A free transfer arriving in January due to turn 30 a matter of weeks later is not something that would generally enthuse football fans, but such was the quality of Jari Litmanen that when he pitched up at Liverpool at the beginning of 2001, Reds fans couldn’t but think that it was a good coup. The Finnish playmaker had starred for the outstanding Ajax team in the mid-1990s which won the Champions League, but an injury-hit couple of years at Barcelona at the turn of the millennium hinted that his best years were behind him by the time Gerard Houllier brought him to Merseyside.
Litmanen made an instant impression at Anfield, but he was unlucky to miss each of the three cup finals they won in 2001 through injury. He struck nine goals during the 2001/02 season, including three in the Reds’ hugely satisfying run to the Champions League quarter-finals, and he wowed the Kop with his natural skill. However, he was never able to hold down a sustained first team place, much to the irritation of Liverpool fans who felt that Houllier never truly appreciated his talent. Ironically, on perhaps the Frenchman’s most famous night at Anfield, namely his return from heart surgery in the fabled Champions League win over Roma in March 2002, it was Litmanen’s early goal which set Liverpool on their way to a long-overdue European night for the ages.
The Finn left Liverpool the same way he arrived, on a free transfer, with Ajax luring him back to Amsterdam for the 2002/03 season. The final years of his glittering career were played out at Lahti in his homeland (two spells), Hansa Rostock in Germany, Swedish club Malmo and Finnish heavyweights HJK Helsinki, with whom he finished his playing career in 2011. Litmanen has the incredibly rare distinction of playing senior international football in four decades, having made his Finland debut in 1989 and played his final game for his country in 2010.
In the six years since hanging up his boots, the man often regarded as Finland’s greatest ever player (only Sami Hyypia would run him close) has been a regular presence on TV screens in his homeland as a football pundit, also contributing to print media.
He may have been at Liverpool for less than 18 months, several of which were hampered by injury, but Jari Litmanen made his brief time at the club count for plenty and his contribution to the treble triumph of 2001 was substantial, even if he didn’t feature in any of the finals.