Stephane Henchoz was a defensive stalwart for Liverpool for five seasons before being frozen out by new boss Rafa Benitez in January 2005
“I had five great years with Liverpool, followed by six bad months.”
For five seasons, Stephane Henchoz was a mainstay in Liverpool’s backline. Signed from Blackburn Rovers in a £3.5m deal from Blackburn Rovers in the summer of 1999, he quickly became a key player for the Reds, forging a famous centre-back partnership with Sami Hyypia as they won the treble and qualified for the Champions League under Gerard Houllier.
Having helped Liverpool forge one of the meanest defences in England, it was no coincidence that the Reds’ form under the Frenchman faltered when the Switzerland international started to endure prolonged periods on the sidelines through injury.
Yet when Houllier left the club in the summer of 2004 and was replaced by Rafa Benitez, it was the beginning of the end for Henchoz. Not that he knew that at the time.
“Stephane is the quiet guy at the back, the unsung hero, but no-one should under-estimate his value to us,” Houllier had once said of the centre-back. “Our fans know just how good he is and so do his team-mates.” It appears his new manager did not agree.
Fully fit again in time for Benitez’s arrival, he featured throughout pre-season and even scored in a friendly vs Celtic. But come the start of the season he didn’t get a look in.
As good as the Swiss’ partnership with Hyypia had been, his new manager had decided to break it up as Jamie Carragher was moved to centre-back. In truth, the Reds would have no regrets given in hindsight but it still stung for Henchoz.
An unused substitute in Benitez’s first two games against Grazer AK and Tottenham Hotspur, he rarely made a matchday squad appearance after that. He did start the home leg defeat against Graz, reinstated next to Hyypia as he made his first appearance of the season in the process, but that would be the final time Liverpool fans would witness their pairing, with his final three appearances for the club all coming alongside kids and reserves in the League Cup.
Out of contract in the summer of 2005, the writing was on the wall for Henchoz with Benitez making that clear when he did speak publicly about the Switzerland international.
“Henchoz will not travel to Monaco,” he said in November 2004 ahead of a Champions League group game. “I need to talk with him again about his future. You cannot lie to players, you have to tell them when they are through. But Stephane is a good professional and he knows the situation.”
Henchoz was a good professional for Liverpool and was indeed the quiet guy at the back. But that didn’t stop him from slamming Benitez during his final months at the club, having been frozen out, as he refused to leave unless given a free transfer ahead of a mid-season move to Celtic.
“I’m the king of the exiles here so, as far as I’m concerned, it’s finished for me at Liverpool,” he said. “In my head it’s as if I’ve already left. Besides, people are treating me as if I don’t exist any more. No-one’s shown me any respect and Rafael Benítez, since his arrival, has treated me as if I was the dumbest of the dumb.
“I’ll only leave if I go as a free agent. Liverpool won’t get a penny. After everything the coach has put me through, I’m not going to give him that parting gift (of a fee).
“I’m not going to leave simply for the sake of leaving. I’ve got two or three possibilities already and things are starting to move behind the scenes.”
Before his departure was sanctioned in January, Henchoz did briefly train alongside his replacement, Mauricio Pellegrino, who reunited with Benitez after joining from Valencia. Safe to say the Switzerland international was not impressed.
“Just before I left Liverpool last January was when they brought in Pellegrino,” he told the Mail on Sunday. “And maybe, after 10 days training with him, well, that’s when I started asking questions.
“I just thought, ‘am I so bad that they want me to leave and they want him?’ I think I was right as well because I saw Pellegrino play for Liverpool and I thought, ‘yes, I could have done the job he did for them, at the very least’.
“It was such a bad season for me. I spent six months with Liverpool hardly getting a game. I had played for five years at Anfield and then never got a game when Benitez arrived, apart from three in the Carling Cup.
“I was never given a chance and that hurts. It was never really explained to me. Admittedly I never really asked the manager, but he never said anything either, never said I wasn’t good enough. Even now they are talking about signing another centre half.”
Henchoz’s anger over his exit would gradually subside, but that didn’t mean he understood why he was frozen out by Benitez.
“I had five great years with Liverpool, followed by six bad months,” Henchoz told PA Sport in December 2005 ahead of his first return to Anfield, having signed for Wigan Athletic in the summer after leaving Celtic. “There was sadness at the way it all ended, though.
You would not be normal if you weren’t sad after the time spent there and the trophies won and the success we had. I really enjoyed it. I guess everything has to end some time, although I didn’t want it to end as soon as it did.
“Last season was really the low point of my career so far, with those six months under Benitez proving to be really hard. I barely played a game. I was rarely given a chance to play. It’s not like I played two or three successive games and was bad.
“When you don’t have a chance to prove what you can do, it’s not fair and very difficult to understand, but that’s the way it was.”
“I think he has some arrogance about him, the way he speaks to the players and the way he treats the players, is not always the best,” he would say of his former manager years later after Benitez took interim charge of Chelsea.
“Even if you are professional you would like the manager to have a few words and speak to you. He only speaks to you when he needs you or wants something from you. Even Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, who spent a lot of time with him, didn’t like him that much.”
And seeing Liverpool win the Champions League in Istanbul just a few months after his exit was even harder for Henchoz as, while happy for his former team-mates, it left him with regrets as he tried in vain to avoid the celebrations.
“It was a hard time for me, the lowest in my career,” he admitted. “The worst was when I went to Celtic and watched Liverpool win the Champions League from my hotel room in Glasgow.
“When you think only three-and-a-half months before I was there and maybe could have been part of that success. I had mixed feelings. It was great for the lads and the club I love. I regretted what happened at that stage.
“The next day I was in the hotel room again and saw the celebrations when the team came home. It was on every channel, I was trying to avoid it but I couldn’t.”