Giant Liverpool defender lost tooth in debut battle before becoming cult hero and being sent off
When Sami Hyypia finally left Liverpool for Bayer Leverkusen, cash-strapped Rafa Benitez went Greek in search of a replacement
When it comes to the definition of an imposing centre-back Sotirios Kyrgiakos ticks all the boxes.
The 6ft 4″ pony-tailed defender was not a man to be messed with and his unexpected arrival at Anfield, 13 years ago to the day, provided a very obvious key attribute. Performing well up against troublesome target man Kevin Davies on his Liverpool debut against Bolton Wanderers, Rafa Benitez explained in fairly plain language why ‘The Greek’ – as he would commonly be known on the Kop – had been brought to the club.
“What has Sotirios brought? Headers. He is strong and he likes the challenge,” said Benitez. “It is something that we needed and right now he is doing well. His attitude has been contagious. Kevin Davies is very strong and it is not easy to stop him in the air, so Sotirios did well. He lost one tooth in the game and that shows how hard it can be.”
Kyrgiakos had not been a long-term target of Benitez. In reality he was the best that he could afford to bring in at the time as Liverpool’s then-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett forced the Spaniard to operate on a relative shoestring.
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The Reds were in urgent need of a centre-back after ageing Anfield stalwart Sami Hyypia completed a summer move to Bayer Leverkusen. Benitez still had Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger, but the latter was once again injured and Skrtel was still recovering from a cracked jaw after a collision with teammate Carragher against Tottenham on the opening game of the season.
With money seemingly having to be found down the back of the sofa by Benitez, Liverpool paid AEK Athens £1.5million to bring the former Rangers man back to Great Britain. At 30 years of age, Kyrgiakos had expected to see out the remainder of his career in the Greek capital, but when Liverpool come calling you don’t have to think twice.
With a clear appetite for heading the inflatable sphere, Kyrgiakos quickly curried favour with the Kop and become a bit of cult figure in the process. He scored his first goal for the club against Stoke City on January 16, 2010, when he bundled home a parried free kick from close range, earning a struggling Liverpool team a point.
Former Reds striker turned journalist Stan Collymore heaped praise on the bruising defender for demonstrating the type of spirit and combativeness that Liverpool urgently needed. He wrote: “Sotirios Kyrgiakos could become an unlikely poster boy for the ‘new Liverpool. The big pony-tailed Greek put in a sterling performance at The Britannia and may typify the less football, more grit of the new Reds… And it is no-nonsense men such as Kyrgiakos who like to roll up their sleeves which can keep Rafa in a job right now.”
The goal against Stoke and subsequent performances after it, were enough to earn the Greek Liverpool’s Player of the Month for January, as voted for by the club’s fans. He received an accolade of a different kind the following month when he was sent off for a two-footed lunch on Everton midfielder Marouane Fellaini in the 213th Merseyside derby.
Kyrgiakos made 14 Premier League appearances in his first season and 21 in all competitions, scoring just once, as Liverpool finished a disappointing seventh in the table. The was enough to spell the end for Benitez, who’s six-year stint in the Anfield hot seat was brought to and end.
As Roy Hodgson took over before being soon replaced by Kenny Dalglish, Kyrgiakos struggled for game time as he remained behind Carragher, Skrtel and Agger in the pecking order. His second and final season on Merseyside did have some notable moments however.
Kyrgiakos has the dubious honour of having captained the side when Liverpool were dumped out of the League Cup Third round by League Two side Northampton Town on a penalty shoot-out. As the Reds continued to struggle, he scored against Blackpool in a disastrous 2-1 home defeat and grabbed another against Blackburn Rovers in a 2-1 win on October 24, 2010 that ended a six-match winless streak.
Such was Liverpool’s desperation during the 2010/11 season, Kyrgiakos would often be deployed as a makeshift centre-forward as the Reds went in search of a rescue goal late in matches. “Get the Greek on”, was a regular shout on the Kop at the time.
In June 2011, it was announced that he would receive a new contract to extend his stay at Anfield, but two months later, he was on his way to Bundesliga side Wolfsburg, as his Liverpool deal expired.
That brought the curtain down on the Premier League career of one of Liverpool’s forgotten cult heroes, but next time you see Nat Phillips soaring through the air to dispatch another booming header, think of Sotirios Kyrgiakos and his enduring influence on the game’s true lovers of the aerial challenge.