Xabi Alonso: The Poet & The Penalty

When Xabi Alonso arrived at Liverpool in 2004, Alex Hess had found the perfect blend of artistry & passion to idolise. In an extract from a new book, he explains...

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The following is an edited version of a chapter from the new book 'Life's A Pitch; The Passions Of The Press Box', edited by Mike Calvin. The book is a collection of stories from various journalists, including Calvin, Iain MacIntosh, Rory Smith, Rob Smyth and Jonathan Wilson about their experiences as fans.

This, about Xabi Alonso, is by occasional F365er Alex Hess. Enjoy.

In today's tiki taka-infused footballing landscape, there's a maddening tendency for a bit of calm precision in a midfielder - especially one with an Iberian surname - to be over-praised. It's all Xavi Hernandez's fault, really. If it wasn't for the delicacies served up by his all-conquering Catalan and Spanish sides of recent years, the appreciation of the discreet, ball-playing central midfielder may have remained a niche practice.

Xavi and his band of possession fetishists, though, have made the admiration of football's subtler arts painfully trendy. 'Metronomic' is often the adjective given to his new breed of unruffled playmaker, whose inevitably-quoted pass completion stats prompt nods of scholarly approval from the game's analysts. Be it Andrea Pirlo or Leon Britton, the understated passer has become an over-appreciated spectacle. This tribute to Xabi Alonso, then, feels trivialised as a transparent act of bandwagon-mounting.

And yet I was there first.

********

It was in May 2005, though, well before he had reached his peak, that Alonso underwent his most enduring moment as a Liverpool player. The Champions League final against Milan was far from his finest performance for the club, but his contribution on that monumental night will last long in the memory. Not only did he shoulder responsibility, at the age of 23, for one of the most high-pressure penalties imaginable, but he actually missed it, before, thank Christ, sticking in the rebound. Xabi wasn't just present in Istanbul, he was at the very heart of the most profoundly dramatic moment in my short time as a Liverpool fan.

I distinctively remember - quite notably, in fact, as I can't recall much about watching the match at the time - the television camera lingering on Alonso as he waited to take that penalty having spotted the ball. Alonso stands inside the D, hands on hips, manically shifting his weight from one foot to the other and, in a bizarre tic of nervousness, alternately licking his lips and spitting on the turf. It's fair to say that he's an absolute picture of barely suppressed terror - and rightly so. Like the rest of us, Alonso was sh*tting himself.

Equally memorable is his response to scoring the rebound (a deceptively well-taken finish lifted cannily over the stricken Dida). Lurching away from the goalmouth, one arm attempting a kind of drunken windmill action, the other askew in a rigid downward diagonal, he quickly runs out of steam and is floored by a Milan Baros headlock, at which point he tumbles in a uncoordinated spiral of elbows, hits the turf, and then simply remains face down, dead still. It all happens in the space of a few seconds, but it's distinctly at odds with his default mode of gliding elegance. It's a celebration, I think, that completely betrays a moment of undistilled joy coupled with absolute psychological exhaustion that every Liverpool fan was also experiencing. It still pangs within me when I watch it today.

I think it's a salient point, given the alienation that much of today's fans feel from the millionaire players we pay to watch, that Alonso didn't, couldn't, run towards the byline pulling any of the self-congratulatory poses that have now become standard goal celebration fare: the badge thump, the knee slide, the shirt over the head. He simply collapsed, and stayed collapsed. In that instant, Xabi was us, and we were him, and we were all spent. It was a moment emblematic of a player who, throughout his time at Liverpool, displayed none of the ego and self-indulgence that tends to mar much of the Premier League populace. Benitez may have orchestrated that comeback, and Gerrard may have instigated it, but Alonso realised it. He delivered it.

Of course, the memories of the Benitez era aren't all glowingly nostalgic, and it's just as important to Alonso's association with that period that he illustrates its tragedy and misjudgement as much as he does the triumph.

Say the words "Gareth Barry" to most football fans, and you're unlikely to cause much offence. The midfielder is akin to a dinner of beans on toast, or an episode of CSI, in the utmost indifference his name inspires. A scathing recollection of his doomed, lumbering pursuit of Mesut Ozil in Bloemfontein might be the extent of any resentment harboured his way. Mention his name to a Liverpool fan, though, and it's a direct reminder of a Kop idol's most terrible act of misjudgement.

The summer of 2008 was sullied by another doomed pursuit involving Gareth Barry, though this time he was the target of the chase with Rafa Benitez openly courting him in the apparent hope of shipping Alonso off to Turin. Over those few months, figures were exchanged, transfer requests were handed in, and Benitez was scribbled furiously off Martin O'Neill's Christmas card list. Barry, however, remained at Villa. And so Alonso stayed at Liverpool. And, though he was coming off the back of a below-par season, those of us with an active collection of brain cells breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

Benitez's summer cravings seemed increasingly inexplicable as the ensuing season went on, as I saw, for the first time, a delightfully balanced Liverpool side mount a genuine title challenge, losing just two league games all season and amassing 86 points, the club's best figure for two decades. Alonso, inevitably, showed his finest run of sustained form so far, dovetailing wonderfully with Javier Mascherano at the base of midfield, and providing a fertile supply line for the explosive and reassuringly homoerotic partnership of Gerrard and Torres ahead of him. The Promised Land was not quite reached, but it was well within sight. Despite losing out on the title, and despite the occasional foreboding hint of boardroom gluttony from Stateside, things were looking up, and the club's yearning for Gareth Barry was a distant and easily discarded memory.

But then Real Madrid came knocking. And, just like that, he was gone. With typically minimal fuss, Alonso returned to Spain for the sum of £30million - a huge amount for a holding midfielder, but scant consolation for the sense of sheer loss I felt as his rumoured departure quickly became an inevitability.

Of course, we'll never really know if things would actually have transpired differently had Rafa never have devoted the previous summer to whispering sweet nothings in Gareth Barry's direction. A contract with Real Madrid, after all, is not offered to just anyone, and at 27 would have been hard for Alonso to decline whatever the circumstance. There can be little doubt, though, that leaving Liverpool was no easy decision for him, and that his criminal undervaluing, exposed by the Barry saga a year earlier, certainly helped make up his mind.

Upon Alonso's departure that summer, few foresaw that his loss would be felt quite as greatly as it was, but none doubted that it was a great player the club was losing. Although the club's parasitical ex-owners, rather than comparatively trivial managerial decisions, are ultimately to blame for the club's decline, Alonso's sale nonetheless marks the definitive point at which the previous season's title challengers hurtled round a hairpin bend and ploughed into the quicksand of mediocrity in which they're still flailing. (Though if there was any silver lining to Alonso's exit, it's that Barry never did arrive as his replacement, which would have been akin to divorcing Scarlett Johansson to marry Delia Smith).

Although he wasn't technically present during the disastrous campaign that followed his exit, Alonso was very much there in absentia during 2009/10. His spectre loomed large over the now-shrunken Anfield pitch, recoiling in disgust at every shanked, tempo-disrupting pass from Gerrard and Lucas. His absence was painfully obvious - especially with his supposed replacement spending far more time nursing injury and illness than actually playing football - and it is Benitez's role in Alonso's disenchantment that's most often touted as having sown the seed of his eventual downfall. That all of it - Alonso, Benitez, the lot - could, just maybe, have been prevented is what stings the most.

Heart-wrenching conclusion aside, though, Alonso's five years as a red were largely wonderful, and his own affinity for Liverpool also seemed genuine and deep-seated. His remarks about the club during his time there consistently reached beyond the standard PR-friendly vacuousness that footballers generally recite about their employers, and he is occasionally spotted in the Anfield stands in the years since his departure.

"I am still a Liverpool fan and will be forever, absolutely", Alonso declared fully two years after leaving. "The experiences I had there are deep in my heart".

Well, Xabi, I'm still an Alonso fan, forever and absolutely. As hard as our parting was to accept, anyone will tell you that it's important to remember the good times. And so, I still on occasion find myself gazing into the middle-distance, picturing that strike sailing over Steve Harper and towards me behind the Kop end goal, and my heartbeat briefly flutters ahead of its normal, steady, metronomic rhythm.


'Life's A Pitch; The Passions Of The Press Box' is out now and available to order in paperback here, or as an e-book here.

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