I was absolutely disgusted by what Liverpool manager did to me - I thought about quitting football

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MARCH 22: (THE SUN OUT, THE SUN ON SUNDAY OUT) Sander Westerveld during a training session at AXA Melwood Training Centre on March 22, 2024 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
-Credit: (Image: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

When Liverpool signed Alisson Becker in the summer of 2018, joining from AS Roma in a deal worth a potential £65m, the Brazilian, temporarily, became the most expensive goalkeeper in the world. And while that record was swiftly broken, since then neither the Reds nor the shot-stopper have ever looked back.

One of the best goalkeepers in the world, the 31-year-old has proven himself to be one of Jurgen Klopp’s greatest signings. In his six years at Anfield, the Brazil international has helped his side win the Champions League, Premier League, FIFA Club World Cup, European Super Cup, League Cup and FA Cup, while also being part of the English’s top-flights leanest defence on three occasions and lifted two Premier League Golden Gloves, the Yashin Trophy and The Best FIFA Goalkeeper award, alongside other individual accolades.

Sure, there has been the occasional mistake along the way, as is the case with any goalkeeper, but that doesn’t affect his standing on Merseyside. Whenever the time comes for Alisson to move on from Liverpool, he will quite rightly be regarded as one of the Reds’ greatest ever goalkeepers.

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But imagine a scenario where, despite his success to date, his next mistake which led to a goal cost him his place in the Liverpool starting XI. Imagine a scenario where new boss Arne Slot then replaced him by signing not one but two goalkeepers. Not very likely, is it?

Yet that’s the exact situation one former Reds goalkeeper found himself in when Gerard Houllier was manager. It was on this day in 1999 when the Frenchman broke the English record for a goalkeeper by signing Sander Westerveld from Vitesse Arnhem. Granted, the £4m spent on the Dutchman is rather paltry compared to the £65m spent on Alisson 19 years later, but a record is a record.

One of seven summer signings as Houllier revamped his squad with a £30m transfer spending spree, the Netherlands international was instantly installed as Liverpool’s first-choice goalkeeper. However, he hadn’t been the Reds’ first-choice target with the club originally targeting Edwin van der Sar only for him to snub their advances in favour of a £5m move to Juventus.

"When I left Ajax in 1999, I travelled to Liverpool and spoke to Houllier," the former Manchester United goalkeeper told FourFourTwo in 2017. "I was shown around Anfield and also met with the chairman and a couple of the players. I thought about it, but when Juventus came to the table I came to the conclusion that it would be a bigger challenge to play in Italy."

While Liverpool would miss out on the Dutchman, who would belatedly move to the Premier League two years later when signing for Fulham after losing his place to Gianluigi Buffon in Turin, Van der Sar did ultimately play a role in them signing his compatriot instead.

“Yes, Edwin played his part in the transfer. Liverpool had a few goalkeepers in mind to replace David James in 1999, and Edwin was their first choice,” Westerveld admitted to FourFourTwo last year. “They came to Amsterdam to watch him play for Ajax against my team, Vitesse. We beat Ajax 1-0 and I had a good game.

“Liverpool still enquired about Van der Sar, but he chose Juventus, so Gerard Houllier came to my apartment in Arnhem and asked if I wanted to play for Liverpool. I said yes. I’d already been a fan of Liverpool as a young boy, and signed my contract at the airport in Amsterdam.

“The next morning, I went with the Dutch national team to Brazil and made my international debut against the Selecao. It was the perfect week for me. Van der Sar made a joke while we were with the national team that I had him to thank for my move to Liverpool.

“When we won five trophies in 2001 and he didn’t win anything at Juventus and eventually signed for Fulham, I joked to him, 'No regrets, Edwin?'”

Westerveld and Liverpool would have no regrets themselves, initially at least, as the Dutchman impressed behind a new-look central defensive partnership of Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz. Making 36 Premier League appearances during the 1999/00 season, only Ed de Goey kept more than the Dutchman's 14 clean sheets.

And he was only denied an ever-present campaign as a result of his infamous red card against Everton in September 1999 where he was dismissed along with Francis Jeffers following a punch-up between the pair. But rather than earn an expected telling-off from his manager, Houllier was impressed by Westerveld’s attitude.

“It was a frustrating game and we were 1-0 down. I'd already had words with Jeffers earlier in the game - I called him a German after he'd dived,” he told FourFourTwo. “In the second half we ended up in a handbag fight and each got a red card.

“Not long ago, I did an Everton podcast with Jeffers and we reminisced about that game. He said he was happy the referee sent him off first - Francis feared I'd fly into him, and quickly locked his changing room door! We could laugh about it then.”

“The day after Houllier called me in his office,” he recalled to Planet Football . “I was like, ‘Oh, here we go’. He said, ‘Obviously I never like players to get red cards, but you showed character and you need to hold onto it. You showed you had the determination and will to win. You could see how important the derby was for you, and I need players with this mentality’. I walked out with a huge smile.”

Meanwhile, the Reds’ record of 30 goals conceded was the lowest in the division as they qualified for Europe but had a poor end to the season to blame for missing out on Champions League football. Yet they would make amends in the most impressive manner in 2000/01.

Winning an historic cup treble, Westerveld started 61 of Liverpool’s 63 matches over the course of the season as they won the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup before qualifying for the Champions League, while he was the hero in the final of the former as he made the winning save from Birmingham City’s Andy Johnson in a penalty shoot-out win.

“It's fantastic to distinguish yourself as a goalkeeper during a penalty shoot-out,” he later told FourFourTwo when recalling the League Cup final. “I remember how nervous Andy Johnson was before that decisive kick; I knew his favourite angle and he stuck to it. I went crazy after saving the penalty. We won five trophies that year and laid the foundation in Cardiff.”

Yet rumours were already beginning to emerge that Houllier had lost patience with Westerveld despite such success and wanted to replace him. He might have kept the joint-most clean sheets in the Premier League that season but mistakes were deemed to be creeping into his game, with an own goal against Chelsea where he punched the ball into his own net and his performance in the 5-4 UEFA Cup final victory over Alaves the most obvious examples.

Links with Jerzy Dudek and Chris Kirkland started to emerge, with the Reds publicly linked with the latter as early as January 2001, prompting Westerveld to speak out.

“I've been assured by Gerard Houllier that Liverpool haven't made a bid for Chris Kirkland," Westerveld said confidently at the time. "I believe what the gaffer has told me and I was pleased to hear it.

“But as long as we don't buy Edwin van der Saar or Peter Schmeichel I won't be worried because I don't mind who sits on the bench. I've got a lot of confidence in myself and will not allow anyone to take my place at Liverpool for as long as I am under contract here."

Meanwhile, he had already admitted the year before that he struggled with supporters laughing at his expense when mistakes were made with his confidence affected as a result.

"Some people think it's funny to make jokes about goalkeepers when they come up to me but I've just about had enough,” he said in March 2000. “If someone two metres away from me drops their glass of beer on the floor, as was the case on Saturday night, you can bet that a wise guy has asked if it was me.

“Even my postman gets in on the act when he gives me my letters. 'Watch you don't drop them', he says. I don't like these comments and they don't exactly help your confidence either.

"One guy told me I was lucky to have Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz in front of me. That attitude is stupid. Another told me he'd been a fan for years and asked if I really knew what it means to be a Liverpool player. To suggest that is not only unbelievable, it's insulting. I don't mind criticism as long as it's justified."

Westerveld would miss Liverpool's Champions League qualifiers against FC Haka and Premier League opener against West Ham United in 2001/02, but did start both the Community Shield and European Super Cup finals as Liverpool won further silverware. But a late error in his first league appearance of the season as he let a Dean Holdsworth long-range effort squirm under his body saw the Reds lose 2-1 away at newly-promoted Bolton Wanderers.

Although reassured by Houllier about his place as first-choice at the time, he was warned Liverpool were in the market for a new goalkeeper. But days after the Bolton error, the Frenchman signed Jerzy Dudek and Chris Kirkland days later to replace Westerveld on transfer deadline day.

"It has always been our aim to strengthen every area of the team," Houllier told the club's website following the transfer swoop. "That is why we have ensured the signing of these two major goalkeeping talents.

"The addition of a hugely promising young talent (Kirkland) together with an experienced international (Dudek) will provide a major boost to the club."

Westerveld would never play for Liverpool again.

"I am very upset by what has happened. Houllier promised I would be his number one keeper, whatever happened,” he said following the transfers while away on international duty. “I will certainly want to speak to the manager before the next match

"But when you buy someone for such an amount of money, you cannot believe they will be a substitute. I will certainly want to speak to the manager before the next match.

"I have to remain calm and wait for a conversation with Houllier. I want an explanation and I want to know what is going to happen to me. Houllier told me in July that Feyenoord offered Dudek to him but that he did not want him.

"I have spoken to Edwin van der Sar about my situation. He had to leave Juventus in an equal scenario, although mine is much worse than his was. According to Houllier, I have revealed locker-room secrets and he says that I talk too much. But I have always been very positive about the club and I have never revealed any secrets."

At the time Westerveld was furious at the decision and his desired talks with Houllier did not go well.

“When I returned from international duty last week Houllier told me that I was the number three keeper at the club,” he said after speaking to his manager. “He said I was still allowed to train with the first team but I would be sitting in the stands on Saturday.

“I'm absolutely disgusted with that. You could say we have dramatically different opinions. There's no point going back for more talks. I'm looking for a new club as of now. There's no use staying at Liverpool as long as Gerard Houllier is there."

“We'd just won the Charity Shield by beating Manchester United, and the UEFA Super Cup by beating Bayern Munich,” Westerveld later recalled to FourFourTwo. “Houllier told me, 'Sander, you're going to be one of the three best goalkeepers in the world, but a young goalie or experienced back-up will be joining us'.

“Then came the league game against Bolton. I made an error just before full-time and we lost 2-1. In the dressing room Houllier said, 'I don't want anyone to blame Sander for this. He has already won many points for us and will continue to do so'. Then I went on international duty and heard Liverpool had bought Chris Kirkland and Jerzy Dudek.

“Marc Overmars and Van der Sar joked to me about it, saying, 'Now, don't get nervous, Sander...' When I got back, I went to see Houllier. He said Dudek would be his first-choice, Kirkland second and me third. I just couldn't believe it.

“I said I'd played more than a hundred games for Liverpool and won five trophies in a year. Houllier said he wanted a keeper who made no mistakes. 'You'll never find one', I said.”

“I know what happened, but I still don’t understand it,” Westerveld told Planet Football. “From day one, Houllier told me and the press that you need time to adapt to the English league. Obviously, I was criticised like all goalkeepers are. They’re under a lot of pressure, especially at Liverpool.

“I never felt the pressure, but I could see and hear the criticism. I started off well in my first year, when I was 24, and goalkeepers tend to get better every year. In the first year, we had the best defence in the Premier League, and in the second year, we won the treble.

“I was just improving, but already, from the very first day of pre-season, I heard rumours about Liverpool bringing in a new goalkeeper. That’s normal. I wasn’t nervous, or afraid of losing my place, because I felt I was doing good things.

“I made a mistake. Afterwards I went away with the national team and Liverpool bought two goalkeepers instead of one. That was obviously a big blow for me. I never thought that I would have to leave Liverpool. I always had a lot of confidence. I knew what I was doing. All goalkeepers make mistakes, but I was winning points as well.

“If they had brought one goalkeeper in, even Dudek, I would still have been fighting for my place. Nobody knows what would have happened. But when they buy two goalkeepers and they don’t even take you on a Champions League away trip as the number three, you know you’re number four.

“From number one to number four. That was just a nightmare. There was nothing for me to do. I didn’t have any chance to come back and they made it very clear. I thought it was very harsh, but what can you do? Things happen like this in football.”

Westerveld would belatedly leave Liverpool the following December as he joined Real Sociedad in a £3.4m deal. Yet in the months before the transfer, he had considered even hanging up his gloves.

“That period was the darkest of my career. The transfer window had just closed, too,” he said. “I was in the stands for home games and not allowed to travel to Champions League games.

“I later found out why both Dudek and Kirkland had joined the club at the same time: it turned out that Liverpool only wanted to sign Dudek, but something went wrong with the medical examination. Liverpool wanted to cancel the transfer and signed Kirkland from Coventry, but Feyenoord kept Liverpool to their deal.

“Still, I don't understand why I didn't get the opportunity to fight for my position. Instead, Houllier ruthlessly kicked me out. I thought about quitting football.”

Westerveld would bury the hatchet with Houllier years later when on duty for Liverpool Legends, revealing how his wife had helped him come to terms with how his Reds career ended.

“I ran into Houllier several years later at a charity game with Liverpool Legends,” he said. “He hugged me deeply and kissed my cheek, as if nothing had ever happened.

“I really disliked him for a long period, but my wife said, 'be grateful to him for bringing you to your dream club - you were at Liverpool thanks to him'. I just hold on to that thought."”

After signing for Sociedad, Westerveld would later enjoy stints with Portsmouth, Almeria, Sparta Rotterdam, Monza and Ajax Cape Town before retiring in 2013. Yet it is a brief loan spell with Liverpool's Merseyside rivals Everton for which his post-Reds career is best remembered, with the Dutchman, after falling out of favour at Fratton Park, having a rather X-rated realisation when deciding to answer David Moyes’ injury crisis.

“In 2005 I was sitting on Portsmouth's bench, because Harry Redknapp threw out most of his predecessor's purchases,” he recalled. “I was in a taxi on my way to see Chelsea play Barcelona, and David Moyes phoned me.

“He said, 'I need a goalkeeper. Can you help me?' Two of his keepers were suspended and one was injured. Moyes asked me to help out for a month. I was just thinking, 'I need to play, and show myself again for my next step'.

“It’s just deadly for a goalkeeper if you sit on the bench. I was only thinking about the opportunity. I said, 'Yes, of course'. I put down the phone and then it hit me. ‘Oh s**t, I'm going to Everton'.

“I didn’t know what reception I would get from the fans and the people at Everton, but from day one they were all positive and happy to see me. Nobody ever gave me any grief. I didn't have any problems with the Liverpool fans either, as they knew I hadn't left Anfield voluntarily.”

A version of this article was first published in June 2022.