The contribution of goalkeepers in Liverpool’s European Cup final history is fabled, with the highly eccentric Bruce Grobbelaar distracting Roma’s penalty takers to death in the 1984 showpiece at Stadio Olimpico and a Polish successor employing similar tricks (though not as comically cartoonish) in Istanbul’s Ataturk Stadium 21 years later. Indeed, it was Grobbelaar’s ‘spaghetti legs’ antics which Jamie Carragher referenced when speaking with netminder Jerzy Dudek as the players of Liverpool and AC Milan prepared for penalties in the 2005 Champions League final. Dudek obliged his teammate, three Milan players lost their nerve and the Merseysiders returned home with European Cup number five in the bag.
Having impressed in the Polish leagues in the early 1990s, Dudek was signed by Feyenoord in 1996, helping the club to one league title before moving to Liverpool in 2001. Even in the pre-transfer window days, he represented something of a panic buy from Gerard Houllier, who felt the need to strengthen his last line of defence following an error-strewn start to the 2001/02 season by Sander Westerveld.
The Pole had a magnificent first season at Anfield, his superb performances seeing him nominated for UEFA’s Goalkeeper of the Year. However, during a wretched run of form for the Reds in late 2002, he chose the home tie against Manchester United, of all days, to give a calamitous performance in which he gifted two goals to the much-derided Diego Forlan. Sweet retribution would come for Dudek three months later, though, when a monumental display against Sir Alex Ferguson’s men helped Liverpool to a sweet victory in the League Cup final.
That 2002/03 would be an accurate summary of Dudek’s Liverpool career as a whole – a peculiar mixture of imperious displays and inexplicable off-days. By common consensus, though, he was one of the best goalkeepers at Anfield for many a year, with the 1990s particularly troublesome in that position with Grobbelaar in decline and David James repeatedly costing the Reds vital points.
Even in the 2004/05 Champions League campaign, Dudek was up and down. In the round of 16, Liverpool had a seemingly decisive 3-0 lead in the first leg at home to Bayer Leverkusen, but a stoppage time mistake by the keeper gave the Germans a soft away goal and placed doubts in Kopites’ minds, although ultimately the Reds easily took care of business in Leverkusen. Rumours surfaced towards the end of the season that manager Rafael Benitez wanted to bring in a goalkeeper over the summer, seemingly indicating that the end was nigh for Dudek at Anfield.
Before he left, though, the Pole wrote his name into Liverpool legend with a gladiatorial performance in the Champions League final in Istanbul. It was he who produced the most logic-defying double save from reigning European Footballer of the Year Andriy Shevchenko in the dying embers of extra time, when the Ukrainian appeared set to make Liverpool’s three-goal comeback count for nothing. Then came Dudek’s pantomime antics in the shoot-out which sufficiently spooked Serginho, the often unflappable Andrea Pirlo and, once more, Shevchenko to fluff their lines.
Dudek stayed at Anfield for two more seasons after that triumph, but appearances were sporadic as Benitez made Pepe Reina his first choice goalkeeper upon signing him in the summer of 2005. The Pole spoke of his unhappiness with how he was left in the cold by Benitez and it was to nobody’s surprise when he moved on in 2007, although the subsequent move to Real Madrid was an eyebrow-raiser. Dudek essentially swapped being Liverpool’s number two for a similar role at the Bernabeu, this at a time when the Reds had a stronger squad than Los Merengues.
In four years in Madrid, Dudek made four appearances – two in dead rubber Champions League group games, one in a shambolic cup defeat to minnows Alcorcon and one from the bench in an 8-1 final day romp over Almeria when it was known that he would be leaving that summer. Indeed, Real Madrid would prove to be his last professional club, although he played for Poland for two further years before retirement. Since hanging up his boots, Dudek briefly switched to other sporting ventures, partaking in motor racing’s Volkswagen Castrol Cup in 2014. He was also the ambassador for the 2015 UEFA Europa League final, which was held in Warsaw.
Liverpool have had their share of charismatic goalkeepers over the years, and Jerzy Dudek fits neatly into that category. However, he could justify that eccentricity with big performances when it mattered most, and occasions don’t come any bigger than a Champions League final, a stage where this Polish goalie seemed right at home.