Where Are They Now?: Sander Westerveld

Some players can be lucky or unlucky with the timing of a transfer to a particular club. Zlatan Ibrahimovic left both Inter Milan and Barcelona the season before those teams went on to win the Champions League, while Lucas Leiva spent a decade at Liverpool and has just a solitary League Cup medal to show for it. On the other extreme, Dutch goalkeeper Sander Westerveld was at Anfield for only two years, but departed Merseyside with medals from five competitions, if you count one-off games such as the Community Shield and UEFA Super Cup. He also has the rare distinction of being picked in his country’s squad for two European Championships, despite claiming a mere six caps for Netherlands, one of which came at Euro 2000.

Westerveld began his professional career in Eredivisie with FC Twente, where he graduated from the youth ranks but found it tough to nail down a regular starting position. It was upon moving to Vitesse Arnhem during the 1995/96 season that his career took off and he slowly earned a reputation as one of the best goalkeepers in Netherlands. He was a key figure in Vitesse’s qualification for the UEFA Cup in 1999 and that would prove to be his last year in his homeland, with a move to the English Premier League duly calling.

The goalkeeping position was a sore point at Liverpool throughout the 1990s, with Bruce Grobbelaar and David James both horrendously unreliable (although that should not take from the Zimbabwean’s heroics earlier in his Anfield career). Gerard Houllier recognised as such when he made Westerveld the most expensive keeper in British football, signing him from Vitesse for £4 million (how times have changed!). The Dutchman needed very little time to settle into life on Merseyside, proving a steady presence in goal as Liverpool finished fourth. Indeed, unthinkable as it would seem nowadays, the Reds conceded the fewest goals of any team in the Premier League that season, even a Manchester United side that won the title with 18 points to spare.

The 2000/01 season is one that Liverpool fans and Westerveld will treasure for decades to come. He was a solid last line of defence for the Reds as they finished third in the league, earning a first-ever crack at Champions League football, and lifted the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup. In the first of those finals, the Dutch goalkeeper was the hero as Liverpool bettered Birmingham on penalties in Cardiff. Everything seemed to be coming up trumps for Westerveld, but August 2001 saw his fortunes take a dramatic turn. He begun the 2001/02 season shakily and a calamitous mistake against newly-promoted Bolton which led to the Trotters’ winning goal prompted drastic action from Houllier. Within days, two new goalkeepers were signed, Jerzy Dudek and Chris Kirkland joining the Reds. Westerveld never played for Liverpool again and was sold to Real Sociedad at the end of 2001, being sent out the back door to zero fanfare.

His career gradually began to get back on track in San Sebastian and he helped the club to a sensational second-place finish in La Liga in 2002/03, along with a run to the knockout stages of the following season’s Champions League. However, his Sociedad career fizzled out not dissimilarly to his time at Liverpool. Having been sent on loan to Real Mallorca in 2004, he barely featured for the Balearic club and was then released by Sociedad. While Liverpool were basking in the afterglow of becoming European champions in 2005, their former number 1 was making a low-key return to English football with Portsmouth. Things didn’t get any better for him at Fratton Park, with Jamie Ashdown and Kostas Chalkias often preferred in his place, and he even had a two-game spell at Everton on emergency loan when all three of the Toffees’ goalkeepers were unavailable.

Westerveld returned to Spain in summer 2006 and he became a regular in the Almeria side that won promotion to the Primera Liga. When his contract ran out after one season, he found himself back in Netherlands with Sparta Rotterdam, where he spent one year. He went without a club for the entire 2008/09 season before being signed by Italian third tier outfit Monza following a successful trial. He played with them for two years before the final transfer of his playing career saw him jet to South African side Ajax Cape Town. Following two seasons with the club as a player, Westerveld then became their goalkeeping coach, a position he continued to hold with Ajax Cape Town.

When conversations take place about great Liverpool goalkeepers, Westerveld won’t be recalled with anywhere near the same haste as Tommy Lawrence, the legendary netminder who died earlier this week. However, the speed with which the Dutchman was jettisoned back in 2001 seemed harsh on a player who was such an integral part of a glorious campaign just a few months previously. Indeed, his level of consistency far exceeds that of current Liverpool keepers Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius, both of whom can be glad that they never had Houllier as a manager, given the Frenchman’s ruthlessness with Westerveld.