If you were to describe a footballer as a talented, industrious, blond-haired Dutch attacking player who lined out for Liverpool in the 2000s and was quite versatile and reliable, the first name that comes to mind is probably Dirk Kuyt. The ex-Feyenoord man didn’t have sole dibs on such a status at Anfield, though, for the same description can also be applied to Boudewijn Zenden. His stint in a red shirt tends to be less memorable, though, as he only had two years compared to Kuyt’s six, nor did that 24-month sojourn include a hat-trick against Manchester United.
Zenden was a superb footballer, though, and was among a wave of prodigious Dutch talent to become known to the world in the mid-1990s. While the likes of Patrick Kluivert, Dennis Bergkamp, the de Boer twins, Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids all graced a sublime Ajax outfit, Zenden got his break at PSV Eindhoven, winning an Eredivisie title in 1997 before moving to Barcelona a year later. That destination was no surprise, as he linked up with several of the names mentioned above in a ‘Dutchificaiton’ of the Catalan club by compatriot Louis van Gaal. It was one of his fellow countrymen that blocked his route to the first team, though, with Marc Overmars often preferred on the left of midfield. Zenden found an unconventional role at left-back, however, and he starred in that role for Netherlands during Euro 2000.
After van Gaal left Barcelona, Zenden’s first team opportunities dried up and he left for Chelsea at the end of the 2000/01 season. The Blues were a club that largely flattered to deceive at the time, often finishing just outside the Champions League positions, and the Dutchman’s time at Stamford Bridge was curtailed by persistent injuries. The spending spree of 2003 upon Roman Abramovich’s takeover made it clear that he would struggle for game time, prompting a loan move to Middlesbrough. He excelled in the north-east, though, and scored the goal which won the League Cup for ‘Boro in 2004. That summer, he made the loan move permanent and was voted Middlesbrough’s player of the season in 2004/05.
His form didn’t go unnoticed by Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, who signed the out of contract midfielder on a free transfer six weeks after the Champions League triumph in Istanbul. Zenden made a good early impression at Anfield, his unfailing energy on the left wing endearing him to the Kop, but a cruciate ligament injury midway through the season sidelined him for several months. He also had his share of injury misfortune during 2006/07, but he was one of Liverpool’s best players on their run to a second Champions League final in three years. Indeed, he scored the Reds’ first penalty in the 4-1 penalty shoot-out win over former club Chelsea on a raucous night at Anfield. He was also among the better Liverpool players in that sobering final loss to AC Milan in Athens.
His contract at Liverpool wasn’t renewed, however, and in 2007 he left for Marseille, returning to Anfield that October in a Champions League group match. He found regular game time hard to come by at the Stade Velodrome, though, and began to look like a player who was into his 30s and notably slowing down. He was a free agent when he joined Sunderland in October 2009 and his first game for the Black Cats was that infamous ‘beach ball’ match’ at the Stadium of Light. He largely featured as a substitute for Sunderland under Steve Bruce, but still produced moments of quality in a throwback to his Barcelona prime. He was offered a contract renewal at the end of 2010/11, but turned it down as he wanted to “prolong” his playing career. Sunderland would prove to be his last professional club as a player, though.
He would team up with Benitez again in November 2012, becoming assistant manager at Chelsea after the Spaniard took the reins at Stamford Bridge following the sacking of Roberto di Matteo. After Benitez left west London, Zenden returned to PSV, taking an assistant coaching role with the club’s second team. For the last two years, he has been part of the first team coaching staff at PSV, his role focused on the team’s wing play.
Zenden might not have had the best years of his career at Liverpool, despite being just shy of 29 when moving to Anfield, but this mercurial talent’s only Champions League final appearance came in a red shirt 10 years ago. He might not have pocketed a winners’ medal, but he did plenty to ensure that Liverpool got to that final in Athens in the first place, all the while playing a diligent, sometimes understated role in the team.