Lucas Leiva had heard the lament many times before but it was still a surprise when it was repeated at his testimonial dinner by Jürgen Klopp.
An atypical Brazilian would be the politest summary of the Liverpool manager’s on-stage “tribute” in April, when he gave thanks that he could at least rely on Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino to sprinkle the team with ingenuity and flair. It went unsaid but Liverpool could rely on the duo’s less-heralded compatriot for almost everything else.
The Liverpool squad have lost their longest-serving player with Lucas’ £5m transfer to Lazio. The club is not losing its most gifted or decorated player and many will be bemused by any fuss over the midfielder’s departure after 10 years but Klopp is losing an asset that he, and Liverpool managers before him, came to trust implicitly and value for his influence on and off the pitch.
That Lucas remained at Liverpool long enough to have a testimonial tribute and Klopp was the fifth manager to appreciate his contribution reflects a successful fight for recognition. He exits having made 346 competitive appearances for the club he joined from Grêmio for £5m in 2007 and with a degree of respect that would have been difficult to envisage during his initial struggles in Rafael Benítez’s team. Lucas competed with Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano for a central midfield position and was judged by their lofty standards. The cries of “shoot, shoot” whenever Lucas took possession in his final game at Anfield, against Middlesbrough on the last day of the season, when Liverpool reclaimed entry into the Champions League, underlined how far his relationship with supporters had come.
“It’s been an incredible 10 years,” said Lucas that day, after being presented with a commemorative trophy by Kenny Dalglish. “We all know it’s been a little bit like a rollercoaster, a lot of ups and downs, but I’m so proud to wear this shirt every day of my life. This club made me better as a person, as a player, I have two kids born in Liverpool. For sure, my kids will be really proud when they grow up, come to Anfield and watch games, and know their dad played for Liverpool.”
The words, and the ovation they triggered, were heartfelt. Lucas and his family have always intended to return to Brazil when his playing days end but have subsequently considered keeping a base in Liverpool too, such is their affection for the club and the city. A rollercoaster has its downs and being booed by a section of the Anfield crowd against Fulham in November 2008 was “the worst moment,” he later admitted. There was hardly an interview with Lucas during his early years on Merseyside that did not reference criticism from the crowd.
A cruciate ligament injury cost the midfielder the opportunity to play in two Wembley finals under Dalglish and two years of his international career. Liverpool’s only trophy during Lucas’ time at the club, the 2012 League Cup, arrived three months after he suffered the injury in the quarter-final victory at Chelsea. His involvement in the cup run was enough for Lucas to take great pride in his winners’ medal, presented to him at Melwood after Dalglish and the then director of football Damien Comolli had ordered an extra one.
The battle for approval extended to Liverpool managers too with the exception of Benítez, who signed him and stood by him throughout. Klopp, like Brendan Rodgers, did not have Lucas in his first-choice plans but turned to him at key moments. Having been selected in central defence ahead of established defenders last season, Lucas produced a dominant man of the match display when restored to midfield against Everton in April. His reaction on the final whistle demonstrated how much it meant to someone from Dourados, Brazil, to win one last Merseyside derby, and silenced perhaps even his own doubts about contributing at the highest level.
Behind the scenes there was no doubting the extent of Lucas’ contribution in the Liverpool dressing room. Fluent in Spanish, English and Portuguese he took the lead in helping foreign imports settle, not least Coutinho whose contentment on Merseyside has brought reassurance for Klopp amid the reported interest from Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain. Lucas threw himself into ambassadorial duties for the Liverpool Foundation, the club’s charity arm, with equal relish.
As captain Jordan Henderson reflected following the Anfield derby last season: “Any person joining Liverpool who is looking for a role model or an example to follow then, for me, you look no further than Lucas Leiva. In simple terms he sets the standard of professionalism and attitude of what it is to be a Liverpool player. In the dressing room there is no one who is respected or admired more.
“I think from the outside he is often portrayed as being the ‘go-to person’ for our lads from his own country or any Spanish or Portuguese-speaking players who join Liverpool but that does him a massive disservice. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of his influence. I came from the north-east and the help and support he gave me initially and still gives me to this day is massive. It doesn’t matter to Lucas whether you’re from Runcorn or Rio, he’ll make time for you and look to offer his experience to help individuals or the team when it’s needed.”
Lucas has more to offer aged 30 than a bit-part role on the pitch at Liverpool. Klopp, despite the jokes at Liverpool’s atypical Brazilian, recognised as much with some reluctance.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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