Fernando Torres just wasn’t the same anymore and Liverpool knew it first. Injuries had plagued him since before Rafael Benitez left Anfield under a cloud of anticlimax in the summer of 2010, but they had become more prominent after the World Cup.
Spain were celebrating their dominance reaching a peak higher than they’d ever reached, but El Niño was struggling. In the final against Holland at Soccer City he had torn his thigh muscle. On the floor, he lay writhing in pain and while the injury wouldn’t be as bad as first feared, the road back to his best would be one he would arguably never complete. But it wasn’t clear to everybody.
Life at Liverpool was jarring. Benitez, the man who worked so hard to secure a £20 million deal to sign Torres from Atletico Madrid in 2007, had been replaced by Roy Hodgson. Despite helping Fulham to a Europa League final — which they lost to Atletico — only a few months earlier, few fans were excited by the prospect of his arrival. It was seen as evidence the already universally despised ownership duo, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, had abandoned any sense of ambition and would instead be looking to do everything on the cheap.
They were proved right. Joe Cole headlined an underwhelming summer recruitment drive, joining for free from Chelsea. Months later, with the club floundering, Hodgson was sacked.
Hicks and Gillett had finally relinquished control by then and another American, chair of the Fenway Sports Group, John W. Henry, took over. It was a seminal moment on Merseyside. There was a sense of opportunity, but Henry needed to endear himself to the supporters quickly and mend some divisions forged by the transition between Benitez and Hodgson.
Kenny Dalglish, a club icon known as King Kenny on the Kop, came in on an interim basis but would eventually take the job for 18 months. January became key for the Scot and he was about to be backed heavily.
Throughout the first month of 2011, Liverpool courted Luis Suarez, the Ajax striker best known in England for biting an opponent in an Eredivisie match and a last-minute red card for a deliberate handball in the World Cup quarter final between Uruguay and Ghana the previous June.
Negotiations developed into a saga, before he signed for £22 million on 31 January, Transfer Deadline Day. The plan was for him to support Torres in attack, as he admitted in an interview with Goal.com a few months later.
“Yes, it’s true I expected to play with Fernando. [He] is a very good player. He’s got great quality and it would have been nice to play with him,” he said.
But he couldn’t. Torres, despite seeing Suarez arrive, had his eyes set on a move to Chelsea. Liverpool, knowing he was struggling to match the explosive form from his previous three seasons at the club, had set their price and the Blues, with their title challenge floundering under Carlo Ancelotti and in need of some inspiration, were about to pay £50 million – a British record at the time.
Chelsea’s view of Torres was as a club who had been on the receiving end of his best work. It was they who the Spaniard scored against on his Anfield debut and again twice late on in a home match in February 2009. Just over two months before the deal was struck, Torres had scored another brace against them, once again at Anfield. It was a flash in the pan where his form that season was concerned, but Chelsea swooped for their chief tormentor.
Transfer Deadline Day, often filled with spectacle and faux drama, the epicentre of football’s modern-day media and news obsession was suddenly living up to the billing.
Cameras often followed every move deep into the night, that was par for the course, and most of the time results fell short of the build up they received. The events of that day on Merseyside set a domino effect in motion. The pantomime suddenly felt justified.
As the clock ticked down and Chelsea – who had already unveiled the signing of 23-year-old defender David Luiz from Benfica – put the final touches to the Torres deal, Liverpool were closing in on a replacement of their own.
In the north east, time was moving slowly. Andy Carroll, Newcastle United’s local boy turned talismanic number nine, had been on fire in the first half of the season, scoring 13 goals. His story could hardly have been more romantic or stereotypical. Carroll was everything the Newcastle supporters loved in a striker; big, strong, brave, perhaps even too brave, and a real loose cannon.
Off the pitch, he wasn’t always too clever, either. It was the club’s first season back in the Premier League — the 21-year-old had cut his teeth at St James’ Park in the Championship, top scoring with 19 goals — and Carroll was English football’s hottest property.
A genuine throwback to a bygone era, he’d already scored a Premier League hat-trick and made his England debut. Trouble with the police had started to follow him, he’d been ordered to live with Newcastle captain Kevin Nolan after an incident and there were suggestions he would benefit from moving away from the area. But he was the face of Newcastle’s resurgence and only signed a new long-term contract the previous October.
Mike Ashley, the club’s unpredictable, impulsive and often volatile owner, has long been known to value profit over progress. Newcastle fell out of the top flight in the first place thanks in no small part to his unique blend of negligence, callousness and ignorance.
Bids from Liverpool were rejected earlier in the day, as Tottenham Hotspur also tried their arm, but there was always a feeling that as soon as the right number was offered, Carroll would be told to pack his bags and board Ashley’s private helicopter destined for Melwood, Liverpool’s training ground.
Sure enough, when a British record £35 million was put on the table, Ashley’s eyes lit up. Carroll didn’t want to go, despite rumours of a transfer request, but he had no choice. Nobody could truly justify that sort of money for a young player who was still so raw and there was even a sense of understanding from the fanbase. Alan Pardew, the Newcastle manager, was badly burnt by the sale, having previously stated Carroll wouldn’t be leaving under any circumstances.
These were a unique set of circumstances, though. Liverpool, it can be surmised, only offered that sort of money because they were in a race against time to replace Torres.
Dalglish had hastily put together an entirely new strikeforce in one day, but there were doubts over his process. Carroll was injured at the time — something that has become a trait to define his career — and it would almost be impossible for him to live up to a hefty price tag, one that only served to make him a figure of ridicule.
But it was Newcastle who faced the most immediate challenge. All of Ashley’s traits make him the perfect embodiment of a gambling businessman. He so often shoots from the hip and that day, he certainly did.
Newcastle were only finding their feet back in the Premier League and Carroll was the main reason for their success. They sat comfortably in mid-table, but without such an inspirational force of nature up front, would surely struggle to maintain their position. The new war chest, were Ashley to reinvest it, would only be worth anything in the summer, if Newcastle stayed up.
Dread at what was coming soon set in and Newcastle scrambled to find some sort of replacement. A comical, chaotic late call to Wigan Athletic to launch a bid, which was rejected, for their former winger Charles N’Zogbia was the perfect way to sum up the craziest of days for one of English football’s most bizarre and unorthodox regimes. The next day, Shefki Kuqi arrived on a free transfer.
Ten years on from that most topsy-turvy events in any transfer window, it still stands alone in history. The £135million spent on Torres, Luiz, Suarez and Carroll remains the most ever in a single day and it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that football has never been the same again.
Transfer Deadline Day continues to create a whirlwind it can’t live up to, but that one will always be remembered as the craziest of them all.