Scott Groom spoke to Liverpool icon John Arne Riise about his time at Liverpool, 17 years after he signed for the Reds.
“Seventeen years ago, wow!”
He still can’t quite get his head around the fact that it was indeed 17 years ago that he made the switch from AS Monaco to Liverpool. Time flies when you’re having fun, so they say.
But it is indeed true that all those years ago, Gerard Houllier acquired the signature of 20-year-old Norwegian left-back John Arne Riise. A relative unknown to the majority of Liverpool fans at the time, Riise came in as a man in whom Houllier saw plenty of potential after he was frozen out at Monaco. However, it was almost a totally different start to life in the Premier League for Riise.
“I was in France and was supposed to sign with Jean Tigana and Fulham. The contract was done and we were sat around a table ready to sign it. Tigana took me to Monaco and I was really excited to sign for him again and to play in the Premier League. I had the pen in my hand, ready to sign when my agent’s phone rang.
“I wasn’t happy but he answered the call while I waited. It was Liverpool asking if I had signed yet. My agent said no and Liverpool told me to get on a plane and get to Liverpool as they wanted me.”
It was then a one-way street, with no looking back as far as John was concerned. The magic and aura of Liverpool Football Club and its spiritual home of Anfield not only turned his head, but his heart too.
“I met Gerard Houllier and Phil Thompson who gave me a tour of Anfield while my agent had meetings with the Club.
“I remember telling my agent: ‘I don’t care about the contract, just get it done’. Liverpool is the biggest club in Norway. When they want you, you don’t say no. It’s that simple.”
From there, the relevant paperwork was completed, terms agreed and Liverpool secured Riise’s services for £4 million.
Despite coming from humble beginnings back in Norway, the reach of Liverpool Football Club was something that John was more than familiar with before he moved to Merseyside. But even he admits that he was taken aback by the sheer magnitude of the Club and the importance it holds with its fans.
“To be honest I didn’t know how big Liverpool was. I knew they were big, but not THAT big!” John explains.
Even though John describes Liverpool as Norway’s biggest club, the huge contingent of Reds based in his homeland did not immediately give his move to Anfield as much backing as you might think. The now 37-year-old recalls Norwegians doubting whether he would make it as a Liverpool player, but he was hell-bent on proving them wrong.
“I remember a lot of Norwegian Liverpool fans were not happy and said I wasn’t even close to being good enough to play for the Club. It was strange to hear from my own people and supporters of the Club, but I believed in my ability and I was sure I could take on this challenge.
“I was 20 and had nothing to lose. I was so happy and excited, but signing doesn’t mean you have made it. I wanted to make a name for myself and make people proud.”
It is something that we see quite often with young players making their first move to English football – the magnetism and pressure that comes with playing in the biggest league in the world for some of the biggest clubs can either make or break a player.
John was also joining a team that had just enjoyed a trophy-laden season, adding yet more pressure to an already daunting scenario. Houllier had led the Reds to UEFA Cup, FA Cup and League Cup glory during the 2000/2001 season, but this did not perturb Riise in his efforts to make an instant impact.
“I was young, pressure didn’t get to me in the same way. I also felt that I wasn’t a massive signing. People didn’t really know about me but I planned to let them know who ‘the ginge’ was.
“I was just really happy to walk in the dressing room and be able to talk to the likes of Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard. For a young boy from a small city in Norway, this was massive! I was nervous but ready to show them what I could do.”
“When I sign for a club, I make it my mission to show the other players who I am as a person and that I am good enough. That has always been the thing for me, no matter where I have played.”
John wasn’t about to wait until the season began to make his mark on the squad, either. Such was his determination to be a success; he set the bar high during his first session at Melwood.
“You have to show respect for the other players, the club and the manager. The best way to do that is to work harder than anybody else and play well. At Liverpool, I did that by winning the big fitness test in my first session. That way you get the respect from the players and coaches, and you prove to yourself that you are good enough.”
It wasn’t just on the training pitch that Riise made his presence felt instantly. During his debut on 24 August 2001, he scored against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Super Cup as Liverpool ran out 3-2 winners, and then scored an impressive solo goal against Liverpool’s bitter rivals from across Stanley Park, Everton, at Goodison Park.
On the goal, Riise said: “It was an amazing feeling just to be able to start in that game. To play well, score and win was a big bonus. That goal gave me confidence and made my life a lot easier. Nothing is better than to score against the Blues so early in your Liverpool career.”
It was quite the start to make for a young man from Molde, a Norwegian town with a total population that would only half-fill Anfield. Bold, aggressive, eye-catching displays became the norm for Riise right from the off, and he quickly endeared himself to the Liverpool faithful.
He provided memorable moments, including stunning strikes such as ‘that’ free-kick against Manchester United at Anfield, and played with a genuine affection and affinity with Kopites. Perhaps it was this relationship that Riise shared with the fans that helped propel him to such heights during his time at Anfield.
“Having the respect, love and support from the fans was the one thing I really wanted. Without that you are mentally going to struggle. Going on the pitch knowing people don’t like you is not easy.”
But people didn’t just like John, they loved him. They still do. The former number six still holds a place in the heart of Liverpool fans to this day, and will forever be immortalised in Liverpool folklore as part of the team who held the Champions League trophy aloft in Istanbul in 2005.
That night in Turkey is evidently a moment John will forever hold dear as his fondest memory of being a Red, but the underlying feeling of belonging and love for the Club is what means the most to him, even after all of this time.
“My proudest moment? To be honest, it’s just being given a chance to put the red shirt on and to be able to show the best fans in the world what I can do.
“All I wanted to do was to be remembered as a player who gave it all for the club and the fans. I have been very lucky to be part of the Liverpool Football Club’s history.”