IF at first you don’t succeed, then try, try again. This could be a motto for Dirk Kuyt’s efforts over six, supercharged years in a red shirt.
Perhaps his finest individual Liverpool moment – a goal in a winning cause against Cardiff in the 2012 League Cup final at Wembley – saw Kuyt lash home the rebound from his own badly mishit shot across goal. It was entirely apt that Dirk’s strike in his last season as a Liverpool player saw some tangible silver reward. However, the scruffiness of the goal adds little to the lustre attached to his Liverpool career.
Liverpool fans often have a strange kind of relationship with their supposed heroes, born of the relentless standards of yesteryear; sometimes opinion only softening towards doughty stalwarts nearing the end of their Liverpool journey or after their eventual departure.
When Kuyt called time on 19 years as a professional after firing his boyhood club, Feyenoord to a first Eredivisie title since 1999, heartfelt congratulations from Merseyside more than matched the goodwill from his native Holland.
A spectacular hat trick in his final league-clinching match against Heracles perhaps outweighed for plaudits the same feat for Liverpool against Manchester United in March 2011. His poachers’ treble that day – courtesy of three tap ins from close range – was largely credited to the supporting wiles of Luis Suarez.
Now ensconced in retirement, remembrance for Kuyt rivals the affection shown to Lucas Leiva on his recent leaving of Liverpool. But both men could afford themselves a wry chuckle over their “adopted Scouser” status when they remember the groans of the sometimes unforgiving Anfield crowd. For every sneer at a Lucas foul or misplaced pass, there was a howl of discontent for Dirk’s sometimes errant control of the football.
During the Rafa Benitez years, when the Liverpool crowd was at its most caustic, mind-ravaged worst, that Dirk’s “second touch was a tackle” or that the Dutchman couldn’t “trap a bag of sand” was as much of a tiresome, know-all jibe as Lucas’s simple finding of the nearest red shirt labelling the Brazilian “a crab”.
Lucas and Dirk left Anfield with just the same League Cup winners’ medal (albeit that Lucas was injured for the Wembley final) but gilded with contentment that most fans were eventually won over by an unwavering spirit and commitment to the cause. Had the fates been kinder to Liverpool they could each have departed with honours ascending them to the ranks of 21st century Liverpool greats, despite large parts of their respective times feeling like a battle for acceptance.
Kuyt in particular, for all the latter day admiration of his commitment alone, was actually a whisker away from a Liverpool career crowned with the top honours.
The signing of the sinewy, flaxon-haired striker in 2006 coincided with the start of the club’s most prolonged trophy drought – that 2012 League Cup apart – since the dawn of the modern Liverpool under Bill Shankly. Even Suarez, and Fernando Torres; talents to rival the Kevin Keegans and Kenny Dalglishs of their day, left Anfield undecorated; their claims to legendary status mitigated by empty back pockets.
Such are the vagaries of footballers’ legacies. We should always dig a little deeper and in the case of Kuyt there’s also a hard luck story to tell of a Red runner up in the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup.
Is Steven Gerrard less of a legend for the glaring absence of a league title? How do John Barnes’ four Liverpool trophies measure up to Phil Neal’s eight league titles and four European Cups in assessing their Anfield imprint on supporters’ memories? At Old Trafford do John O‘Shea and Wes Brown’s league winners’ medals deserve of a place in the Premier League pantheon?
Benitez’s intelligent conversion of Kuyt from striker (in his most prolific Netherlands and early Liverpool days) to right-sided midfielder is partly to blame for abiding memories of Dirk as a mere workhorse.
The banners, designed to acclaim, spoke for themselves. The blunt “Dirk Kuyt Works Hard” and the approving “Dirk Kuyt, Working Class Hero” aptly summed up half a decade in which our favourite Dutchman seemed to have Ashley Cole penned in near a corner flag. As much as we recall his constant running; his captaincy of industry, it’s easy to forget Kuyt also scored in the European Cup final and played in a World Cup final.
His other Champions League goals – against Chelsea, Internazionale and Arsenal to name a few – created his “man for the big occasion” reputation without thought for those lesser days and nights when his unexpendable energy and selfless harrying (before pressing was invented) won all three points or another cup tie. We dismissed too easily the ice in his veins when charged with duties from the spot; the emphatic slot past Petr Cech that sent us to Athens – and a brace of emotionless, protestant penalties in the cauldron of Goodison to make William of Orange glow with pride.
While Kuyt was among us we largely forgot too many of his 71 goals in 285 games. It may seem sacrilege to some to compare his record favourably to that of another converted striker-cum-midfielder, Ray Kennedy (72 goals in 393). Kuyt would be the first to admit he owned little of Ray’s muscular grace but would console himself that the Main Stand was sometimes as cruel to Kennedy (for his loping, apparently effortless swagger) as they were in damning Dirk for industry over flair.
I’ll remember Dirk Kuyt at his most potent, as the man who carried that epic 2008-9 title fight with the best of them. While the media, obsessive in its desire to decry Benitez’s efforts to win the league, labelled Liverpool a two-man team around the Torres-Gerrard axis, there too was the ever-present, indestructible Kuyt who registered 12 goals in 38 games among the blood, sweat and eventual tears.
Those who still feel the pain of that glorious 86-point failure still revel in some of the romantic staging points along the way. Just like in 2014, it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
Memories abound. None more so than Dirk’s opportunist last-minute winner at the Etihad when the Reds came back from 2-0 down. I can still picture him now – veins bulging, fists pumping, baring a million teeth as he ran behind the goal; his flame hair and red shirt all the more resplendent for a late triumph in the autumn sunshine.
That was my Dirk Kuyt of Liverpool, planted right there in front of us.