Xabi Alonso phonecall helped Liverpool beat Manchester City and Chelsea to £17.5m transfer

Former Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso
-Credit: (Image: Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

When Liverpool signed Glen Johnson on this week in 2009, it was in hope that he could be a missing piece of the puzzle.

The Reds had fallen narrowly short in the Premier League title race the year before, finishing four points behind champions Manchester United despite losing just twice all campaign. Left to curse too many draws, Rafa Benitez sought to bring in an attacking full-back to bolster his side and settled on the England international.

Liverpool had fought off rival interest from Chelsea and Manchester City to sign Johnson, as they looked to continue to challenge for Premier League and Champions League glory. However, in a summer that would also see Xabi Alonso depart the club and the turmoil brought from hapless owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett’s fractured partnership only worsening, the Reds were about to become a side on the decline with such silverware evading them until long after the defender’s exit.

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But the Spanish midfielder’s desire to return to Spain that summer didn’t prevent him from playing a key role in bringing Johnson to Anfield.

“If a club like Liverpool comes knocking, you obviously immediately have an eye on it and an interest,” Johnson said in an exclusive interview with the ECHO in November 2021. “But what swung it was we played for England that summer, just before I signed, and I had a good chat with Stevie (Gerrard).

“And then I spoke to Torres and Alonso as well before signing. I just thought these were some of the best players in the world. They don’t need to phone me but they were phoning me to let me know how much they wanted me to join. Straight away, I felt like I knew them and it made me feel super welcome before I signed and everything just felt right.”

In truth, in hindsight the fact that Liverpool were only able to spend £17.5m to sign the defender from Portsmouth by cancelling out £7m the financially-stricken outfit owed to them for Peter Crouch was an early sign of their dwindling fortunes in difficult circumstances waiting around the corner.

Of course Johnson would not know that the Reds would fail to kick on under Benitez before meandering in transition in the years ahead under a succession of new managers as new owners looked to steady the ship. With a number of key players also sold without being replaced, it’s fair to say the full-back did not enjoy the easiest start to life at Liverpool.

“There were a lot of issues with owners, Rafa lost his job and we sold three of our best players and didn’t replace any of them,” he recalled. “You just can’t do that, it’s as simple as that.

“The owners didn’t want to replace the players who went out the door with the same quality of players. It was a tough couple of years.

“We had three or four managers in a very short period of time. That is a setback at any club. With all the issues going on in the background, the best players leaving, the managers leaving, it’s hard to string some sort of foundation together.”

While it was admittedly an unsettling time to be a Liverpool player, FSG’s takeover of the club in October 2010 did at least steady the ship, while Johnson would win the only trophy of his Reds career the following season courtesy of the League Cup.

Scoring in the penalty shoot=out victory over Cardiff City at Wembley in 2012, only the woodwork denied him even more of the headlines and one of the great cup final goals as he hit the crossbar in the opening minutes.

“I remember, just before I hit the bar, I remember hitting a long, diagonal pass wide and I just heard Stevie say, 'go on',” Johnson recalled. “I jogged past Stevie and he was like, 'just go', so I actually found myself almost left-wing.

“I cut in and as soon as I hit it, I thought, 'that’s in', but unfortunately it was probably two inches too high. But it got us off to a good start, got the crowd going and got the players rallied.

“The game proved to be a lot tighter than the first few minutes and we’re in a penalty shoot-out. Everyone picks their spot, I knew that morning where I was going to go. I just knew if I was going to take one, I knew where I was going to go and if I hit my spot but the keeper was good enough to save it, good luck to him. After the game, a few didn’t fancy one or whatever but luckily enough there was enough of us who put our hands up and got the job done.”

Winning the League Cup wasn’t enough to keep Kenny Dalglish in the job, however, as Brendan Rodgers took over as manager the following summer. And it was under the Northern Irishman that Liverpool would challenge for the Premier League title for the only time during Johnson’s time with the club.

A Gerrard slip against Chelsea and an infamous Crystal Palace comeback would see the Reds fall short in the final weeks of the season, with Man City leapfrogging them to be crowned champions. But Johnson is adamant that those two games did not cost Liverpool the title when reflecting on the campaign as a whole.

“Second half of the season we were unbelievable,” he said. “We weren’t great at the start of the season at all but we started to play football that just blew teams away.

“We won nearly all of our games and the games that we won, we won nearly all of them in the first 20 minutes. We were playing some great football and were unlucky we didn’t get over the line.

“Everyone thinks we lost the league when Stevie slipped or when we didn’t win against Palace, but that’s wrong. We didn’t. We lost the league at the start of the season because we dropped 30 points. We went on a run after Christmas where we were unbelievable. The fact we even put ourselves in that position was incredible.”

He continued: “It’s the manner of the way it was. In truth, in the Palace game we should have been 6-0 up. Not even 3-0 up.

“To come that close and for it to end the way it did is heart-wrenching, but we can’t change it now. It is what it is but we were more than good enough in the second half of that season to be crowned champions.”

The following season would be Johnson’s last at Liverpool as he left the club at the end of his contract, having featured sporadically that campaign. And the full-back has revealed it was his decision to call time on his Reds career, admitting he already had one eye on retirement as he looked to move closer to home.

“I wanted to try something new,” Johnson admitted. “I had always wanted to retire relatively young anyway, regardless of where I was.

“The kids were growing up and I wanted to be a bit closer to home so that was that. We shook hands and went our own way.”

Success on the pitch in his six years at the club might have been limited, but Johnson does feel the Liverpool side he was part of was capable of winning more when highlighting the skills of one or two of his old team mates in particular.

“Our starting XI was great. It was a good side with great players,” he said. “Fernando Torres, even now, doesn’t get spoken about as much as he should.

“Fernando was unbelievable, literally unbelievable, but obviously Luis Suarez was as well. They’re two slightly different players, I don’t think I can pick (between them)!

“Stevie was good in training. Fernando wasn’t good in training at all, but you don’t mind that because he’d come to life at the weekend so you’d accept that all day long. Luis was a good trainer but Stevie would always be the one leading by example most days really.

“Then there was Mario (Balotelli). It’s just a shame really because if he wanted to, he could have been one of the best players around. He really could have. But you just don’t know what Mario is going to turn up. In games, in training, in the morning or whenever.

“It’s a waste of talent really because on his day, he was quick, strong and very intelligent in terms of his football brain. But he just didn’t want to do it.”

Johnson continued: “I’m happy with my time there and I loved every single minute of it. It felt like I had some of my best years there. I played an awful lot of games there which I feel super proud about. It’s just a shame we couldn’t win more.

“For a club like Liverpool to go so long without a trophy, I know we managed to get one, but really you sign for these clubs because you want to be competing for the Premier League.”

It’s put to Johnson that had he stayed at Liverpool for another season, he would have had the chance to play for Jurgen Klopp and that he was perhaps a Reds player at the wrong time, considering the success the club have gone on to have since his 2015 departure.

And while he wonders what it would have been like to play for the German, he has no regrets about his Liverpool career or the potential success he missed out on by snubbing Chelsea and Man City, and is full of praise for how FSG have helped turn the club into English and European champions in recent years, predicting there is plenty more silverware to follow with the American owners at the helm at Anfield.

“Hindsight is a wonderful thing. To have the chance to play under a manager like Klopp, of course you’d love the opportunity,” Johnson ponders. “There’s a lot of world class managers out there that you would enjoy working for.

“What Klopp’s done with the whole set-up, and these owners deserve so much credit. They’ve literally transformed the foundations of the club.

“They’ve brought in some good players, they’ve got their methodical way of doing certain things and they’ve got a world class manager. They’ve built the club back up from the ground and the top manager is the cherry on the top.”

He continued: “I don’t regret a single thing. There was a lot going on for the club. We had three or four managers in a short space of time. The owners wanted out and we didn’t know who was going to buy the club. Players were getting sold and not replaced. There was a lot going on and we didn’t have the squad that was need to compete at the very top. We were a side in transition if you like.

“The new owners came in and they planted the foundations. You can’t have a top side with a top manager and sustain title challenges and Champions League challengers without all of the right things around the club being correct.

“They’re settled owners with a plan and have brought all the right staff in and have a specific way of signing certain players. They had a gameplan the minute they bought the club.

“That’s why Liverpool are now competing at the top in most tournaments and will do so for a long, long time to come."