Off the field, there is no sense of command about Jerzy Dudek. He is anonymously dressed, in jeans, baseball cap, T-shirt and jacket, the off-duty uniform of the mining community from which he came. Ten years ago, Dudek was signing semi-professional forms for Concordia Knurow in the Polish third division, keeping the grounds in the morning, training until lunchtime and all the time thanking his luck that he did not have to follow his father and grandfather down the Silesian mines. Now, he surveys the green expanse of Melwood, the training grounds of one of the world's great clubs, and contemplates the imminent arrival of Barcelona in the Champions' League, the latest exhibit in Liverpool's European renaissance.
"It is very difficult to explain how it is possible that I have come to here," Dudek says, his English improving, but still erratic. "That's life. But if I look at my past, it's not normal. It makes me very emotional to think of where I am now." Not least because, on the wall of Dudek's bedroom back home in southern Poland, there hung a much-loved Liverpool scarf.
As he talks in the sunshine, Sami Hyypia strolls past, muttering "Polska, Polska". Moments later, a familiar boyish figure bounds down the steps and away to the expensively furnished car park, though not before delivering a withering put-down of Poland's prospects in the World Cup finals. Dudek has a mailbag full of letters from Polish fans, partly asking for his autograph, mostly for the prized signature of Michael Owen. "See, it starts already," says Dudek. "We were talking about this yesterday, about Poland and England in the World Cup." Dudek, by coincidence, was born in 1973, the year that a "clown" called Jan Tomaszewski thwarted England's chances of qualifying for the World Cup in Germany.
Once attuned to the more robust ways of the Premiership, Dudek has begun to restore the good name of Polish goalkeepers. Calm, athletic and, for a man barely an inch above six feet tall, confident in the air, he looks a shrewd purchase by Gérard Houllier, whose patience with Sander Westerveld finally snapped one evening in Bolton. In a bizarre afternoon of trading, the Frenchman bought two new goalkeepers, Dudek and Chris Kirkland from Coventry. Dudek, at £4m, was the cheaper of the two, but immediately designated the No 1.
"I was in Poland with the national team and it all came so quickly, I didn't really know what happened," Dudek recalls. "I was just happy to sign for Liverpool." Instead of returning to Rotterdam, he took a flight from Warsaw to Amsterdam and on to Liverpool. Westerveld, the ousted No 1, was on the same flight and, in a gesture that Dudek much appreciated, welcomed him with a shake of the hand. Two days later, the awe of sitting in the Liverpool dressing room alongside so many great names had turned to bewilderment. After a 3-1 defeat by Aston Villa, Houllier had to apologise to the newcomer for the non-appearance of his team-mates.
"I had very little time to prepare," Dudek says. "Everyone had been away for internationals and you only have one day to recover. It was a difficult game for everybody, but all the other players were big friends from the first day. The boss told me what he wanted from me and gave me everything I wanted. I can say after a few games I was satisfied."
So, after a run of four consecutive clean sheets, were the fans. Where Westerveld traded in spectacular saves and schoolboy blunders, Dudek is unfussily assured, a goalkeeper in the mould of Ray Clemence in terms of physique, consistency and character.
It is not hard to locate the source of those qualities. Dudek was brought up in the Polish equivalent of the Yorkshire pit village, taught to abhor pretension and respect industry. He was destined to earn his living down the mines like the rest of his family until football – and his mother – intervened. "My mother went underground one time, taking visitors around, and when she came back she said, 'Never go down the mines'." Jerzy was happy to obey, earning his living with his hands above ground, keeping goal for Concordia Knurow before finally moving on to his first fully professional club, Sokol Tychy, then struggling in the top division, in 1995. Only once in his youth did anyone question his size.
"In school, in sports lessons, I was always the goalkeeper, in the playground, playing between buildings, everywhere," he says. "The first time I was selected for the school, the teacher said, 'Oh, you want to be a goalkeeper, yes, well, here is our goalkeeper'. We went back to back and he was much taller than me. So they asked whether my mother and father were tall and I said, 'yes'. My father is one metre 86 tall [6ft 1in]. They said, 'OK, you can go in goal'."
Dudek did not outgrow his father, but developed flexibility from his gymnastics training and great spring from playing volleyball and basketball. Neither his size nor his inexperience dampened Feyenoord's interest and after a mere 15 games as a full professional Dudek came under the guidance of Leo Beenhakker, the wise old owl of Dutch football. "He was not just a trainer, he was more like a father to me," said Dudek. "When I was at Feyenoord, I thought, 'This is a really good club, good supporters, I think I'll stay here for the rest of my life'. Now, I feel the same at Liverpool.
"I've been very, very lucky. I come from a place in Poland where the people work very hard. In Rotterdam it was the same and in Liverpool it is the same again. I feel comfortable here, I feel the atmosphere of a working city. I couldn't play for Ajax in Amsterdam, I don't like the arrogance.
"When I went home on holiday to Poland, my friends say, 'Jerzy, you played with us in the Polish third division and now you play for Feyenoord and Poland and you don't change'." That's very, very, important to me. I'm very lucky that my parents gave me such a strong background. I don't change so quick. I am a simple person and I like the same thing in other people."
Dudek had experienced the vibrant atmosphere of English grounds on his travels with Feyenoord, but was not prepared for the particular welcome Anfield reserves for Manchester United. "That was fantastic, but you feel every time the same at Anfield because you think of all the great players who have won everything at this club." This team is entrusted to revive those traditions, at home and abroad. Barcelona this week, Roma the week after next, a repeat of Liverpool's triumphant progress to victory in the Uefa Cup, except in a major key.
"If you play for Liverpool, you are only playing against big clubs," he adds. Or not, if the players carry out their threat to strike this week. It is an irony that the son of a miner might be asked to man the picket lines on behalf of his millionaire comrades in the Professional Footballers' Association. But old loyalties die hard. However skewed the perspective, Dudek will be firmly on the side of the working-class heroes.