IN THE MODERN AGE of the game, it has become customary to see players traverse across a whole host of different clubs throughout the duration of their career. It is harder than ever for academy prospects to break into the senior side at their first club and establish themselves in the long term. Expensive signings are brought in from elsewhere as a fast track to success at the top level. If they reach a certain level, the top clubs will secure their services; if a player underperforms, they will more often than not be moved on elsewhere.
Patience is a precious commodity in top-level football today – a luxury that top clubs simply cannot afford if they are to consistently compete at the top. Perhaps this is why is has become increasingly rare to see players remain at one club for such a prolonged period of time so that they create a legacy – their own piece of history and an emotional bond with the supporters that lasts far beyond their time at the club. Players will come and go on a seasonal basis, but few will ever write their name into the hearts of supporters for years thereafter.
Daniel Munthe Agger is representative of a dying breed of footballer. The Dane joined Liverpool from Brøndby IF in a £6 million deal in the January transfer window of 2006 under the management of Rafa Benítez, the season after Liverpool’s iconic Champions League triumph in Istanbul against AC Milan. Throughout an eight-and-a-half-year spell on Merseyside, Agger established himself as a genuine fan favourite, a player whose relationship with Liverpool supporters remains full of mutual respect and affection today.
Renowned for his elegant playing style and cultured left foot, Agger was never an orthodox defender. Always willing to step forward into midfield with the ball at his feet, capable of picking out a team-mate with a raking cross-field pass, Agger made the art of defending graceful to watch.
There were, of course, weaknesses to his game as he was sometimes bullied in the air and occasionally caught on his heels. He was not blessed with a great deal of pace, either. Yet the degree of skill and intelligence with which Agger plied his craft made him a truly fine defender – one who could have reached the pinnacle of the sport had injuries not prevented him from fulfilling his vast potential.
The fitness issues began for Agger immediately upon his arrival in England, making just four appearances in his first half-season at Liverpool and missing out on their 2006 FA Cup final victory over West Ham, widely remembered for Steven Gerrard’s stunning 90th-minute volley to equalise and force extra-time ahead of a penalty shootout triumph.
The 2006-07 season saw Agger compete with two Liverpool stalwarts for a place in the side, with displacing Jamie Carragher or Sami Hyypiä no simple challenge. A thunderous 35-yard strike in front of the Kop against West Ham in August 2006 turned out to be the first of a series of memorable strikes by the Dane, whose ability to strike a ball so cleanly with such venom from distance became a trademark throughout his career.
After a poor first-leg performance at Stamford Bridge in the 2007 Champions League semi-final, Agger curled in another superb finish from a Gerrard free-kick at Anfield as Liverpool sent Chelsea crashing out of the competition on penalties to reach their second European final in just three seasons. The Reds were defeated 2-1 in Athens by AC Milan on this occasion, but Agger’s reputation at the club was already growing, along with a penchant for delivering in crucial moments.
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The 2007-08 season saw Agger repeatedly struggle with a metatarsal injury which eventually required surgery after ruling him out for the majority of the campaign. Fit-again the following season, Agger celebrated his latest 30-yard scorcher, this time against Blackburn, by pointing to the sky in memory of the 96 who died in the Hillsborough disaster.
It was a poignant tribute from a player who embraced the culture of Liverpool, both as a football club and as a city, ever since his arrival in 2006. With the letters YNWA tattooed on each of the fingers on his right hand, Agger’s loyalty and commitment to the club endeared him to the supporters in a way only a select few players have done over the years.
In an era where lucrative contracts are often enough to tempt players to switch clubs and move countries, such loyalty is difficult to find, especially among foreign players that have no emotional or family attachment to the club they play for. There came a stage in Agger’s career where Barcelona registered strong interest in his services. Manchester City, a rapidly emerging force in English football at the time, also made two bids for the player.
Agger could have accepted either of these offers and earned vastly superior wages to what he was on at Liverpool. At Barcelona he could have joined arguably the greatest side in world football and had a virtual guarantee of winning silverware. He could have handed in a transfer request to force a move. It would not have been unreasonable on Agger’s part.
In 2012 he was named Danish Footballer of the Year for the second time and, at his peak, he was up there with some of the finest defenders in Europe.
Footballers have short careers and when the opportunity comes to play at the highest level possible, most will grasp the opportunity. Agger was different, though. Liverpool wanted to retain his services and he acted with total respect and dignity to the club. Speaking to The Guardian in 2013, he explained: “Liverpool will always be the club that have given me almost everything in my career. When the time comes for me to leave, I want to have the same relationship with Liverpool that I have now.”
That same relationship is exactly what Agger has managed to uphold to this day. Such strong appreciation of what Liverpool gave him is reflective of the humble and principled character which led to him developing such a close emotional bond with the club’s supporters.
The saddest thing about Agger’s career was the way in which it rapidly deteriorated from such an early age. The back problems which began in 2007 became so severe that he required surgery in August 2009, serving only to prolong his career – an injury which would never truly be resolved. Agger managed just 21 appearances in the 2010-11 season due to injury, while he also fell victim to Roy Hodgson’s team selection, with Martin Škrtel taking his place in the side.
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Speaking of life under Hodgson, Agger said: “I completely lost my desire to come to work. It was so uninspiring.”
Agger did feature in Liverpool’s League Cup final victory over Cardiff in 2012, but was replaced during the match due to a rib injury. He later signed a new long-term deal at the club in October 2012, before being named as the club’s new vice-captain the following summer after Jamie Carragher’s retirement.
It could have been the season when Liverpool won their 19th title, and it could have been the season when Agger cemented his place as a Liverpool great. As it happened, it proved to be the beginning of the end for Agger at Liverpool. The £17 million arrival of Mamadou Sakho from Paris Saint-Germain saw Agger lose his place in the side, significantly reducing his game time.
Agger has since revealed that he felt only capable of playing at between 70 to 80 percent of his capacity in his final two seasons at Liverpool, which goes a considerable way to explaining the growing inconsistency in his performance level. Suffering a prolapsed disc in his back, Agger admitted to regularly taking well over the recommended dose of anti-inflammatory drugs, which impacted both his ability to perform and long-term physical health. Severe tiredness resulted in Agger regularly consuming unhealthy amount of caffeine to compensate before matches.
Not only was Agger’s physical condition worsening at an alarming rate, his relationship with Liverpool manager at the time, Brendan Rodgers, also played a major part in his eventual decision to leave the club. He explains: “In 42 days I went from being first choice and the club’s new vice-captain to be fourth choice centre-back.”
On 23 February 2014 it reached breaking point as Rodgers criticised Agger and his defensive partner, Škrtel, for allowing Swansea City striker Wilfried Bony to have too much time and space on the ball. Agger responded: “How can you stand there and say that when we are only doing what you have been going on about all week.”
Rodgers’ reply? “Whatever.”
Agger was substituted 12 minutes later.
From thereon in, the relationship was beyond the point of repair. What had been a harmonious career at the club – never embroiled in any conflicts or controversies – had come to a sad and bitter conclusion.
Agger scored an equaliser in a 2-1 win against Newcastle on the final day of the 2013-14 season after Liverpool’s devastating end to what was a remarkable title challenge. It turned out to be Agger’s last game for the club; a fitting way to sign off, with a goal in front of the Kop.
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A whole host of European clubs were interested in Agger’s signature in the summer of 2014 but he stayed true to his principles in typically honest and admirable fashion: “I could probably have gotten a contract with a bigger club and earned more money, but that is not important for me. I want to be happy with what I am doing.”
Agger was only ever going to leave Liverpool for one club, Brøndby IF, where it all began 10 years earlier. He eventually rejoined in a £3 million deal after 232 appearances and 14 goals for Liverpool.
“Since I left Brøndby in 2005 I have always dreamt of one day returning and playing in the yellow jersey again. It is fantastic that it is now coming true.”
For Agger, football was never about the money. It was about having a fulfilling career and staying loyal to those who had given him so much support throughout his time at Liverpool. The thought of playing for a rival club seemed incomprehensible to him.
After two seasons in Denmark, the time came for Agger to finally hang up his boots. The injuries were getting to the point where his body simply could not cope with the demands of the sport any longer. He said upon his retirement: “I am in a place where I have had enough, mentally and physically. I don’t want to embark on a downward spiral. I want to quit somewhere near the top.”
On 9 June 2016, Agger finally announced his retirement from football at the age of 31. Among Brøndby and Liverpool fans alike, he remains a cult figure who commands huge respect. Agger’s career yielded some wonderful moments and unforgettable goals. He became captain of his country and tallied up 75 international caps and 12 goals for Denmark. His career is, in so many ways, one to be truly proud of.
Yet there is an overwhelming sense of regret at what might have been. A player of Agger’s ability could have achieved so much more; perhaps he could have become an all-time great at Liverpool. He might even have eventually played for Barcelona at the very top of the game, winning many more trophies at the highest level. He could have reached a century of caps for Denmark.
All this promise was cut short by a spate of unfortunate injuries which eventually ground his body down into submission. Agger’s story, therefore, also serves as a serious reflection of the consequences of taking too much medication in order to play through injury. Only last season, it was revealed that Liverpool’s current captain, Jordan Henderson, took painkilling injections in order to play with a chronic heel injury. What the implications of this might be in the long-term remain to be seen. For some players, they may recover and enjoy prosperous careers. Agger wasn’t so fortunate.
His tale is one of sadness at unfulfilled potential, but also one of immense pride. A player who always acted with utmost humility – putting his principles above personal gain – Agger embodied the ethos of Liverpool. Not only a fine footballer in his prime, his career also served as a refreshing and uplifting tale of genuine loyalty – a quality in such short supply in the sport today.
By Joel Rabinowitz @_lfcjoel