Ryan Babel closes his fist and slams it on the table. He is using the furniture at plush Thai restaurant Matou, in Liverpool’s Pier Head with its sweeping views of the city’s skyline and the River Mersey, to help illustrate his point of being too polite. “I had to stand up more for myself. I was too humble, satisfied quickly and I would let players go ahead of me,” he tells me between sips of pineapple juice and gazing at landmarks so familiar to him.
At 28 and now playing in Turkey with Kasimpasa, the former Liverpool attacker is relaying the advice he would give to his younger self – the one whose potential seemed endless while he was at Ajax. “If you see the kids now they have attitude and a strong character. They play one or two games and demand they are involved,” he says. “I didn’t have that. I was too polite. It is not maybe always good to have fight, but gives a stamp – it shows directly that ‘I am here. I mean business.’ If I had that, I would’ve had different respect from players and trainers.”
It is seven years next week since Babel sped from the halfway line in the dying moments of a Champions League quarter-final against Arsenal at Anfield and shrugged off Cesc Fabregas to score. It made it 4-2 to Liverpool, 5-3 on aggregate and was part of his finest 14 minutes for the club – he rarely clocked 90 – in which he also won a penalty, converted by Steven Gerrard.
Today, he will be watching as the sides meet. There will be interest but also regret; Babel arrived in England in 2007, the same window in which Thierry Henry left London for Barcelona. Marco van Basten believed the Dutchman had all the tools to emulate the grace of the Frenchman, but their storylines have been vastly different.
“I definitely made the wrong choices,” Babel admits. “I left Holland too early, I probably should’ve stayed one more year for my development, but these things happen.” He made 146 appearances for Liverpool but only 65 were starts and he was substituted 40 times: 25 full games in four seasons. For a player in the most crucial part of his career, it hurt. What he craved most as a young man settling into a new country was guidance.
Liverpool's best XI of the season so far
Liverpool's best XI of the season so far
1/11 Simon Mignolet - 6.75
Has vastly improved since a dreadful start to the season. Brendan Rodgers doesn't have much competition for the Belgian, with Brad Jones way below the standard required.
2/11 Emre Can - 7.18
The German has been a revelation in Rodgers' back three system. The youngster is a stern defender and brilliant at carrying the ball out from the back. Has a big future at the club.
3/11 Martin Skrtel - 7.35
Skrtel has grown to become the club's most dependable and solid defender. His three game ban will hit Liverpool hard, with £20m Dejan Lovren really struggling in his first season at Anfield.
4/11 Mamadou Sakho - 7.12
The French defender isn't always the most pleasing on the eye - he's average on the ball - but he is a committed and strong defender.
5/11 Jordon Ibe - 6.88
It's a real shame for Liverpool fans that the teenager picked up an injury just as he was beginning to make the position his own. No one else has been able to act so effectively down the right, especially Raheem Sterling.
6/11 Jordan Henderson - 7.23
The Liverpool vice-captain has really stepped up to fill the shoes of declining captain Steven Gerrard. The England midfielder can now claim to be the Reds' most important player and first name on the team sheet.
7/11 Lucas Leiva - 7.22
The defensive midfielder has only seen limited action due to injuries and being out of favour, but he has far outperformed Steven Gerrard. The former England captain only scores 6.87 according to WhoScored's rating.
8/11 Lazar Markovic - 6.76
Bought as a winger the Serbian has been excellent when playing in either wing-back role, although his season has also been stunted by injury. Alberto Moreno has improved and owns a rating equal to Markovic.
9/11 Raheem Sterling - 7.36
Raheem Sterling has to play in the front three. According to who scored his best marks come, surprisingly, when he plays on the left (7.90) or as a central striker (7.50). Sterling has struggled in a wing back role and the stats bare that out, with his rating dropping to just 6.47 when he plays in the role.
10/11 Philippe Coutinho - 7.32
Another player who has really come on in recent weeks, the Brazilian is outperforming big money summer signing Adam Lallana (7.00). The England man has been better after a slow start but Coutinho is one of Liverpool's best attacking threats.
11/11 Daniel Sturridge - 7.07
Daniel Sturridge only has four Premier League goals in this injury-hit season and that he is Liverpool's best rated striker shows the paucity of options. Liverpool's three other strikers - Mario Balotelli (6.58), Rickie Lambert (6.31) and Fabio Borini (6.25) - all rank in the bottom five of Liverpool's whole scored, and have just four Premier League goals between them all season.
“[Before joining Liverpool], I had a conversation with Rafa Benitez and he basically promised me the same kind of development that I had at Ajax,” Babel says. “He said the only difference would be that it was England and the game is faster. So when I heard those things I thought, ‘Hey, I can develop quicker, but the same kind of style as Ajax.’ He promised me good guidance, that the club would take care of me. I saw no harm in making the move, but as soon as I came I felt like I was on my own. It was tough.”
Did he ever sound out Benitez about his limited opportunities? “In Holland, you can step into the manager’s office and ask him for clarity if you don’t know why you’re not playing and they are open with you,” Babel says. “But I had a feeling Benitez didn’t like that. I would ask him, very politely, ‘What do I need to do differently? I feel I have been training well, but I’m not getting chances.’
“His kind of response would be, ‘Just shut up and work hard’, but I wanted to know what his definition of ‘work hard’ was. One time, he did say ‘defend more’, so I practised that. I still wasn’t playing and then he told me other players were offering more going forward. So I was confused. First one thing, then the other.
“I never got the chance to develop as a striker,” he says. “Everything I did on the left I had to learn in a 4-4-2 system, it wasn’t natural. To collect the ball on my wrong foot... Again, it’s about help, guidance. I never really felt there was a confidence in me.”
But it wasn’t just Benitez, who, when he did pick Babel, played him on the left, not up front; Roy Hodgson selected David Ngog when Fernando Torres was injured and tried to offload the Dutchman for Carlton Cole in the infamous “Babelcopter” episode.
Babel takes up the story. “It was the last day of the window, the director of football wanted to sign Cole from West Ham and send me on loan in a swap. He called me and said, ‘Hey, you can go to West Ham.’ I thought that wouldn’t be bad; I can play regularly and build my confidence. But it was 12pm and the window closed at six so we didn’t have much time. He told me to come to the airport so we can go to London by helicopter. I hate flying so I was nervous. The whole ride was bumpy. When we arrived, we got into the car and Comolli was on the phone constantly. Then he said to me, ‘There is a five-year deal, you’re going to sign it and with that money, we’ll buy Cole.’ I was confused – it was a loan and then it became a five-year contract! I called my agent and he said ‘absolutely not’, so there was no deal. And then he sent me back on the train and he took the helicopter. Now, every window the ‘Babelcopter’ still makes an appearance on Twitter.”
Babel is preparing for life after football: he is making a year-in-the-life documentary, is studying the music business and has an interest in the fashion industry, but football remains his priority. He’d love a return to the Premier League. Last Sunday, he was partnered in attack with Henry during the Liverpool All-Star game and had Brendan Rodgers as his manager. If only Rodgers had been in charge when he was at Anfield? “I think he would’ve been the right manager for me when I joined, to help me go to the next step,” says Babel.
He can’t turn back the clock, but Babel will bang his fists on the table for any future opportunities.Reuse content