Playing his big, bald-headed part in Liverpool‘s defence which has been frequently criticised for a few years now, Martin Skrtel looks set to depart from Anfield this summer and almost no-one can argue that it is not a wise decision to allow him to do so.
The Slovakian played just five times for the club after Christmas, one of which included a 45-minute calamitous cameo at St. Mary’s, where the Reds led two-nil before his introduction. A penalty given away, an entire half of a football match without making a single tackle, interception or block, and an error which allowed Southampton to win 3-2 spelt the end for Liverpool’s slim chances of a top four finish, also proved the end for one of their longest serving players.
But it wasn’t always mistimed tackles, panicky defending and flailing limbs. Watching his decline from no-nonsense centre-back to defensive scapegoat has been like watching a once feisty, beloved pet grow old and feeble. You still love them and you always will, but you want to remember the better times you shared, not the in-house flatulence or six Premier League own-goals.
Skrtel arrived on Merseyside in January of 2008 for £6 million from Russian outfit, Zenit St. Petersburg, a then club record fee for a defender. He joined a squad already with formidable options at centre-back with an ageing Sami Hyypia, Jamie Carragher andDaniel Agger all competing with the new arrival for a starting berth.
A shaky debut in a bizarre FA Cup fixture against non-league side Havant & Waterlooville was soon forgotten, as man of the match displays in the Premier League against Chelsea and Everton made him quickly popular with the Anfield faithful.
“Aggressive, quick, and good in the air” is how Rafael Benitez described his new defender on his arrival, but it was his passion and genuine hard-man act that made him popular with fans. Skrtel established himself as someone who would fight for the cause and battle even the feistiest of strikers for his club, exemplified no better than during his tangles with Diego Costa.
Standing at six feet and three inches, covered in tattoos and with a consistently shaved head that has required stapling back together on more than one occasion, Martin Skrtel’s undeniable toughness earned him something of a cult hero status among Kopites. Whispers that his diet consisted of nails and other similar rumours circulated Anfield’s terraces whilst the number 37 played his part in the 2008/09 season in which Benitez’s side finished as league runners’ up with 85 points.
Unsurprisingly in hindsight, Skrtel looked at his best defensively under the Spaniard’s management, being able to learn from the experience of Hyypia until his departure in 2009 and Carragher, who he partnered for most of the following season when the Slovakian played every minute of the Reds’ league campaign. As well as having quality defenders nearby, he was also protected by a solid midfield of Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso for much of this time, as Liverpool then were a far more solid side than after the dismissal of Benitez.
His form began to pick up inconsistencies as the club deteriorated, too, squirming out of the Roy Hodgson-era and into the defensively suspect Brendan Rodgers-led side. But it was under the Northern Irishman when Skrtel found another side to his game, as the free-scoring Liverpool of the 2013/14 season fell just short of the ultimate prize.
The central defender scored an impressive seven goals in that exciting campaign, including a brace in the opening ten minutes against Arsenal and a header in the 3-2 win against Manchester City – both of which were games that had Anfield rocking to it’s foundations. His emotive goal celebrations in such big games underlined the mutual affection shared between himself and the fans, as despite being born over a thousand miles from Anfield in Czechoslovakia, Skrtel embodied the passion that supporters want to see of all those in red shirts.
His loyalty to Liverpool Football Club has been unquestionable down the years, having concrete offers to depart long before this transfer window. In 2010, his former coach Benitez tried to lure him to Serie A with a £10 million move to Napoli – an offer the club rejected to no complaint from arguably their best centre-back at the time. Instead, he carried on representing his employers with the same commitment as he did before, although the likes of Mascherano, Alonso and Fernando Torres had quickly made way for Christian Poulsen, Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll.
Even in this season just ended, surely his poorest of his career, the defender has had his moments. For all the blunders near his own goal, the knack of sending the ball into the goal of Manchester City was continued once again this term. His powerful half-volley past Joe Hart in a 4-1 win for Jürgen Klopp‘s side was the pick of his four goals against the Sky Blues in his Liverpool career, which has seen him play under five different managers.
To this date, Skrtel has almost spent eight years as a Liverpool player, appearing over 300 times, captaining the side and featuring in memorable fixtures such as those in 2013/14 and the Reds’ 4-0 win over Real Madrid in 2008.
The Slovakian gave his peak years to the club, during which he was regarded as one of the finest defenders on the continent and, if he is to move on from Anfield this summer, he has surely left supporters with enough good memories to savour than his rather forgettable moments in more recent history.