Liverpool star sacked his mum as agent and was attacked by team-mate before McDonalds revenge on bullies
John Arne Riise’s whirlwind start to life at Anfield before long had Reds fans singing his name and he conveyed seemingly the main cross in Liverpool history to turn into a Bosses League legend before a ghastliness own goal in a similar contest finished his seven years on Merseyside up
For any new footballer showing up at a club and searching for acknowledgment, there are not many more consoling signs than hearing their name sung by a revering new fanbase.
It used to be a given at whatever point Liverpool ran onto the field at Anfield that the Kop would go through and serenade the side essentially from 1 to 11 preceding start up yet collections are by and large more inconsistent nowadays.
A person like Joel Matip can be at the club for the greater part 10 years, change himself into a revered clique figure while picking basically every significant winners decoration in the game and scarcely get a flash of acknowledgment, while an in fact huge cash place ahead like Darwin Nunez can get his name belted without holding back and glad before at any point truly kicking a ball vigorously.
Certain players and the conditions around them some of the time just normally loan themselves to tune. What’s more, quite a while back this week that was a lot of the case for an Anfield new kid whose endeavors in the initial a long time of a seven-season spell with the club motivated Liverpudlians to create one as well as TWO tunes to pay tribute to him which quickly became ordinary apparatuses in the Reds songbook for a really long time.
To watch John Arne Riise running all over the left flank, it would simple to expect a profession in high level football came effectively yet as a general rule it was manufactured in the hard labor of a troublesome childhood. In his severely straightforward self-portrayal ‘Running Man’ the Norwegian would uncover what the psychological scars caused during his experience growing up meant for his vocation and connections, having never settled a compatibility with his normal dad who left his mom before youthful John had even begun school and later kicked the bucket as his child was hustling to his bedside for a sincere conversation with the man he hadn’t seen for quite a long time.
It was a youth likewise distressed by dejection and harassing, the kid with ginger hair, spots and skin as white as a sheet frequently being singled out and disregarded in equivalent measure at school in any case, propelled by his mom’s preparation program and his own sheer assurance, he hurled himself entirely into football and his normal physicality and want to disprove individuals turned into the fuel that drove him.
“I don’t know what it was about me they didn’t like. I didn’t bother anyone. I was a quiet boy”, he wrote. “Being bullied and being alone made me desperate to be liked and to be liked I had to be good at something. When I was 12, I trained 21 times a week. Before school and after school. Running or shooting at the goal I made in the garden. I would shoot at the goal from different angles. If I was running at five in the morning, I knew nobody else was doing it because nobody wants to run in the snow like that. I was so focused on becoming something.
“I left the house in the morning with 35 slices of bread to take to school because I knew I wasn’t coming home until late that night. We had a hill outside our house. My mum stood at the top with her stopwatch and I was sprinting down, sprinting up. She could see I had something, so she wanted to push me and at the same time help me to realise I had to do this to be good. My natural father was not a good husband. I called my stepfather ‘Dad’ from a very early age. He saved our family.”
Riise’s hard-work and talent saw French club Monaco take him to France in 1998 at the age of only 18 after just one season with his local club, Aalesund, but after being a regular member of their 1999-2000 Ligue 1 championship-winning side he fell out of favour with coach Claude Puel after admitting his desire to move on. Premier League clubs Fulham and Leeds United offered £4m and a move to Craven Cottage initially looked on the cards but, with Riise being represented by his mum, Berit, a deal never materialised which the London club’s followers never allowed him to forget, regularly chanting ‘Mummy’s boy’ to him in the years which followed.
By the summer of 2001 however Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier, looking to bolster the left-hand side of his team after deciding to cut Christian Ziege’s brief spell at Anfield short, had a £4m bid accepted by Monaco and the young Norwegian was on his way to Merseyside but only after dispensing with his mum’s services.
“John Arne has felt that it’s been a burden for him that his mother is his agent”, she said. “He doesn’t fancy the ‘cry baby’ label. It’s a natural process that he wants to separate career and family. It’s nothing more dramatic than your kids wanting to move from home when they grow up.”
“I prefer her in the role as mum only, not as agent-mum”, Riise himself later admitted. “I had the Fulham contract in front of me and was going to sign it, then the phone rang and it was Liverpool. I don’t think anyone can blame me for choosing Liverpool. I really want to play for them – this is a fantastic club and I think it is the perfect club for me to play for. They have a good manager in Gerard Houllier and all the staff I have met have been very nice. In Norway, Liverpool are regarded as the biggest club in Europe and I can’t wait to come here. They have some fantastic young players like Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard and have proved several times that they can turn young players into big stars. I want to be a big star and a good football player.”
Houllier was about to embark on his third season in sole charge at Anfield and, having led the club to an unprecedented Treble cup triumph the previous campaign as well as into the Champions League for the first time, felt Riise’s lung-busting runs, accurate left-footed crosses and ability to play on the left-side of midfield as well as full back would be well-suited to his counter-attacking side, describing him as a player of ‘immense talent’, and it would not be long before Liverpudlians began to see what the Frenchman was talking about even if the new boy initially arrived at Melwood filled with trepidation.
“I remember really dreading the first training session with my new team-mates”, he recalled. “Who was I, really? A young lad who had not even been a regular in a team that finished eleventh in the French league. Not that they knew anything about it. Why would they care? I didn’t say much when I entered the dressing room. I don’t think I looked any of them directly in the eye. There they were, the stars I recognised from the tv – Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard. They didn’t say much to me either. You have to prove yourself first. Luckily the first part of the training session was a running drill. For 45 minutes we had to run. I knew what I was supposed to do so when the whistle blew I scurried off and raced everyone from everyone. I heard Robbie Fowler behind say, ‘We’ll catch him later.’ They didn’t. And they realised I was someone to be taken seriously. I beat the next person – Patrik Berger – by 25 yards. Jamie Redknapp nicknamed me ‘the Machine’. Not too flashy I suppose but being considered strong and tenacious was exactly what I wanted my reputation to be. To my ears it sounded perfect.”
Despite the manager telling him before the campaign he would be ‘incredibly pleased’ if he made 15 appearances over the course of the season, Riise was thrust into the starting line up for the Charity Shield victory over Manchester United in Cardiff despite the Norwegian admitting he was so nervous in the tunnel beforehand he nearly threw up and kept his place for the Premier League opener against West Ham at Anfield the following week, ending a memorable first fortnight of action by scoring the opening goal in the UEFA Super Cup victory over Bayern Munich on his old Monaco stomping ground.
“Being picked to start the Charity Shield was most likely a tactical move on Houllier’s part to build-up my self-confidence and I’ll never forget the roar when came out onto the pitch. We ended up winning 2-1 and I had Ruud van Nistelrooy and David Beckham under complete control on my flank. I was on my way. Six days later, Anfield was sold out as usual and the feeling was impossible to describe. I did well for myself and we won 2-1 again but things went even better when we met Bayern Munich in the UEFA Super Cup six days later. Chance would have it that the match took place on my old home turf in Monaco, State Louis II. I may not have played much in my final season there but I was back and in the starting eleven and inside 25 minutes I scored the first goal of the match past Oliver Kahn. We won 3-2 with Emile Heskey and Michael Owen also getting one each. I was twenty years old and had scored for Liverpool in the Super Cup against Bayern Munich. I had arrived. All the hard work had paid off. All the runs up the monster hills back home. All the late training sessions. All the pain, the sacrifices, and the fear of not being good enough. The lonely nights in Monaco. I had done it. I had shown them.”
It would be somewhat of a chaotic opening month at Anfield with a training ground row between Robbie Fowler and assistant manager Phil Thompson creating unwanted headlines and the opening league win against West Ham being followed by defeat at Bolton Wanderers, Sander Westerveld’s late error for Dean Holdsworth’s late winner prompting Houllier to effectively sack the Dutch goalkeeper and rather bizarrely sign both Jerzy Dudek and Chris Kirkland to replace him. Steven Gerrard along with hat-trick hero Michael Owen and Emile Heskey all found the net in England’s astonishing 5-1 World Cup qualifying win away to Germany but the midfielder was sent off as the Reds crashed 3-1 at home to Aston Villa on what had been billed as their triumphant homecoming and then the club’s first ever official Champions League fixture against Boavista at Anfield was overshadowed by the horrifying 9/11 attacks on New York earlier the same day.
It all provided a dramatic backdrop to the first Merseyside derby of the season at Goodison Park where Liverpool fell behind early on to Kevin Campbell but fought back to lead at half time thanks to Gerrard and an Owen penalty before early in the second half Riise gave the Reds breathing space with a memorable strike which inspired the first ditty in honour of him into Kopites’ songbook.
“Sami Hyypia nodded the ball out of our own penalty area and Danny Murphy knocked it ahead to me on the left”, he remembered. “I started from our own half, touched the ball for the first time on the halfway line and raced forward. I saw Emile Heskey on the opposite side on the pitch but he was covered so I kept driving towards their right-back. He kept retreating as I moved closer and closer until I was almost in shooting range. I feinted one step to the inside and the right-back bit. I spun to the outside and he tried to kick the ball away but I nutmegged him and he was completely gone. My thighs were burning but I was inside the penalty are and got my shot off, not a cannon but hard enough and it went low into the corner. My first goal in the Premier League and it was a solo raid. I ran towards the corner where I knew my mum and my friend Nikola were sitting, pulled my jersey over my head in joy and slid on my knees. It was not a celebration I had planned – only natural goalscorers do – but if there was ever a goal to pull your jersey over the head for, this was it. The following week I heard the Kop singing over and over again (to the tune of Walking Matilda),
John Arne Riise, John Arne Riise
Ran down the wing and he scored at the Pit
And we sang
And we laughed
And we shook the ground that’s made of wood
John Arne Riise scored against the s***”
Riise slammed home the opener in a victory at Newcastle a fortnight later as Liverpool continued to recover from their topsy-turvy start, the Norwegian’s settling-in process being further aided by him buying the Woolton home off the man he’d been bought to replace, Christian Ziege, and Sami Hyypia – soon to replace Jamie Redknapp as club captain – taking him under his wing but the club was thrown into turmoil in mid-October when manager Gerard Houllier took ill during a match with Leeds United at Anfield and was rushed to Broadgreen Hospital for an 11-hour life-saving heart operation. It thankfully proved successful but would require months of recovery and rehabilitation before he would be able to return to the dug-out, with assistant boss Phil Thompson taking over as caretaker manager in the meantime, and he and the players gave their stricken leader a great boost by days later becoming the first English side to win away at Dynamo Kyiv to keep their Champions League qualification hopes alive.
They finished the job by beating Borussia Dortmund at home to qualify for the second group stage the competition featured back then which proved the perfect warm-up for arguably the biggest game of the season so far the following weekend. The previous May Manchester United had equalled Liverpool, Arsenal and Huddersfield Town’s achievement of winning three top-flight championships in succession and, with Houllier’s men having finished fourth then third, Anfield hopes centred on their own side being able to formulate a genuine title challenge of their own to stop the Old Trafford side winning an unprecedented fourth on the bounce. Alex Ferguson’s side had made an indifferent start to the campaign and trailed Liverpool in fourth by a point having played a game more going into the Sunday morning televised Anfield clash where the Kop unveiled a tricolour mosaic before kick-off in a show of support for their absent manager.
“The clash had an added dimension for me – Riise against Solskjaer”, the Norwegian recalled. “The rivalry was perfect. Liverpool against Manchester United, me against him. We had kept winning after the victory at Goodison, we were above United in the table and were brimming with confidence. I had arranged for loads of friends back home to come over for the match, they were all staying with me and I was fired up. I told my mates I was going to score and made a brash statement to the Norwegian newspapers, describing the amazing feeling of tackling and added I was going to break David Beckham on my left side. It was blown all out of proportion in England with a very tabloid twist, ‘I’ll break his legs’. I remembered waking up to headlines and thinking what have I done. Before the match Phil Thompson said to me, ‘Right now you’re going to have to go out there and prove yourself.” The atmosphere at Anfield beforehand was magical with our fans singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and I went over to Beckham, apologised for the newspaper headlines and shook his hand.
“Michael Owen gave us the lead with a lovely finish then a few minutes later he was fouled to give us a free kick from distance and from the side that was perfect for my left foot. We’d agreed I would take any free kicks in that area so even though I was new to the team there was no discussion. My old team-mate from Monaco whose hand I had once broken with a shot, Fabien Barthez, directed the wall. I placed the ball and told Dietmar Hamann I wanted him to roll the ball to my left, one-and-a-half to two yards, to get a better angle, ‘Wait till I start my run-up’ I told him. This was a big chance for me, ever since the referee whistled for the foul I’d been thinking that. They were singing my name in the stands, I heard them, thousands of voices. Then I took my run-up, Hamann rolled the ball away with the tip of his boot, a little harder than I expected so I had to adjust my run. One of their players stormed towards me but I didn’t care, I just thumped the ball and hit it cleaner than I ever had before. It took off from my instep like a rocket as I’d struck it perfectly, I didn’t even feel the ball. It hit the crossbar and landed behind Barthez who had barely been able to register what happened.
The victory lifted Liverpool to second in the Premier League table and they would go top the following week despite only drawing at Blackburn Rovers where they would remain for the next month until a 4-0 hiding at Chelsea sparked a difficult run of only one league win in six, with further defeats suffered at home to ten-man Arsenal (which would prove telling in the final analysis) and away at Southampton where Riise – having been rested after playing 27 matches in a row – came off the bench with the Reds already a goal behind and after only three minutes on the pitch scored what he described as an ‘incredibly beautiful own goal’ as he looped a header beyond a helpless Jerzy Dudek.
It was hardly ideal preparation as Thompson’s side – back down to fifth in the table but only three points behind table-toppers Leeds United – travelled to London for a two games against Arsenal at Highbury in a fortnight with the sides having been paired together in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Freddie Ljungberg continued his habit of scoring against the Reds by putting the Gunners in front just after the hour mark but Riise would grab a vital equaliser four minutes later which proved an important turning point in the season and further highlighted his impressive introduction to English football.
“We broke up an attack and I played the ball to Patrik Berger and continued up the left”, he recalled. “Patrik Berger passed to Steven Gerrard who must have spotted my run out of the corner of his eye because he laid on an absolutely unbelievable pass which put me clean through. I had run the length of the pitch and suddenly was alone with their keeper so practically the only thing I could do was shoot the ball low and controlled inside the near post. It was that kind of season. I had scored against Everton, Manchester United and Newcastle – who were also fighting for top spot that year – and now I had scored against Arsenal.”
Although Dennis Bergkamp’s header two weeks later would loosen Liverpool’s grip on the FA Cup won so memorably in Cardiff the previous May, another Danny Murphy-inspired victory at Old Trafford was proof the Reds were emerging from their mid-season slump and they would lose only once more in the Premier League all season, Riise scoring twice in the final day 5-0 victory over Ipswich Town at Anfield to take his goal tally in an impressive maiden season to eight (in 56 appearances) as Houllier’s men recorded their best Premier League points tally (80) and finish (second) to date behind Double winners Arsenal.
The manager would return to the dug-out in mid-March on an emotional Anfield night to inspire victory over Italian champions AS Roma and a spot in the European Cup quarter-finals but, having suggested his team were ‘ten games from greatness’, the first signs Houllier’s illness had taken something from him became apparent when his bizarre substitution of midfield lynchpin Dietmar Hamann in the last half-hour of the second leg at Bayer Leverkusen saw the Reds collapse and crash out having been in command and on course for the last four.
His decision not to make Nicolas Anelka’s loan move permanent and instead bring in Senegal World Cup star El-Hadji Diouf would also backfire massively as, despite starting the 2002/03 campaign well and leading the Premier League table in early November, Liverpool fell away badly to finish fifth and miss out on Champions League qualification, having earlier in the season been eliminated from the competition in the group stages after being schooled by Rafa Benitez’s streetwise Valencia side. Houllier’s men did at least win the League Cup after victory over Manchester United in Cardiff to foster hopes the first season of regression under his stewardship may only be temporary but it soon became clear the following season the rot had set in and the Frenchman was relieved of his duties in May 2004 with his side having just scraped a fourth place finish and a return to the Champions League.
His replacement in the Anfield hot-seat would be the Spanish coach whose Valencia side had first revealed the fundamental deficiencies at the heart of Houllier’s side and – while many of Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool players would detail the coldness they often felt from him despite admiring his tactical prowess – Riise initially became one of his most trusted lieutenants, featuring in all but one of the Premier League games during the Spaniard’s first season at the helm with his willingness to play in midfield providing a regular and attractive option for a boss who erred more often than not on the side of conservatism.
“Rafa was brilliant. I always say he is the best manager I played under”, Riise said. “He obviously gave me my best moments as a player but his tactics… he was always on the pitch on the training ground going through tactics. We had 40 minutes of tactics every day and he was always there. He was dragging players here and telling other players they should be there. He was always talking to players. His door was always open, you could call him any time at night to speak to him if you had some questions. He is a manager who gets the best out of his players and as a player you wanted to work for him and play for him.”
Benitez’s attempts to tactically drill into his players what he wanted perhaps inevitably took time to take hold and impacted Liverpool’s Premier League campaign which saw them unable to claw back Merseyside neighbours Everton in the race for Champions League qualification and ultimately finish fifth. But it was a different story in the cup competitions. Victories over Millwall, Middlesbrough, Tottenham and Watford took the Reds to the League Cup final in Cardiff against Jose Mourinho’s runaway league leaders Chelsea where Riise would give his side the lead with a sensational volley inside the first 40 seconds which induced a road from the travelling Kop recorded at 130.7 decibels – the equivalent of a jet taking off – making it the loudest goal in recorded history.
The Londoners would fight back after Steven Gerrard’s unfortunate own goal to win in extra time but Riise and his team-mates would soon gain revenge. The Norwegian had scored his first Champions League goal only days before his strike in Cardiff as the Reds saw off Bayer Leverkusen in the last 16 and, after edging out Italian champions Juventus in the quarter-finals, Benitez’s men were paired with the Premier League champions-elect in the semis. After a goalless draw in the Stamford Bridge first leg, Chelsea clinched their first league title in 50 years the weekend before the Anfield return before Liverpool rained on their title parade by winning 1-0 on a febrile night in L4 to reach the final in Istanbul, Riise having a hand in the move which brought the controversial ‘ghost goal’ poked over the line by Luis Garcia after only four minutes which decided matters before playing his part in the defensive rearguard action that saw the Reds home, stripping off to his underwear on the pitch in delight afterwards.
“It was just pure reaction”, Riise recollected. “At first, I was going to give my shirt away and throw it into the Kop, but people were screaming for more. Well, I didn’t have much more to give… so my shorts had to go as well. I was so tired at the end, and when the fourth official put up six minutes of added time I thought, ‘It’s not possible’. We had already worked so hard as a team. Then Eidur Gudjohnsen got that chance. Every time I see a replay I think, ‘He must score’. Fortunately, he didn’t. That night at Anfield will stay with me forever.”
Liverpool’s opponents in the Turkish capital would be Italian giants AC Milan and, after the first 45 minutes in the Ataturk Stadium, the Reds’ dreams of concluding a rollercoaster campaign with the club’s fifth European Cup triumph were turning into a nightmare with Carlo Ancelotti’s men three goals ahead and threatening humiliation. Six minutes after the break, Riise swung in (at the second attempt) arguably the most important cross in LFC history which Steven Gerrard headed home to spark one of the most astonishing fightbacks ever seen, Vladimir Smicer and Xabi Alonso rapidly getting the Reds back on level terms before Benitez’s men prevailed after a penalty shoot-out. Riise would be the only Liverpool player not to convert his kick but, while it proved academic, his failure to score from 12 yards ate away at the Norwegian despite getting his hands on the most prized medal in the game.
“I had severe cramp by the time the shootout came around, having played the 90 minutes and extra-time”, he said. “So when I walked up to take my penalty, I didn’t know what I was going to do. Normally I’d be confident and would just bang it in as hard as I could because that way my style – but I was so scared of getting cramp in my right foot if I went with that approach that it made me reconsider what I was going to do. So, walking up to the spot I thought to myself I’ve got three options: smash it, place it or try a panenka. I was thinking about the panenka which is quite crazy but I wanted to be remembered. I put the ball on the spot, walked back and turned around to begin my run-up; it was only at that moment I decided exactly what I was going to do. It’s the only time in my life I haven’t done what I should have done: smash it.
“The funny thing is that I walked back to my teammates, Stevie came and gave me a hug and then Jamie Carragher turned to me and said ‘Ginge, haven’t you seen Dida has dived to the same side for every penalty?’ I said ‘why the f*** did you not tell me that before I went up there?!’ I’m still so angry with myself because I didn’t do what I’d normally do. Even though it’s the biggest moment of my life, winning the Champions League – it’s by far the biggest moment of my life – I’m just so annoyed with myself. Immediately after the game obviously you’re surrounded by celebrations and players and fans are all happy that we’ve just won the game, but when you get back to the dressing room and you’ve calmed down, that’s when I started to think about that miss. We were so exhausted after that game, having played 120 minutes, a penalty shootout and all of the media work afterwards, we were so tired but it hit me afterwards that I just should’ve scored my penalty. At the same time, though, I was sitting on a bus with the Champions League trophy next to me so I can’t complain.”
Having featured in 57 of the 60 matches in all competitions Liverpool played during that marathon campaign, Riise returned home to Norway during the summer break to rest up where a chance encounter provided further vindication of the graft he had put in to become a European champion and proof of how far he had come since those difficult early years in his homeland.
“I went back to my home city and met in the street some of the guys that bullied me when I was young. I was never invited to parties and stuff as a kid. Not picked for sport. I thought ‘I can be an idiot here or I can just be smiling and happy and I was so confident in who I was and what I had done. One of them worked at McDonald’s – and there’s nothing wrong with that, no disrespect at all – but I had just won the Champions League. So I went to McDonald’s and ordered a Happy Meal from him. I didn’t even want one, just the reaction. He turned and it was, ‘Next please’. He looked straight at me, in to my eyes. He knew. I recognised him and I know he recognised me. I was just happy and smiley, but in my head I was thinking ‘in your face’. I said nothing, walked out and threw the McDonald’s away. It wasn’t planned but it was the perfect reply. It felt good and I walked out a happy man. It was great for me to come home and get the look on their faces.”
The demand Liverpool be allowed to defend their European crown despite having missed out on Champions League qualification through the league meant UEFA decided they must plough through the three qualifying rounds beginning in mid-July, the early start to the new campaign and affect on pre-season meaning hopes of a serious tilt at the league title never got off the ground but, a year after his penalty miss in Turkey, Riise found himself again facing a goalkeeper from 12 yards with a trophy at stake. The Norwegian had already scored in the Liverpool’s FA Cup triumphs at Portsmouth and Birmingham City as well as firing home the opening goal with a smartly-taken free-kick in the semi-final victory over Chelsea at Old Trafford which took the Reds to Cardiff to face West Ham United.
Benitez’s men again found themselves up against it early on after going two goals behind to Alan Pardew’s side but, inspired by a captain’s performance from Steven Gerrard, scrambled their way to another 3-3 draw and penalty shoot-out with Riise this time converting from the spot and bursting into tears of relief as three saves from goalkeeper Pepe Reina ensured the cup returned to Anfield for the seventh time.
“I asked the manager to let me take the fourth penalty given what happened in Istanbul last year”, he admitted afterwards. “That hurt me. I was carrying an injury at the time which meant that I couldn’t blast the penalty there which I’d normally do. I had to place it and their keeper Dida saved it. That was a nightmare, even though we won the cup, it still left me demoralised but I could use the power now. I know my penalty here wasn’t great, but a goal’s a goal. I blasted it down the middle and it flew in, and as soon as it hit the back of the net, I burst into tears. They were stinging my eyes. It was just so emotional after what happened last season. This was closure, a chance for me to get revenge and put things right.”
That same season Liverpool had gained their best yet Premier League points total with 82 despite finishing third but the much yearned-for title bid didn’t follow after a series of away defeats in the opening half of the campaign although Benitez’s tactical acumen would again come to the fore in Europe. After cruising the group stages, the Reds were paired with holders Barcelona in the last 16 and having already been knocked out of both domestic cups, the manager took his squad to Portugal for a training camp to prepare for clash in Catalonia where one night after a few beers Riise became involved in a heated row over karaoke with team-mate Craig Bellamy that saw the Welsh forward attack the Norwegian with a golf club. Bellamy would later claim he only administered a mild thwack but Riise’s recollections were somewhat different.
“I woke in the dark to hear someone opening the hotel door”, he wrote in his autobiography. “I thought it was my room-mate Daniel Agger. I turned, but my eyes were half-asleep, and I didn’t see anything in the sudden, bright glare. But something made me realise that it wasn’t Agger. And soon I could see him – Craig Bellamy at the foot of my bed with a golf club in his hands. Steve Finnan, who shared a room with Bellamy, was there too, but he just stood there. Bellamy raised the club over his head and swung as hard as he could. He tried to hit my shins, which would have ended my career, but I managed to pull my leg away in time.
“I jumped out of bed, pulled off the sheet and held it between us like I was some kind of half-awake matador. Bellamy sputtered, ‘Nobody disrespects me like that in front of the lads!’ He was completely gone. ‘I don’t care if I go to jail! My kids have enough money for school and everything. I don’t care. I’ll f****** do you!’ He raised the club and swung again. This time he connected. Full force on my hip. I was so pumped with adrenaline that I didn’t feel the pain, but he hit me hard. It was an iron. The next blow smashed into my thigh. I tried to hold up the sheet, but he continued to strike. He could have seriously injured me. At the same time, I knew I could take Bellamy if I needed to. I was bigger and stronger. I just wanted him to think twice, go back to his room and then we could meet up in the morning and finish it properly. I was ready to do that but he didn’t show. He was strange as he was cocky and confident and loud – screaming and shouting in training – but if you stood up to him he was like a big puppy. I remember Fulham versus Liverpool and Clint Dempsey said something to Craig and he s*** his pants. Bellamy is complicated and I don’t know much about it. So I can forgive, but I don’t forget. If he had hit me in his first stroke – if he had hit my shins – I would have been done.”
Incredibly the pair would be the Reds’ matchwinners in the Camp Nou the following week, Bellamy cancelling out Deco’s opener from close range before half time before setting up the winner which Riise thumped home with his lesser spotted right foot after the break. The Norwegian was on the mark again in the quarter-finals with a trademark left-footed strike as Benitez’s men eased past PSV Eindhoven but, despite seeing off Mourinho’s Chelsea in a semi-final (this time on penalties) for the third season running, AC Milan exacted revenge for Istanbul by triumphing in the Athens final.
The arrival of Brazilian left-back Fabio Aurelio during the summer of 2007 threatened Riise’s place in the side but the Brazilian’s injury woes coupled with the Norwegian’s ability to play in midfield meant he still managed 44 appearances in what would prove to be his final season at the club. There was an increasing sense that he had gone somewhat stale as, even bolstered by the record signing of Spanish striker Fernando Torres, Benitez’s side still could not manage to put together a credible title challenge and, despite going deep into the latter stages of the Champions League again, they would finish the campaign empty-handed. After being drawn against Chelsea in the Champions League for the fourth consecutive season – and the third time in the semi-finals – Dirk Kuyt looked to have given Liverpool a precious lead in the Anfield first leg to take down to London until, in the 90th minute, Riise opted to try and head away Saloman Kalou’s dipping cross rather than clear with his right foot and could only divert the ball into the roof of his own net. Chelsea prevailed after extra-time in the Stamford Bridge second leg to reach the final against Manchester United in Moscow by which time Riise had been informed by Rafa Benitez that his days at Anfield were numbered.
“He smiled at me from behind his desk”, Riise recalled in his book. “Then he said, ‘I think it’s time we go our separate ways. You could benefit from new challenges and we’ve bought a new left-back that we intend to rely on.’ That had happened before but on each occasion I had accepted the challenge and emerged victorious from it. So I hadn’t expected this. I just sat there, half in shock. He said, ‘You’re a big name, you can play anywhere at all. We’ll help you find another club if you like.’ Can I play the last matches was all I could say. For some reason it was important that I reach 350 matches and an exact average of fifty per season. Benitez just shook his head… I’d got the sack, plain and simple. When I left I was sad, I was disappointed – not only at Rafa, at that time, but also with myself because I didn’t do as much as I could have done to stay longer. I was too settled, I didn’t think I had to work that hard. I regret that now – I didn’t want to go. He spent so much money on Andrea Dossena and I knew he was going to give him a lot of chances, even though I thought I was a better player than him.”
Riise signed for AS Roma in a €5m deal and made over 100 appearances for the Italian side in three seasons at the Stadio Olimpico, returning to the Premier League to win over his former baiters at Fulham before finishing his playing days at Apoel Nicosia in Cyprus, a brief return to his alma mater Aalesund in Norway and spells in the Indian Premier League with Delhi Dynamos and Chennaiyin.
“It felt like home when I came to Liverpool and still does”, Riise insisted. “I learned the Scouse accent quickly and I love coming back. I still have a photograph at home of me kissing the Champions League trophy on the pitch in Istanbul and I remember saying to myself as I held it that I had made it now. Whatever happened after that, it would never matter.”
For some, Riise remains a prime example of an Anfield era which delivered some memorable moments without fully delivering on its undoubted promise but his fellow Champions League hero Jamie Carragher was in no doubt how he should be remembered.
“John Arne Riise can be very proud of what he’s achieved with Liverpool. He played nearly 350 games and scored a lot of goals. He played at a very high level for a long time, was never injured and was a great professional who always looked after himself.”