I want to know...about John Arne Riise

Interview with footballer John Arne Riise during the Steven Gerrard Foundation golf trophy in Portugal.

John Arne Riise has taken his seat for an interview with Liverpoolfc.tv but our cameras are not yet rolling.

The 30-year-old is wearing a white cap and a good lathering of suntan lotion, necessary precautions at this time of year in the Algarve, where celebrities and footballers are competing in the Steven Gerrard Foundation golf tournament.

There isn't a cloud in the sky and the prevailing silence is broken only by the metallic ping of club on ball and the occasional whine of a golf buggy. But serenity is about to be interrupted.

The tune is instantly familiar to any Liverpool fan. The words are too. You'd probably even recognise the singer. It is DJ Spoony who begins wailing the Kop's adaptation of Bruce Channel's Hey Baby, the one which enquires how Riise scored THAT goal. Another golfer joins in and soon Ginge (as his former teammates call him) is singing and clapping along, his face smothered by glee.

In that moment it becomes apparent how fondly he remembers Liverpool fans and his seven years on Merseyside, and over the next half an hour this feeling and his disappointment at leaving will be alluded to in almost every one of his answers.

"I do miss the city and the fans," says Riise, speaking a few weeks before completing a move from Roma to Fulham. "When I left (in 2008) I was sad, I was disappointed - not only at Rafa (Benitez), at that time, but also with myself because I didn't do as much as I could have done to stay longer.

"When you've been somewhere for seven years you get so comfy. I was too happy with my position and I didn't work as hard as I could. I was too settled, I didn't think I had to work that hard. I regret that now - hopefully I won't regret it too much.

"I didn't want to go. I had a chat with Benitez. He said to me straight out that next year he was going to buy another left-back and my future was not there. It was quite straightforward and I respected that he was honest and told me so I could sort things out, because there was no way I could have stayed there another year and not played.

"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.

"I don't think there have been many left-backs to replace me since then. Not many have adapted to the English game and last season there was (Paul) Konchesky and I don't think he played."

It is a decade since a 20-year-old Riise arrived on Merseyside from Monaco for a fee of approximately £4million tasked with improving a team that had just won a treble.

"I was a young lad at the time and nobody expected anything," he recalls. "It's harder when you go to a club and everyone expects you to play good. So I just went there with no pressure and just trying to do my stuff.

"I wanted to be respected for who I was. So in the first running session, I was the fittest player there, so I ran the most. And I tackled straight away because I wanted to be respected. And it worked. Both Steven Gerrard and Danny Murphy told me that's the reason I got into the group so quick because I worked so hard."

With his new teammates won over, Riise was about to find acceptance among the patrons of Anfield.

Contrary to popular belief, it was a strike at Goodison in September 2001 when he turned Steve Watson that first prompted Kopites to ask how he scored THAT goal - though an unstoppable free-kick against Manchester United six weeks later ensured it was sung with greater fervour.

"I didn't know that it was my song. It's hard to hear sometimes when the fans are singing because it's so loud and the accent is different," says Riise.

"After the game they told me that so many people were singing this song about me and it just gave me this tremendous will to give something back, so I hope I did. There aren't many people who get their own song, especially at Liverpool.

"I think it (the Man Utd free-kick) was the best goal I ever scored - definitely the most important one in my career with Liverpool because it got me into the hearts of the Liverpool fans and it proved I could do stuff.

"It's been mentioned a few times after as well."

Ten years on from all this, having written his own little chapter in Liverpool history, Riise is back in English football having signed for Fulham, where he'll work under Martin Jol. His first opportunity to join the London club came prior to Liverpool displaying their interest in the summer of 2001.

"I was very close to signing for Fulham but Gerard Houllier called my agent and said he wanted me," remembers Riise, who was invited for a tour of Anfield with Houllier and his assistant Phil Thompson.

"It was quite an easy choice when I saw the stadium and I knew the reputation of the club. Gerard taught me a lot and he gave me the confidence to play. He gave me another chance if I got something wrong, so I have a lot to thank him for."

Without Houllier's intervention, Riise's career would have taken a very different path - but the full-back is philosophical when he looks back on the Frenchman's departure from Anfield in 2004.

For Riise, the heart surgery which prompted an enforced sabbatical in 2001-02 was the beginning of the end of Houllier's reign.

"After he got sick things changed a little bit," says the 96-time Norway international. "At first it was quite a shock (when he came back for the Roma match in 2002) because he had changed so much during his illness, body-wise.

"I think it took him a while to get back to his normal self because after what he had gone through he had to take it slowly.

"I think every club needs a change sometimes and it was good for Liverpool. I didn't want him to go because I was happy with him but the club needed a change."

While Houllier was reputed to have a close, almost fatherly relationship with his players, Benitez is sometimes portrayed - rightly or wrongly - as a colder presence in the dressing room.

So what differences did Riise notice?

"It was quite similar, actually," he says. "He (Benitez) was very powerful, a very strong person and we won some trophies under him. He gave me the best trophy I could win as a club footballer, the Champions League, so he's a manager I'll never say anything bad about."

Winning a fifth European Cup had been inconceivable at the start of Benitez's first season in charge, even more so when results started going badly in the group stages, but an unforgettable victory over Olympiacos teed up a last 16 clash with Bayer Leverkusen. Juventus were next to be dispatched, stunned into submission early doors at Anfield. Then it was Chelsea, and in the words of Riise, no one expected Liverpool to prevail.

"I remember the official putting six minutes on the clock and it was the longest six minutes in the world," he recalls.

"The atmosphere was unbelievable. I was down in my underpants after the game because I gave everything to the fans. That night will never be forgotten and in the dressing room it was crazy."

A model pro on and off the pitch, Riise was a favourite among Liverpoolfc.tv journalists during his Anfield years because a/ he always turned up early, and b/ he usually had something interesting to say.

Today is no different, and the defender is happy to go wherever our questions take him. But it is only when the events of May 25, 2005 are mentioned that he becomes restless in his chair.

"I was thinking of going home after that first half, it was horrible" says Riise, when asked about his mindset after goals from Paolo Maldini and Hernan Crespo (2) gave AC Milan a 3-0 lead.

"I don't think we played that badly, they just scored with every chance they had."

What occurred in the Liverpool dressing room during the 15-minute interval has been the subject to speculation and wonder ever since, even inspiring a full-length feature film.

Two questions often arise. The first is what Benitez said to his troops.

"He changed the system a little bit, changed a couple of players and he told us to listen to the fans," says Riise. "We started listening to the singing then, because we didn't before the game.

"He just told us to get that first goal and it can't get any worse. If you lose 3-0 or 6-0 it's the same thing so just play.

"At the end of Benitez talking we could hear the fans singing 'You'll Never Walk Alone' and that gave everyone a boost. We went out there fired up and trying to get that first goal as soon as possible."

The second question often put to those who were present in the guts of the Ataturk Stadium is whether, as legend would have it, the Milan players were celebrating.

"I didn't speak Italian then but I do now and there were a few people saying that this game was over, which was obvious because they were winning 3-0 and playing so good," reports Riise.

"But the game wasn't over, and it was very nice to beat them after we saw that.

"That's something special about Liverpool, you never give up."

Riise played his part in the comeback by providing the cross for Steven Gerrard's headed goal which made it 3-1. He then volunteered to take a penalty after 120 minutes of sporting theatre failed to establish a winner.

"Coming to penalties I was quite confident we were going to win it," says Riise, who by this stage was Liverpool's No.6, having worn No.18 through the Houllier era.

"I had cramp before the penalty and I was thinking of blasting it but I was scared of getting my cramp back. I didn't notice Dida had gone the same side for every penalty before me. I think I hit it quite well but he just got a hand on it.

"Stevie (Gerrard) came up and gave me a clap on the back. At that time you think the worst but it didn't take long to turn to happiness."

Happiness is surely underplaying it, especially as in his next answer Riise describes that evening in Turkey as the best night of his footballing life - although incredibly he has never watched the game back.

Within a year of Istanbul, Ginge and his teammates were in another final and again it proved to be a Did that just happen? occasion as Gerrard inspired another miraculous turnaround before penalties decided the destination of the 2006 FA Cup.

"I was the first one to go up to Benitez to tell him I wanted to take a penalty," explains Riise, who averaged just under 50 games a season in his time with the Reds.

"There was no doubt about what I was going to do this time.

"They (his teammates) didn't say anything. Nothing. I was just thinking about kicking that ball as hard as I could so, even if the keeper got to it, it would have been a goal."

Riise's theory proved correct and he could now add the FA Cup to his CV alongside the League Cup (2003), Champions League and Super Cup (2001 and 2005).

This list of honours is impressive enough to cope with a European Cup final defeat to AC Milan in 2007, but little did the defender know that he was about to enter his final campaign in L4.

It may never be known exactly why Benitez decided to invest in a new left-back but a costly own-goal during another Champions League semi-final with Chelsea in 2008 may well have sealed Riise's fate. It's a night he thinks about a lot.

"One second of bad judgement killed me," he says. "I was thinking about kicking it with my right foot or getting it away with a header. It skidded off my head and went into the top corner. It was a great goal but too bad it was in the wrong end.

"There and then I was very, very much down.

"It was a difficult three or four days. People come up and clap you on the back and say don't worry but how often do you end up in a Champions league final? I knew I had let the team down, the fans down and I had let myself down. I was not a person to talk to for the next three or four days.

"I regret doing it because I let so many people down and I think we could have won it that year. But I learnt from it and I grew from it and I'm a better person and player now."

Benitez had yet to reveal his intentions in the transfer market, but it was at this point Riise knew he was fighting for his Anfield future.

"I never thought I would be leaving at the end of the season but obviously after that own goal I scored against Chelsea I knew the pressure was going to be on," he says.

"I thought, 'Next season, I'm going to have to really step it up.'"

But next season never happened, at least not for Riise and Liverpool. As stated, he respected Benitez's honesty at the time, though he was distressed at not being given the opportunity to bid farewell to the Kop nor play the two games required to reach 350 for the club.

Though he is now at Fulham, the thought of joining another English club didn't appeal to Riise in 2008 and he signed for Serie A side Roma.

"At that point I couldn't go to another English club because I loved Liverpool so much and I didn't want to compete with them," he says.

With just one year remaining on his contract in the Italian capital, Riise decided to return to the English game this summer following months of speculation which even included rumours of a possible return to Liverpool.

He admits to being 'glad' at hearing such tittle tattle and that 'you can never say never' - though any prospect of a second coming now seems to be gone.

So how would the man himself like to be remembered by Liverpool fans?

"How? Not that own goal, that's for sure," he laughs. "I think as a guy who came and gave 110 per cent no matter what, a nice guy, loyal and never gave up. I tried to prove I was good enough and I hope I did that."

With the interview complete, all that's left is to ask Riise for another rendition of THAT song - this time with the cameras switched on.

"No, no, no!" he says. "I'll have to come back and score a goal at Anfield, then you might hear it, but I'm not singing on TV. I might later tonight though!"

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to follow up. Was a fan of the plentymorefish blog. How's the book coming along?