At almost every successful club there’s ‘that’ player. He’s the one often closest to the hearts of the fans. Not the best in any particular position necessarily, but the guy who, whenever asked to fill a role will do it with boundless enthusiasm. He’ll come up with the big goals when the more celebrated stars fail to click and love every minute of his time with the club.
In August 2006, Liverpool acquired the services of such a player when manager Rafa Benítez signed Dirk Kuyt from Feyenoord. If the Dutchman had been successful in Holland – missing only five games across seven seasons and netting 150 goals in a shade more than 300 appearances, and topping the goalscoring charts in the 2004-05 season with 36 goals from just 44 games – his contribution to Liverpool’s success could be argued to be even greater.
Arriving at the club as a striker, but later migrating into a wide midfield position, and then later in his career as a roving wing-back, Kuyt would demonstrate to Liverpool fans that here was a player who would deliver consistent performances even though he wasn’t necessarily the most talented player in the squad. He would also display similar talent for the Dutch national team. When earning his 100th international cap for the Oranje, Kuyt began the game as a left wing-back, but migrated as the game progressed and his coach required through switching flanks to right-back, stepping forward as a striker and then back to right-back again. The greatest Dutch player of all time, Johann Cruyff would later remark that the Dutch were “blessed” to have such a player at their disposal. It’s a feeling that Liverpool fans on The Kop may well echo.
Scoring a hat-trick against fierce rivals Manchester United is always guaranteed to earn a place in the hearts of the Anfield faithful and it’s a feat that Kuyt achieved in particularly distinctive terms. Such was the peculiarity of the goals that if you added the cumulative distance of each strike, it’s questionable if it would total much more than five yards. Such fine points mattered little to Kuyt though – or Liverpool fans to be honest.
Having a knack of getting key goals in the big games also marks out the importance of players to a club, and aside from that short-range hat-trick against United, Kuyt would perform other similar feats across his half-dozen seasons on Merseyside. Four strikes against Arsenal and Manchester United, and three against Chelsea in his time with Liverpool shows that he was a player particularly attuned to the requirements of key games that would go towards deciding the destination of trophies.
Among those goals, a record of five strikes in Merseyside Derby games is important for the pride of local fans, and on a wider stage, he would convert the winning penalty against José Mourinho’s Chelsea in the 2007 Champions League semi-final sending the Reds to Athens for the final against AC Milan. Kuyt would play every minute of the final as well. Although the Rossoneri would claim their revenge in that game for the loss in Istanbul, twelve months earlier, Kuyt would give Liverpool what in the end turned out to be a forlorn hope, by cutting the Italians’ lead with a late strike to offer the Reds a lifeline.
Looking back, it seems difficult to believe that Kuyt only secured one trophy during his time with Liverpool. It was in the 2012 League Cup Final. By now however, Benítez had left the club and the brief and unhappy tenure of Roy Hodgson had also come and gone, replaced by club favourite Kenny Dalglish in January of that year.
With the Scot at the helm, it became increasingly clear that Kuyt’s days at the club may have been numbered. The signings of Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez effectively blocked out first team opportunities as a striker and with a midfield comprising the irreplaceable Steven Gerrard, plus other arrivals Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam, the Dutchman was often squeezed out of the starting eleven. Dirk Kuyt would only score five times in his final season with the club. It was the only time he failed to register double figures whilst on Merseyside.
A week or so before the final, Kuyt scored against Wolverhampton Wanderers, making him only the fifth player ever to notch 50 Premier League strikes for the club. It wasn’t enough to earn him a starting place at Wembley though. For the final, against Cardiff City, Kuyt was given a place on the bench, but with the scores tied a 1-1 after 90 minutes, Dalglish withdrew Carroll and sent the Dutchman on, just before the interval in extra time. In typical ever-reliable Dirk Kuyt fashion, five minutes later, he netted to put Liverpool apparently on the road to success, before a late goal from Ben Turner forced a penalty shootout. Given Kuyt’s ability from the spot, he was always going to be selected for the penalty lottery, but when his turn came to take third kick for the Reds, the pressure was ramped up even higher as both Gerrard and Adam had already failed to score. Kuyt netted with his usual aplomb, and Liverpool recovered their composure to see out the other spot kicks and lift the trophy.
At the end of the season, with the future looking less than promising for first team action, Kuyt left Anfield and moved to Fenerbahçe. He’d play for the Süper Lig club for three seasons, before an emotional return to Rotterdam and Feyenoord to see out the final years of his career.
Mentioning that it seemed strange that this was the only trophy Kuyt lifted wearing the Anfield red, it’s also worth noting that, to date, it’s also the last trophy that Liverpool have won. For all their apparent success since 2012, with the arrival big name players and a couple of new managers to boot, Liverpool have not lifted a trophy in the six seasons since Dirk Kuyt left the club. Some may contend that the drought is likely to end soon, and that may well be correct. Sometimes however, to get a club over the line, to do the things that are needed and to score the vital goals in the big games, you need to sign a player like Dirk Kuyt.