He had the catchiest chant in world football, one of the best midfield units ever assembled supplying him with ammunition and was adored by the fans. Fernando Torres was living the dream as a Liverpool player.
Torres’ arrival from Atlético Madrid in the summer of 2007 was a statement signing for the Reds. At the time, a club-record £24million was the fee required to prise him away from the Spanish capital.
There was a romanticism to him joining the Merseysiders. His captain’s armband at Atlético bore the words You’ll never walk alone, so it was clear El Niño was leaving his boyhood club for a team he clearly respected.
The coverage of foreign leagues in the English media then wasn’t what it is today. Fans knew of Torres because of FIFA and Football Manager. YouTube helped fill the gaps but there was nowhere near as much detail as you get today.
What Liverpool fans did know was they’d managed to land one of the most sought-after forwards in the world. They acknowledged he was a reliable goalscorer, netting double figures in five successive seasons, but he’d never broken the 20-goal barrier in a league campaign.
In the eyes of many, a reliable scorer was the one thing missing from a genuine title challenge for the Reds. No pressure, Fernando.
Any reservations dissipated on matchday two of the season against Chelsea. Steven Gerrard, Torres’ partner in crime, picked the ball up on the half-way line and brought it under his control before firing an outside-of-the-foot pass into the path of his new No.9.
Torres slowed play down as he entered the penalty area, squaring up Tal Ben Haim before a quick change of pace freed him. The Spanish hitman then opened up his body and casually stroked the ball beyond Petr Čech’s reach and into the far corner. It kissed the post as it went in.
Like that, it was love.
Reds fans fell hook, line and sinker for the man with the golden locks. The ‘Torres bounce’ dominated the terraces and the player reciprocated those feelings in the shape of goals. Plenty of them. In his first season on Merseyside, he struck 33 times in all competitions. Over the next two years, he added a further 39.
For a period, Torres was the most-feared forward in Europe.
He had everything; explosive acceleration, power in the air, razor-sharp finishing and a knack for the spectacular from distance. In the space of a week in 2009, the Liverpool No.9 bulldozed his way past Pepe and Fabio Cannavaro, playing a key role in the famous 4-0 destruction of Real Madrid at Anfield, before he terrorised Nemanja Vidić at Old Trafford in a 4-1 rout.
Injuries plagued his 2009/10 campaign. Torres appeared just 22 times in the Premier League that year but still scored 18 times. Knee surgery deprived the Reds of their star forward for the final month of the season.
He returned with a World Cup winners’ medal but it was all change at Anfield. Gone was Rafa Benítez and in his place was Roy Hodgson. There was talk the Spain international would leave but he reiterated his commitment to the club prior to the season.
However, his loyalty swayed. With Liverpool struggling under their new boss, Torres handed in a transfer request with just four days of the window remaining. Chelsea eventually got their man, paying a Premier League record £50million to snare Torres from the Reds in one of the most jaw-dropping transfers of the Premier League era.
While at Stamford Bridge, he added the Champions League, the Europa League and an FA Cup to his honours list. Instead of being a key man, he was a passenger. He failed to hit double figures in the Premier League for the Blues and his spell with the club ended with 45 goals in 172 appearances.
His time with Chelsea could be summed up using two clips. The first when he rounded David de Gea in a Premier League game. Torres had an empty goal to pass the ball into but instead but shanked his effort wide. The second against Barcelona when a similar scenario presented itself. The Chelsea No.9 raced clear in the final stages of the match and casually passed Victor Valdes before stroking the ball home to send the Blues into the Champions League final.
After a brief stint with Milan he made an emotional return to Atlético Madrid. Back with his boyhood club, he won the Europa League and reached another Champions League final, scoring ten or more in each of his three full campaigns in the Spanish capital. Torres thought he’d retire with Atleti but, not yet ready to hang up his boots, Japanese club Sagan Tosu came calling.
With retirement now confirmed, the 35-year-old can look back on his career and call it a success. He won practically everything a player can win. Yet, despite this, there’s always a feeling of what might’ve been when it comes to El Niño.
Had he stayed at Atlético all those years ago he would have been leading the line with Sergio Agüero. Had Torres postponed his move to Chelsea he would have been paired in attack with Luis Suárez at Anfield. Sliding door moments but two that no doubt had a huge impact on his career, and his legacy.
Torres has left his mark on football but it could’ve been much more.