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Following the appointment of Sami Hyypia as Brighton & Hove Albion manager on Friday, seagulls.co.uk asked Indpendent football reporter and Seagulls season-ticket holder Nick Szczepanik to dust of his contacts book, track down some of his sportswriter colleagues and provide an insight into the club's new boss. Here's the first part of Nick's findings, with part two to follow tomorrow.
If you can find a single person on Merseyside with a bad word to say about new Albion manager Sami Hyypia, they must be an Evertonian. Nobody associated with Liverpool - fans, former players and even the media – has anything but praise for the big Finn, on or off the pitch.
Hyypia won everything except the Premier League in his decade at Anfield, the highlights being the 2005 Champions League victory over AC Milan in Istanbul and the 2001 knockout treble of League, FA and Uefa Cups.
Praised by former teammates such as Fernando Torres and Jamie Carragher, he is the legends' legend. But his cool and dedicated professionalism also impressed those who came into contact with him away from the pressures of a matchday.
Although he finally left Liverpool for Bayer Leverkusen in 2009 as one of the towering figures in the club's recent history, not many people expected him to make the impression he did when he he first arrived in May 1999. He certainly took the local media by surprise.
“I remember when he signed, at the same time as Stephane Henchoz,” said Chris Bascombe of the Daily Telegraph, who was then with the Liverpool Echo. “He only cost two-and-a-half million quid from Willem II in Holland, so it was assumed that he'd been brought in mainly as a reserve - you don't buy first-team players that cheap. And within about two games he was turning heads, and Jamie Carragher was being moved to full-back. Yet now the decision seems to be the only logical one. At the time, it was simply that no-one knew how good Sami was.”
David Anderson of The Mirror had even less reason to expect greatness from Liverpool's new man. He recalls: “I'd seen him play for Finland against Northern Ireland – it was a rare Irish win - and I didn't think he was that great. But he became a legend, a hero of the treble-winning season - a totally dedicated, professional club man who eventually became skipper. His partnership with Henchoz was as good as anything Liverpool have had, on a par with Mark Lawrenson and Alan Hansen.”
Tim Rich of The Independent agrees. “He was regarded initially with suspicion, especially since the club Gerard Houllier brought him from, Willem II, was hardly one of the leading lights of the Dutch Eredivisie, and yet he fitted in wonderfully. In his partnership with Stephane Henchoz, Henchoz was the one who tended to make any mistakes while Hyypia cleaned up. He was probably one of three greatest defenders Liverpool ever employed, a signing which earned Gerard Houllier forgiveness when the likes of Bruno Cheyrou, Salif Diao and El-Hadji Diouf arrived.”
Hyypia was originally recommended to Houllier by Anfield legend Ron Yeats, who was then working as the club's chief scout, and knew a thing or two about centre-back play as one of the defensive rocks on which Bill Shankly built the great Liverpool side of the 1960s.
“We got a fax in from someone saying we should take a look at this lad and the first time I saw him I couldn’t believe how good he was,” Yeats said later. “I thought I’d better go and see him again and he didn’t disappoint the second time. He was strong in the air and a great tackler but the thing that really struck me was how good he was on the ball. He very seldom gave it away. He reminded me of myself in many ways - but I wasn’t as good in possession as Sami.”
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One person would not have been surprised was Hyypia's countryman Jari Litmanen, who had a distinguished career as a striker with Ajax and Barcelona and was later to become a teammate at Anfield. He first played with Hyypia for MyPa in the Finnish first division and became his roommate on international trips, getting to know the person as well as the player.
“Already at MyPa, I could tell that his desire to learn and develop was immense,” Litmanen said. “At Liverpool, the expectations for him at first weren't high, so Sami got to sneak in and show what he had without pressure. But when people started to expect high-level performances, he was up to the task and met the challenge.”
Litmanen, in fact, had played a part in Hyypia's move to Holland. While with Ajax, he was asked if he thought the defender could make it at the higher level represented by Dutch football. “I knew Sami well enough for it to be easy to recommend him,” Litmanen said. “Calm is a word that describes Sami both as a person and a player. He keeps his head cool even in the tightest spots. It was also characteristic of him that he wanted to play the ball instead of just clearing it out from the back.”
That, of course, stood him in good stead as a successor to footballing defenders at Anfield such as Lawrenson and Hansen, and will be music to the ears of Albion fans who want to know what sort of playing style a former defender will favour after attack-minded ex-midfielders Gus Poyet and Oscar Garcia.
Less enthusiastic may be the Sussex media, who can probably expect something more like the Catalan's reserve than the Uruguayan's flamboyance from the cool, calm and collected Finn. “He doesn't give anything away,” the Telegraph's Chris Bascombe said. “You wouldn't get a big headline out of Sami. He was very uncontroversial, probably because he was clever enough to see questions coming. Put it this way, he's not going to be Jose Mourinho as far as the media go, that's for sure.
“But he's a top bloke, always professional and I think he'll do really well at Brighton. I hope so. He's really conscientious, he cared so much about his performances. Some players would be out on the town enjoying themselves, win or lose, but Sami would really fret if he'd had a bad game – although he very rarely did.
“It's a shame it didn't work for him at Leverkusen, but any mistakes he made there I'm sure he'll learn from.”