1, Smicer was joint-third in the league for most assists with nine, as the midfielder went on to register a total of 24 Premier League assists across his six seasons in England.

But sadly his quality was confined to flickering moments for the rest of his Anfield career. A blistering last-minute winner at home to Chelsea in March 2002 to send The Reds top of the league followed an excellent performance in a 2-0 Champions League win over AS Roma which helped the club book a place in the quarter-final, the stand-out individual moments.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, March 19, 2002: Liverpool's Vladimir Smicer in action against AS Roma during the UEFA Champions League Group B match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

In his autobiography Gerrard lamented how Smicer struggled to translate the brilliance he showed in training to a match-day: “Vladi was a sub a lot, blowing hot and cold. When he flew in from the French club Lens for almost £4 million, he was sensational in training. His brilliant touch made things look so easy. But Melwood was one thing, Anfield another, and Vladi rarely transferred his training ground from to match day.”

It was the injuries that undermined him most. Having been practically injury-free at Slavia Prague or Lens, Smicer consistently broke down in a red shirt. Ankle and Achilles issues in particular saw Smicer miss a large chunk of the 2003-4 campaign, while a serious knee injury picked up in pre-season sidelined him for much of the 2004-5 season under Benitez, and even threatened to cut his career short at the age of just 31.

The cartilage injury kept him out for six months but Richard Steadman, a world-renowned specialist knee surgeon, told Smicer that there was a 25 per cent chance his recovery from a knee operation would be unsuccessful and his playing days would be over.

Thankfully that was never the case, although the injuries severely hampered him in the coming years. Upon his eventual return from his knee problem in January 2005, a lack of options meant Smicer was a regular substitute during the final few months.

Substitute appearances against Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus and Chelsea all followed as Liverpool made their way to their first European Cup final in 30 years, while he also had enjoyed a few run-outs in the Premier League. He wasn’t involved in The Reds’ final home game of the season at home to Aston Villa, which meant his farewell to the Liverpool fans would be the Champions League final.

The final arrived a day after Smicer’s 32nd birthday. He already knew that he would never play for Liverpool again after the final, Benitez choosing not to renew the player’s deal as he looked to make the squad his own.

But the reason that night remains so unforgettable is largely thanks to Smicer’s efforts. Gerrard’s header was a consolation, but the second strike gave Benitez’s men real belief. You could see as much in Smicer’s eyes as he sprinted back towards the touchline, arms outstretched, screaming in joy.

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As good as his goal to give The Reds hope was the composure he showed in the shoot-out. Going after John Arne Riise had missed his spot-kick to invite Milan back in, Smicer’s calmness was all the more impressive given he was aware it would be the last time he kicked a ball as a Liverpool player. It would have been easy to crumble.

Speaking to the club’s official website last October, he explained: “Before the end of the game I was thinking Rafa would come and ask if I wanted to shoot a penalty or not. I said to myself, ‘Come on, you’re 32, you’re an international, you’ve played so many games at the highest level for Liverpool, let’s go, it’s a big chance’.

“I knew it would be my last kick for Liverpool but if I said no maybe I would be thinking why I didn’t say yes. It’s better to try. In life you need to take chances.”

And after he sent Dida the wrong way, he showed how much it meant to him with a few relieved fist pumps and a defiant kiss of the Liverpool badge on his chest, and that was just the start of the celebrations.

“I celebrated with the largest cigar you have ever seen. I went with the fans to dance in the streets. It was incredible to be with the fans. I just wanted to share with them what I felt, it was the greatest night of our lives. I didn’t go to bed at all. There is no need for sleep after a night like this.”

That night undoubtedly changed the way Smicer will be remembered for his time at Liverpool, though his exit was still tainted slightly by a feeling of disappointment and regret that he never lived up to his capabilities.

Sadly, injury prevented Smicer from taking to the pitch when Bordeaux – his next club – drew Liverpool in the Champions League group stages in 2006-7, a serious knee injury forcing him to watch from the stands.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Monday, October 17, 2016: Former Liverpool player Vladimir Smicer before the FA Premier League match against Manchester United at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

His spell with Bordeaux and a return to Slavia Prague were both plagued by injuries until he ended his playing career in 2009. Smicer has since been the sports manager of the Czech national team, worked with the Czech FA and enjoyed a brief flirt with politics; standing as a candidate, unsuccessfully, for Vision 2014 to help fight child obesity with sport.

He was invited back to Anfield in April 2014, taking part in the club’s Hillsborough charity match alongside former team-mates. Nowadays he is a regular on the Masters circuit with his old mate and compatriot Patrik Berger.

Smicer did endear himself to many supporters – “he’s Czech, he’s great, he’s Paddy Berger’s mate,” as The Kop would sing.

And by all accounts, the almost permanent smile he wore – in spite of his incessant battle with injuries – was reflective of the man’s character and his refusal to give up.

Alonso put it well back in October 2006: “Vladi was a bit unlucky in his time here. Maybe he left it all to the last game and peaked in Istanbul. He scored a very good goal for us and then scored a penalty. He did tremendously well. He was one of the nicest guys you could meet, always friendly and always having a laugh. He was a top man.”

He never quite did enough to be considered a great, but Smicer was a very talented player and only injury prevented him from showing that more.

Although, scoring a vital goal in arguably the best European Cup final of all time isn’t a bad thing to be remembered for, is it?

@CharlieMalam

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