Former Liverpool defender Jose Enrique has tipped Steven Gerrard (above) to eventually become manager of Liverpool. Gerrard has just been appointed boss of Aston Villa. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: Jose Enrique still looks fit and ready to launch himself into another crunching tackle at the highest level of the game. The Spanish full-back arrived in England in 2007 having signed for Newcastle United but he could have moved to Man City who tried to sneak ahead of the Toon Army with a late approach for the in-demand defender. His playing days are now gone and he has no regrets. “I am a man of my word. I had already agreed with coach Sam Allardyce that I would join them before I knew about Man City’s interest in me,” he says as we sit down for a chat at the Bonnington Hotel, in Jumeirah Lake Towers. Enrique is in Dubai to help launch several new official Liverpool FC stores – three of which already exist across the emirates.

“City were managed by Sven Goran Eriksson back then who was a very good and well-known coach but I had made my decision and was happy to play for Newcastle.”

Tough period

Those were the days before City had been taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group. Since then, they have gone from strength to strength and won several English Premier League titles. They are currently managed by Pep Guardiola, one of the best coaches in the game, and have a squad loaded with quality players. In contrast, Newcastle have struggled. They suffered relegation with Enrique in the team in 2009 and he says it was a tough period but it helped him grow as a player. He was in fact voted as the best player in the Championship the following season. It helped that his English was not too good back then because when ‘Big Sam’ would give the team the hairdryer treatment at half-time, Enrique didn’t understand a word of it! “He wasn’t happy when we didn’t play well! But I have to be grateful to him because he brought me to the club and away from football he is one of the nicest people you can meet. I also met a few times after my retirement, he has remained in touch.”

Retirement came as a major blow for Enrique. He was just 31 when he had to hang up his boots. Before that, his impressive displays for Newcastle were noticed by some of the biggest clubs in Europe and when Liverpool came calling in 2011, he didn’t think twice about joining them. “To have the chance to play for Kenny Dalglish was just incredible. He was the best manager I ever played for. When he speaks you shut up! He commanded respect because he was a legend at the club and one of the greatest players in the game. I am fortunate to have played under several top class managers but Kenny was my favourite.” And who shone on the pitch and in training for him? “Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez were at the club at that time and they are the two best footballers I have ever played,” he says. “Even though Stevie was past his prime, he was still immense.”

Playing at Anfield was a dream come true for Enrique and he talks about the special atmosphere generated by the passionate fans. He says there are just two other stadiums in England where the passion is as intense - at Old Trafford in the games against Man Utd and Goodison Park against city rivals Everton. Speaking of the Toffees, what does he make of Rafa Benitez – the former Liverpool boss who won them the Champions League – taking charge at Goodison? “I think he can do good at Everton - but if I was him, with the Liverpool connection – I would not have signed for Everton. I don’t think either sets of fans were happy with the appointment but he is a great manager and I think he is going to do well there – but hopefully not too well!”

Played in goal

After Dalglish stepped down as coach in came Brendan Rodgers who transformed Enrique into a wing back which was a position he enjoyed playing. He won the 2012 Football League Cup Final in his more advanced role but when he returned in red to St James’ Park, he was forced to play in goal for the last few minutes following a red card for Pepe Reina. “I’ll never forget that moment!” he laughs. “I wasn’t even a good goalkeeper but I was, physically, one of the bigger players and so I put the gloves on and got plenty of stick from the Newcastle fans!”

Jose Enrique played for Liverpool between 2011 and 2017.

He was on the losing side in the 2012 FA Cup Final and then in 2013 he suffered a serious knee injury and required an operation. He would be out of action for months and sadly would never quite regain full fitness. But before Enrique moved on to Real Zaragoza, the then new Liverpool boss – Jurgen Klopp – gave him the captain’s armband in an FA Cup tie to allow him to leave Anfield on a high note and to give him a chance to say his farewells to the fans. It was one of the proudest moments of his career. But after retiring from football, he was diagnosed with chordoma, a rare brain tumour and had life-saving surgery in 2018. The operation lasted eight hours and Enrique was fearing for his life. Fortunately, the op was a success and he’s made a full recovery and is all smiles now. He is chatty and likeable and extremely down to earth. He’s a young man who has seen highs and lows in life and is grateful for everything he has, especially his health. When asked if he would like to go into football management and follow in the footsteps of the likes of Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Gerrard, the answer is a firm “no”. But he would love to see Gerrard as a future Liverpool boss. “It depends how good he does for Aston Villa, maybe he goes to another team after them but I believe one day he will be the manager of Liverpool.”

Dominant force

That other team could well be Newcastle. Following their Saudi-led takeover, they are being linked with every big name in the game. They replaced Steve Bruce with Eddie Howe who is someone Enrique knows really well. “Eddie’s football philosophy is really good and I feel he is the right choice to manage Newcastle. He has all the attributes and can be a success but the club will need time to give him time to turn it around over there. Now they have the finances, they need to attract good players to the club but the fans should not expect instant success because sometimes it doesn’t happen that way. We’ve seen Chelsea become a force following Roman Abramovic’s arrival, and also Man City following the Abu Dhabi takeover. Newcastle can become a dominant force in the game.”