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When remembering great Liverpool central defensive partnerships throughout the years, many names spring to mind. Emlyn Hughes and Phil Thompson. Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson. Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypiä. Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk have similar potential. It is a storied list, but it feels incomplete. During the reign of Gérard Houllier as Liverpool boss, the Reds boasted one of Europe’s meanest defences, marshalled at centre-back by Hyypiä and Swiss international Stéphane Henchoz. His name is never likely to come easily to most football fans, but his ability for Liverpool was undoubted and his quality is criminally underrated.
Arriving on Merseyside from Blackburn Rovers for just £3.5 million ahead of the 1999/2000, Henchoz immediately helped to transform a Liverpool side plagued by inconsistency and defensive lapses. The year before, Liverpool had conceded 49 goals in the Premier League alone, but the partnership created by Henchoz and Hyypiä shored up the back-line with the Reds only allowing 30 goals in both players first season, a league best. The following season would prove to be the one for which the Swiss defender is best remembered.
Since the heyday of the 1980s, Liverpool had struggled to compete and win major trophies. Much like the proverbial buses, after waiting six seasons, three came along at once. In one of the most successful seasons in Liverpool’s storied history, Henchoz played a key role in delivering success as only five players appeared more times than his 53 total – Emile Heskey (56), Jamie Carragher (58), Sami Hyypiä (58), Markus Babbel (60) and Sander Westerveld (61).
Henchoz played a key role in the cup finals, but one which defied his usual composed manner. In League Cup final, played against Birmingham City, Liverpool held a 1-0 lead heading into the 90th minute after a first-half Robbie Fowler effort. With 92 minutes on the clock, Birmingham pumped the ball into the box, Liverpool failed to clear, and Henchoz rushed into an uncharacteristically rash challenge and brought down Martin O’Connor to give away the penalty. Darren Purse would step up to score the resulting penalty. The match would ultimately be decided on penalties, with Liverpool triumphing 5-4, and the rare error by Henchoz went unpunished.
The FA Cup final of 2001 is often remembered for two major moments; the brilliance of Michael Owen in single handedly winning Liverpool the match and for the controversial decision to not award Arsenal a first-half penalty after a handball by the Swiss defender. With Arsenal predictably dictating the majority of the play, Thierry Henry broke through the Liverpool defence and, after rounding goalkeeper Sander Westerveld, was clear on goal with only Henchoz covering. The defender narrowed the angle for the French striker, covering the near post with his body, but a body feint from Henry created space and Henchoz instinctively stuck his left arm out and deflected the shot wide.
The game is remembered fondly by Liverpool fans for the heroics of Owen, but the defensive partnership between Henchoz and Hyypiä that was displayed during the cup final was testament to the qualities of both defenders.
Liverpool’s usually solid defence under Houllier was surprisingly undone by a determined Alaves side in the UEFA Cup final, with a 5-4 epic only being decided during the extra-time period by an own goal. Just ten minutes into the second half, with Alaves having recovered from 3-1 to 3-3, Henchoz was sacrificed for midfielder Vladimir Šmicer in an effort to provide Liverpool with more attacking impetus. It was a tactical decision, but still one which meant that has seen Henchoz’s contributions to Liverpool’s successes minimised.
The Swiss defender would never have another season as strong as the treble winning one, eventually losing his place entirely with the arrival of Rafa Benitez in 2004 who favoured a partnership between Hyypiä and Carragher. Henchoz would move to Blackburn after leaving, but his career never reached the heights that he reached at Liverpool.
Whilst he may never be the most fashionable or well-remembered defender in Liverpool’s history, his record was impressive and his commitment to Liverpool places him amongst the pantheon of star Liverpool defenders.