Few footballers have ever received a farewell so fitting as Vladimir Smicer at Liverpool, but it could have been oh-so different for one of the Reds' heroes of Istanbul.
The Czech midfielder, who turns 49 on Tuesday, more than played his part in the club's miraculous Champions League comeback triumph over AC Milan in 2005 – his final appearance in Liverpool colours. However, he was so nearly denied the chance to say his goodbyes. Had Smicer not confronted and called out Rafa Benitez 10 days prior to the epic final, he may never have featured on that fateful night in Istanbul.
And though Smicer didn't quite get the Anfield send-off he so desperately craved, he certainly ensured his name would go down in the club's folklore following his Champions League heroics. Smicer's Liverpool finale is some story.
As the 2004-05 campaign came to a close, the Czech midfielder was well aware his contract at the Merseyside club was coming to an end after six seasons. With that in mind, Smicer sought the opportunity to say farewell to Liverpool's adoring fans on the final day of the Premier League season against Aston Villa.
However, the ex-Red was left stunned at what happened next. Then-manager Benitez snubbed Smicer when it came to selecting his 16-man matchday squad, despite the absences of Steven Gerrard and Luis Garcia, leaving the midfielder heartbroken and without a chance to say goodbye.
“I wanted to play against Villa so badly,” Smicer told the Liverpool ECHO back in 2017. “Rafa said that Steven Gerrard and Luis Garcia would be rested. I thought: 'Great, there will be a place for me.'
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“The game was for nothing. We couldn't move up or down. When he put up the list I wasn't in the 16-man squad. I couldn't believe it. I thought: 'Oh my God, it's over.'
“I was angry that I couldn't play at least the last 10 minutes at Anfield to say goodbye to the fans. I was so unhappy but I didn't say anything that day."
Smicer would then seek out Benitez before expressing his disappointment and anger at the Spaniard's decision to deny him the opportunity to bid farewell to the club's fans. He added: “I later went to see Rafa and told him how disappointed I was and how I didn't deserve for things to finish like this for me at Anfield.
“I said to myself: 'The 16 from the Villa game, plus Stevie and Luis – that's the 18-man squad for Istanbul.' I thought it was over. Then on the Friday before the final Rafa put the list up for Istanbul and I was on it!
“I was very happy. I still believed I'd probably spend the whole game sat on the bench. I just hoped we'd win.”
However, Smicer would do more than just warm the bench on that now iconic night in Liverpool's history, 10 days after his brutal Villa snub. When Harry Kewell was forced off through injury in the 23rd minute, Benitez surprisingly turned to the midfielder as his replacement.
“I was warming up with Djibril Cisse and Didi Hamann and I was very surprised that Rafa picked me to go on,” Smicer added. “The same man 10 days before didn't even name me in the squad in a nothing game! Now in one of the most important games in the club's history he chooses me.
“The day before the final it was my birthday. I turned 32. In the final training session I'd been the joker. I felt good. When I went on I felt free in my head. I really wanted to play so badly."
What an inspired substitution it would turn out to be. The Reds famously found themselves 3-0 down come half-time as Hernan Crespo's brace added to Paolo Maldini's first-minute opener and left Liverpool will a mountain to climb.
Gerrard headed in a lifeline with 54 minutes on the clock before Smicer struck a long-range stunner two minutes later to move the Reds within one. Xabi Alonso then completed the comeback, dispatching the rebound after Milan stopper Dida denied him from the spot as Liverpool levelled the contest with three goals in six chaotic minutes.
“I scored a few goals from outside the box but none as important as that one," Smicer said. “When I hit it, I knew it had come off the sweet spot! Maybe Dida saw it a bit late and wasn't expecting it to come so fast. Stevie's goal gave us belief, when I scored we all knew it was game on.
"I was celebrating alone because everyone was running to the halfway line. Luis Garcia was putting the ball back in the middle and we were like: 'Let's go and get another.' When Jerzy [Dudek] made the miracle save from [Andriy] Shevchenko I thought: 'Come on, this is our cup. This has to be our night.'”
Dudek's stunning point-blank save in extra-time saw the epic encounter then head to penalties, where Smicer would step up to score the Reds fourth from the spot with his final kick in a Liverpool shirt. Smicer revealed: “I felt lonely stepping up.
"It was even bigger pressure for me because I knew it would be my last kick for Liverpool. I thought if I screw this up, there won't be a next game for me at Liverpool, there won't even be a next kick."
“I thought if I miss and we lose, I won't be able to ever go back to Liverpool! People would have said that's the guy who missed a penalty in Istanbul. I was nervous but I chose my side and I was glad that Dida went the other way."
Dudek then denied Shevchenko yet again, this time from the spot, to see Liverpool lift the Champions League trophy against all the odds and grant Smicer the fitting farewell he could only have dreamed of.
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