Daniel Sjolund has a number of Liverpool legends to thank for playing inadvertent roles in his dream move to Anfield.
The Finland international joined the Reds in a £1m deal from West Ham United in November 2000, in a move which saw Rigobert Song move the other way to Upton Park. Just 17 at the time, he had only been at West Ham less than a year, having impressed scouts with his impressive displays at international youth level.
A pacey and prolific striker, he had already had to leave his home on the Aland Islands for the sake of his football career. He moved to Stockholm to sign for IF Brommapojkarna as a 16-year-old, before the Hammers snapped him up after a matter of months. It was a lot of upheaval in a short space of time for any player, never mind a young teenager. And a chain reaction littered with Liverpool legends in the autumn of 2000 ultimately led to his biggest move yet.
This story starts with England opening their 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign at home to Germany in the last ever game at the Old Wembley on October 7. A 14th-minute free-kick from Reds midfielder Didi Hamann ultimately consigns the Three Lions to a 1-0 defeat.
Straight after the loss, Liverpool legend Kevin Keegan infamously resigns as England manager from inside the Wembley dressing room toilets. With the Three Lions in action again four days later away at Finland, they need a caretaker boss and fast.
Under-21s manager Howard Wilkinson is deemed the man for the job, handed a temporary promotion. Yet the young Lions are in action in Finland themselves on October 10 - the day before the senior side’s own game. So Liverpool legend - and then first-team coach under Gerard Houllier - Sammy Lee takes charge for the night.
England Under-21s would be held to a 2-2 draw in Finland, with David Dunn and Alan Smith, who was later sent off, on the scoresheet. It was Sjolund who was the star that night, though, opening the scoring before netting a late equaliser to claim an unlikely draw.
Lee was suitably impressed, with Sjolund supposedly on Liverpool’s radar before he even joined West Ham. Reporting back to Houllier, the Reds signed the young Finn themselves less than two months later.
“The game against England Under-21s, I scored twice and heard at the time and afterwards that that was maybe the main game that made Liverpool want to get me,” Sjolund admits in an exclusive interview with the ECHO. “But I also heard when West Ham came with the offer at the beginning, Liverpool was always watching me back then.
“Usually I don’t hear any names of who’s involved in transfers, the main guy who wants you to join, but I heard Sammy Lee was one of the coaches for England Under-21s back then. I think it was pretty quick after that game that they moved for me, and for me it was also pretty easy to decide to go to Liverpool.
“Looking back at it now, it was a really fun and good experience (at West Ham). But I probably moved a little bit too soon, I think. It was a big step for me but at the time, if you get the chance to play in a team like West Ham, or later on Liverpool as well, it’s hard to turn it down. So I dropped out of school, left and put it all in for football.
“I remember when Liverpool put the offer in, I had a meeting with Harry (Redknapp). For him, it was more up to me. ‘If you want to go, you go. If you want to stay, you can stay’. But it was up to me to decide if I wanted to go or not.
“The main part was I was going to be part of the first-team squad at Liverpool. I think also, at West Ham we had a good team. Good opportunity to make it as a footballer and be part of the first team later on.
“Maybe easier than at Liverpool, but of course West Ham had a good first team as well. But when the offer came, it’s really hard to turn down.
“I’d been supporting Liverpool since a young age, so to have that opportunity was really hard to say no to. It was a dream come true. So I took the chance and I left West Ham after roughly a year I think.”
A boyhood Liverpool fan, Sjolund had posters of Michael Owen and Co on his bedroom walls. Now, overnight, the teenager was training alongside his heroes. As a £1m signing, he admits he felt the pressure and was initially starstruck at Anfield.
“Yes and no,” he said about the pressure that accompanied his transfer. “I think it was quite natural in a way, but also coming to Liverpool and training with the first team and seeing my idols in training every day, I was very starstruck at the beginning at least.
“After a while, it becomes more natural. You are part of the team, but I was still very young. Maybe I would never get the chance again if I waited, but then again, maybe if I was three or four years older, it would be much easier I think to become a real part of the team and maybe easier to get a chance to play a little bit.
“I’m more a young player who comes in and trains with the first team but plays for the Under-19s and the reserves team at Liverpool. It was a good set-up for me to make it.
“Of course it was different. If you compare to the youth team at West Ham, we trained a lot, that’s the way it worked. You work really hard as a young player, then you make it and come into the first team.
“Then it becomes more that the games are the focus point. I actually thought the training was quite easy if you compare it. It was more important not to get injured, focus on the game and just prepare well.
“Of course you play so many more games in the first team. For me, it was really good to be at the age where I could play for the Under-19s and the reserve team. I played two games a week and also trained with the first team. I think it was really good for my development.”
He continued: “Stevie G (Steven Gerrard) is by far the best player I have seen in training and in games. He was incredible. Tough, strong, powerful shot, good technique.
“He had everything and you could see that in training. I remember going to watch the first-team games and if he wasn’t playing, it wasn’t the same. He’s the player that stands out.
“From a young age, it was more strikers I was looking at though. I played as a striker myself. Of course, goalscoring players are maybe the most fun players to watch.
“In my career, I became more of an attacking midfielder from the age of 22 or 23, and ended my career more as a sitting, holding midfielder. But at the time, I liked players like Robbie Fowler, Stevie G, Michael Owen.
“Players like that, young players coming up into the Liverpool team and doing well in the England squad as well. Those are the names I started watching more.”
Sjolund wasn’t the only Finn at Liverpool at the time. Sami Hyypia was already a vital member of Houllier’s side at the time, while Jari Litmanen joined the Reds weeks after the then-teenager. As two legends of Finnish football, Sjolund was honoured to play alongside the pair, who both made sure to look after their young compatriot.
He said: "They are big legends in Finnish football. There were a lot of big names in that squad that I was joining. Sami is a really nice guy of course. I remember he invited me to his home for dinner in the first week or so. I was very happy with that.
“I was very happy when Jari signed, too. I had met Jari through the national team. Also a really nice guy. He’s also a guy who is very, very professional.
“He liked to train a lot on his own, also extra on the side. He invited me a lot of times to play football tennis with him. To work on technique.
“It was really good to have guys like Sami and Jari in the dressing room, who had a lot of experience. If I had any questions, I knew I could ask them about anything.
“In the end as a young player, you get drawn to the other young players who are in the same situation. You don’t have a wife and kids, maybe. Other things to think about at that time.
“I also enjoyed living in digs. It was by Anfield, on Anfield Road, very close. I think everything in Liverpool is quite close but we actually stayed there, opposite the stadium.
“It was really nice, I had a really nice welcome to the club. Houllier, the coaches, and the players were really professional. I spent most of my time with the younger players who were in my situation.”
People quickly started to take notice of the highly-rated forward at Academy level as he enjoyed an impressive start to his Liverpool career, and was rewarded by being the extra man in Houllier’s first-team squad on occasions.
“I was confident. The feeling in every team I came to, the expectations,” he said. “To come to the Liverpool first team, ‘they’re going to be so good that I have no chance in training and I’m going to struggle’.
“But after a while you realise the level is really good, but it’s not impossible. And then you get more confident. The more confident you get, you also know the players better, so it’s easier.
“You can talk to them in the dressing room. They’re humans. Nothing extra. That’s how I felt at the time. It’s still really, really hard to make it, even if you are in that environment.
“To take the step, to actually go out at Anfield, go out there and play and perform in front of a crowd. It’s so many different things that can make it a lot harder.
“I also feel that I had a pretty good start coming there. I played pretty much two games every week and scored a few goals.
“I even joined the first-team squad for games against Roma away and also at home. That was a big moment. I was sitting in the stand but it was still a big moment to join the squad for a big European game.
“Looking back at it now, I don’t remember everything. But maybe I should have tried to learn more from these guys. Maybe, try to work extra hard, look at them, and see what I could improve.
“But I think that also comes with experience as you get older and you realise what you need to do to become a better player. I think I was too much just focssed on being a striker, scoring goals, and winning games. I think my knowledge of the game came a few years later.”
It’s now 23 years since Sjolund joined Liverpool and 20 years since he left the club. He would never make a first-team appearance or matchday squad. Looking back, it is too easy to dismiss him as a transfer flop who wasn’t up to the challenge.
But the Finn’s story is more complicated than that. The summer of 2001 saw him represent Finland in both the FIFA World Youth Championships in Argentina and UEFA European Under-18s Championship in Finland.
He would score once in the former as Finland were knocked out in the group stages, having locked horns with an Argentina side that contained the likes of Maxi Rodriguez, Javier Saviola, and Fabricio Coloccini. He’d then score three in the latter as another group-stage exit followed.
Yet coming half a year after moving to Liverpool, it was too much for his then 18-year-old body. At the time on the verge of making his Reds senior debut, he broke his foot at the start of pre-season and was left sidelined until the start of 2002.
The injury was ultimately a turning point in his Anfield career as he was left struggling with depression and homesickness.
“Of course you can look back at it and wonder what could have happened if I didn’t get the injury,” he said. “But my biggest problem with that was the mental part. I had never really got an injury that bad.
“I think I got it after playing the Under-20s World Cup in Argentina. Right after, I think I played in the Under-18s European Championships. I then had a short break before I came back for pre-season, and that’s when I got the injury.
“The injury itself, if I was more prepared for it or had had injuries before, I didn’t really know what it takes to come back. I think also when I came back, I think it was maybe the beginning of the year, January or February, I thought I was going to be in the same shape as I was before the injury.
“Of course, I wasn’t able to run as much. I lost the ball more. It was more in my head, I lost the confidence in my ability and what I could do. I was starting to doubt myself. That was the hard part I think. Coming into training and knowing that I would do my best, but it wasn’t good enough at the time.
“Then I also became older so couldn’t play for the Under-19s. It was only the reserves team, and there I also lost my place. You’re doubting yourself. I used to play two games a week and then I wasn’t playing at all. So yeah, it was tough.
“I also think I missed home more than I used, just because of how I was feeling. I just wanted to go back closer to my family and start enjoying my football again.”
He continued: “No, (I didn’t speak to Houllier or anyone at the club). Not really. These days, it’s more that you have people around you more. You talk about stuff and you try to work around it.
“You become stronger and prepare yourself for different things that could happen in your life or on the pitch, like injuries.
“At the time at Liverpool, I don’t think there was much of that. I didn’t talk to the manager that much about it, and no-one really of the coaches. I don’t think we had any like sports psychologists, nothing like that.
“I’m not blaming anyone, of course it’s up to me, but it’s the tough part of being a footballer. If you don’t make it, there is always someone else coming in to take your place.
“I think I could have gotten more out of my potential and my career I think if I would have been stronger myself, mentally, but also if I got more help with these things.”
Sjolund would end up getting his wish to return closer to home in 2003, joining Djurgardens IF before later signing for the Swedish club permanently. He had offers to remain in England, but he concedes moving to Scandinavia was essentially the death knell to his Liverpool career.
“I had opportunities to stay in England and go on loan to other clubs as well,” he revealed. “For me, I really wanted to go back (to Scandinavia). Sweden was my main goal at the time.
“We came to an agreement, the club and me, that it was best for everyone (for me to go out on loan). To play games, get first-team football again, and get back on track. Then we’d take it from there.
“The loan was for one year with Djurgardens in Sweden. Then I ended it up enjoying it so much and staying there for a long time.
“I didn’t have much contact with the club at the time and afterwards as well. I joined a really good team in Sweden. They won the league the year before I came there and had a really good team. A lot of Swedish legends, national team players.
“I didn’t know that much about the Swedish league. If you look at the stadiums and how big the crowds were at the games. Some derby games, you’d have 35,000 to 40,000 people watching the game.
“That was a really nice experience and also surprising, for me at least. I didn’t see the Swedish league that big, and it’s only been growing since.”
He continued: “I think I would have had a bigger chance of coming back and making it if I had stayed in England and maybe gone on loan to a club in a lower division in England instead.
“But at the time, I just felt like I just wanted to enjoy my football again and be closer to my family. So it wasn’t really an option for me to go back and try to start over.
“I think I needed a little bit more time as well to really come back. It took me almost two years at Djurgardens to actually become a key player in the team.
“When I also became a key player, I dropped back in position. I played more as a midfielder. That’s also maybe where I learned and got more knowledge of the game.
“I used to be quite quick as a striker and I scored goals. When I came to Liverpool, that wasn’t enough to perform at that level. In the end, I think midfield was my best decision.”
While Sjolund’s Liverpool career did not work out as planned, he has no regrets. He still trained with the first team and played alongside senior players at reserves level. And he was at his boyhood club when they famously won five cups in 2001.
Things might have turned out differently if not for injury the same year, but he was still given the opportunity to represent the Reds and live out his dream.
“Of course, I wanted to do more. I wanted to get more out of my Liverpool career,” he said. “But in the end, I still enjoyed those moments.
“I played a lot of reserve games with the first team players, I played a lot of games at Anfield. I played with big legends. I really enjoyed it.
“I am not regretting anything, I’m not looking back and thinking what could have happened. I really enjoyed it but I think I could have gotten more out of it.
“Of course, today I am too old, but it would be nice to have my knowledge today and have the same opportunity I think.
“I still have the picture with the five cups Liverpool won that year. It’s a really nice memory to have been part of it. The history shows that Liverpool are a really good team and should be up there.
“They have showed that again the last few years. Maybe the toughest part was really competing for the Premier League title. But back then, the team was so strong that they could make it and win cups. They could win cups in Europe.
“But it was really hard to take that last step to compete for the Premier League title. But now, they’ve done brilliantly the last few years and it’s really nice to follow as a supporter. I have a lot of good memories from watching finals and enjoying very big moments.”
He continued: “I look back at it as a really good experience. I got the chance to play and train with the Liverpool first team. Watching all the games and even being part of the squad.
“I really enjoyed my time there, before the injury. Let’s say it like that. I think also, a young player goes abroad to play. If you’re not fit to play, because that’s why you’re there and that’s when you enjoy your life there. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to enjoy it.
“But when I look back it, I’m really happy that I took the chance to go there. Nice memories overall, nothing bad to say about it. I’m happy and have good memories.
“For me it was a dream come true. If I would choose one place to go, it would be Liverpool. It was a really big thing for me to go there and get the chance to play for Liverpool.”