Markus Babbel once told a group of journalists that he had walked into the Liverpool dressing room after a defeat against Leicester City in 2001 only to find Sami Hyypia crying in a corner. When the Finnish defender was asked about the incident nearly a decade later he said: "Sometimes games can be very emotional. And sometimes, afterwards, one has the feeling of not having done enough, to have let down your team-mates," he told the German magazine 11Freunde in 2010.
"That was one of those days that I did not feel good [about the game]. It is absolutely no shame to be crying in the changing room. I think this story just tells how important football is for me. But it is fair to say that this approach to football at times made it difficult for me to be a professional footballer."
With comments like that it is easy to understand why Hyypia, now in charge of the Bayer Leverkusen side facing Manchester United in the Champions League on Tuesday night, became such a favourite during his 10 years at Liverpool. He could have stayed on as a coach but decided that he wanted to carry on playing and joined the German club in 2009. There he set about changing a culture which he found extraordinary.
"I noticed already in pre-season that the players weren't talking to each other after games. In Liverpool we were always talking after games, especially the player you were playing next to. We went through the different situations and said 'The next time it would be better for me if you did this … and so on.' But in Germany no one seemed to speak to each other. The game was over, no one said anything, just went to their cars and put their iPods on."
Slowly Hyypia started to communicate with his Leverkusen team-mates. The club took notice and, when Robin Dutt left the club in April of last year, the Finn and the Under-19 coach at the club, Sascha Lewandowski, were appointed joint caretaker coaches. It was an arrangement that made the old Gérard Houllier-Roy Evans combination look straightforward. Hyypia was Team Chef – as it is called in Germany – and Lewandowski was Chef Trainer. The latter, as he had a training licence, would do the coaching during games, the press conferences and the training sessions. Hyypia would do individual training with some of the players and did the pre-match press conferences.
It was a project doomed to fail and, after a season full of speculation, Lewandowski stepped down to leave Hyypia in sole charge. He has led Bayer to four wins out of five in the Bundesliga this season and the team have responded well to losing their creative spark André Schürrle to Chelsea. The midfielder Sidney Sam, who can also play in attack, and the forward Stefan Kiessling have responded to the added pressure by scoring four goals each in the opening five league games.
The 29-year-old Kiessling is a particularly interesting player. He has been scoring regularly for the past three seasons without any recognition from the national coach, Joachim Löw, and his patience finally snapped last month. He said that he would never play for Germany again as long as Löw was the coach. "I want to take away the pressure [and make sure] that this issue is not brought up time and time again. I can now fully concentrate on Bayer.
"For three years now, there has not been any contact or any info on why I am not good enough for the national team. I am not the guy to cause a stir, but I want to finally bring this issue to an end."Kiessling has no such issues at Leverkusen, where his manager has showered him with the kind of praise his goals deserve. "Without Kiessling we would really struggle," Hyypia admitted last month.
The Finn won four times as a player at Old Trafford but said in the 11Freunde interview that he does not miss anyone from Liverpool and prefers the quieter life in Leverkusen. Asked whether Liverpool was a tough city, he recalled an incident in his first season at Anfield: "I was sitting in this restaurant when I suddenly heard some shots go off. It was myself, Christian Ziege and Sander Westerveld. Like lightning we went down on the floor. We couldn't quite see what was going on. There were two entrances and we couldn't see either of them from our corner. There was an argument with a doorman. Someone was shot in the leg. We finished our meal in silence."
So Leverkusen is more sedate? "Yes, but those things are not important to me. I don't need nightclubs," said Hyypia. "Things that are important to me are infrastructure and good training facilities and I have got that here." Infrastructure rather than nightclubs rather sums up Hyypia's character but, if Leverkusen pull off an unlikely victory at Old Trafford he may just allow himself a beer.