Liverpool have lost more than their fair share of talent to Europe’s elite over the years. Xabi Alonso, Luis Suarez, Javier Mascherano and Philippe Coutinho are just some of the players who have been whisked away from Anfield by the continent’s superclubs in recent times, but it isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.
Graeme Souness and Steve McManaman joined Sampdoria and Real Madrid respectively after departing Merseyside, while Ian Rush and Michael Owen are two other Liverpool greats who also moved abroad.
The strikers left under very different circumstances, although their current employment as club ambassadors illustrates their allegiance to the Reds.
“Juventus were the Liverpool of Italy,” says Rush, who joined the Turin-based outfit in 1987. “When I arrived, Michel Platini said to me: ‘you’ve come to my club at the right time because I’ve just retired.’”
Rush had scored 40 goals for Kenny Dalglish’s team in the campaign prior to his £3.2m switch – a British record at the time. Despite netting only seven times in his 29 appearances in Serie A, the Welshman enjoyed his time at Juve. “It’s like living in a foreign country,” joked Rush in reference to the infamous quote wrongly attributed to him in the past.
“I went a boy and came back a man. I scored more goals when I came back, and I was a more complete footballer. People say to me that it was the best thing I’ve ever done because I learnt about European football. It’s completely different to English football. You learn a lot of things. You learn when you go to play for your country and then more for another club.”
“Your career takes you to [different] places,” adds Owen, who left Liverpool for Real Madrid in summer 2004. Owen had a slow start to life in Spain and wasn’t always a regular starter, but he ended his single-season spell with a respectable ratio of a league goal every 144 minutes. He had three different managers in a turbulent campaign at the Santiago Bernabeu, where Owen found it difficult to dislodge Ronaldo and Raul from the starting line-up.
He returned to England in August 2005, when Newcastle paid a club-record fee of £16.8m to capture the England striker. There were links with Liverpool at the time, and Owen regrets not having the chance to return to the club where he began his career.
“Rushie went over to Juve for a year and then came back [to Liverpool],” Owen says. “I wasn’t lucky enough to follow in his footsteps, unfortunately.”
Philippe Coutinho is the latest player to have left Liverpool for a European heavyweight, the Brazilian signing for Barcelona in January after the Catalan club failed in their bid to prise him away from Anfield last summer. Rush acknowledges Coutinho is a “great player” but believes he “hasn’t been missed so far”, while Owen points out that Liverpool are far from alone in having lost star players to La Liga in the last few years.
“I don’t think there’s any right or wrongs if the opportunity arises,” he argues. “Rushie, myself, Gareth Bale in the modern day. The Premier League is so big, there’s no major reason to leave. You can’t better yourself I suppose. When Rushie went to Italian football it was top of the world and then in Spain it was Barcelona and Real Madrid that started to dominate. It depends on the time.”
The two forwards are together for training ahead of the Liverpool Legends game against Bayern Munich at the end of March. “I made my European debut against Bayern Munich in 1981,” says Rush. “My first game was the semi-final at Anfield.”
Steven Gerrard, Robbie Fowler and John Aldridge are just some of star names who will be joining them, and the duo are clearly enjoying the preparation.
“That’s what football’s about for me – you miss the dressing room banter,” says Rush. “Every morning you go in and have a laugh and a joke. When you train it’s serious, but you have a laugh after. Even in training it’s a great feeling. To walk out at Anfield is amazing. It’s just great to be on the pitch.”
The current Liverpool team will contest three more matches before the Legends take centre stage, with a trip to Manchester United sandwiched between home games against Porto and Watford. With Roberto Firmino – by no means a conventional centre-forward – thriving at the top of the pitch for Klopp’s Liverpool side this season, it’s intriguing to wonder how well Rush and Owen would suit the German’s gegenpressing philosophy.
“He [Rush] is the most perfect player in terms of winning the ball high,” says Owen without a moment’s hesitation. “A lot of people would say he is the best defender that Liverpool have ever had, and he was an attacker. He would nick the ball left, right and centre.”
“When we pressed we did it all together,” explains Rush, who played under Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Dalglish, Souness and Roy Evans at Liverpool. “We knew when to do it. For example, if the ball was going to the left-back on his right foot, I would close him down. Then Dalglish would close him down and then Souness and [Alan] Hansen. If I went to go and they weren’t ready, then I would get the shout not to go.
“That comes from training. The likes of Souness and Dalglish would take it over on the pitch – we wouldn’t wait until half-time. Obviously they were more experienced than me [and] they would do it on the pitch.”
If an injury crisis strikes Liverpool between now and the end of the season, perhaps Klopp should consider snapping up Rush on a short-term deal.