Gregory Vignal arguably has every right to feel hard done-by by the Liverpool history books.
At a glance, Reds supporters will remember a fringe player who made a handful of appearances for the club before being sent on a succession of loans and moved on permanently following a change of manager.
Afterall, that is how his Anfield career indeed transpired. But while he made 20 appearances and claimed three winner’s medals, the Frenchman had the potential to be so much more.
And for one month he showed just that.
A £500k signing from Montpellier in September 2000, the then-19-year-old enjoyed a bit-part role in his first season at the club as they won a historic treble and qualified for the Champions League for the first time.
After losing Markus Babbel to Guillain–Barre syndrome at the start of the 2001/02 season, Vignal was initially the man Gerard Houllier turned to to fill the void.
But after starting seven matches in a row, including Liverpool’s opening Champions League group games against Boavista, Borussia Dortmund and Dynamo Kiev as well as a famous Merseyside derby victory at Goodison Park, injury derailed the young left-back at the worst possible time.
His Reds career would never recover.
“I was a little bit unlucky with Liverpool. I got injured and it was difficult for me to come back,” Vignal admits in an exclusive interview with the Liverpool ECHO. “In my mind, I was getting stronger and stronger after each pre-season.
“When I had my injury in the League Cup (against Grimsby Town), I had been playing every game and I felt really tired.
“I met Gerard (Houllier) in the lift before the team meeting. I thought, “Greg, you need to tell the boss you are really, really tired”, because I didn’t feel the energy and because I felt really down and really tired.
“And I said nothing because if I said something, I thought somebody else might replace me and it might be really difficult to come back into the team if they are winning and playing well.
“I had my injury after 20 minutes because of the tiredness, because of the demand, because of the fatigue.
“It is so difficult to play so many games in a row because the intensity is so strong. I should have come and said to the boss that I was tired but I was really young and didn’t have that experience.”
Vignal tried his best to recover, believing he had shown enough to prove himself as a Liverpool starter during his month as the Reds’ first-choice left-back.
But his inexperience ultimately cost him again as he rushed his recovery and suffered a setback, prompting Liverpool to sign Abel Xavier from Everton.
“I fractured my foot in three places in the same area. It was a really, really bad one,” he recalls. “I think I was out for eight months. I tried to come back.
“I remember Phil (Thompson) asked me to try and be ready for the Galatasaray game in the Champions League I think (The following February).
“After the session, I went straight into the physio room and said, “I can’t run, I can’t run.”
“Phil wasn’t happy. He said, “Greg, are you ready?” And I said to Phil, “I thought I was ready but I’m not ready because it’s so painful.”
“I’m not like this, I’m strong. Even when there is pain, I try to play through the pain. That’s my mentality but I think I came back too early and I was injured again.
“It’s a shame because Phil was right behind me and he pushed me to get stronger and come back into the team.
“When I was injured, I stayed in Liverpool to prepare for next season. I went every day to the gym and the training centre to make sure I was ready for the first day of pre-season.
“It was really hard for me, especially when the team were playing really well. Of course that is part of the life, suffering a long-term injury. Otherwise I think I was ready to stay in the team.
“But the club is more important than anyone. The only thing you can do is train harder week in, week out. Show your qualities and push to come back.
“But Liverpool Football Club is 25 international players. Quality players. If one is playing really well, it is difficult to come back.
“You need to accept that and that’s why when you are injured, you need to work so hard to come back. I was really unlucky.”
Vignal had shared left-back duties with Jamie Carragher during Liverpool’s treble season after Houllier had lost faith in Christian Ziege, while the Frenchman was turned to ahead of summer signing John Arne Riise with the Norwegian stationed in front of him during the opening weeks of the 2001/02 campaign.
And the 39-year-old admits seeing Carragher ahead of him in the pecking order, playing out of position, only spurred him on further.
“That’s part of the game,” Vignal shrugs. “Carra did well and surprised everybody playing on the left-hand side. I think it easier for a right-footer to play on the left. How many left-footers play on the right side? That’s part of the game.
“Carra did well. He had an amazing career with Liverpool and is a legend of this football club.
“It was difficult for me but that is part of the game, otherwise you don’t go to Liverpool. You don’t go to a massive club and if you don’t accept the challenge.”
Meanwhile, Riise is best-known as a left-back from his time at Anfield but wasn’t actually consistently utilised in the position until Vignal’s untimely injury.
With the duo linking up well on the left, who knows how things would have turned out for the pair had the Frenchman stayed injury-free.
“I remember one article after the Everton game, because we played together on the left-hand side with me at left-back and him left-midfield,” Vignal recalls. “I think we had a really good balance.
“One newspaper said this is the best left-side in the Premier League. It was good for the team, we had some really good games together.
“After John played at left-back and had a top career as well. I really enjoyed playing with him because I think he was a little bit like me and I was a little bit like him.
“We could run all day long. It was a great weapon for us, going up and down. We could switch so I was at left-back, he was left-midfield and if I was left-midfield, he was left-back.
“The balance was perfect and I had a great relationship with him. He came from Monaco so it was easier for me because we spoke French. To understand him on the pitch was easier.
“A good boy and we had some really good games together.”
2001 was of course an historic year both for Liverpool and for Vignal with the Reds lifting an unprecedented five trophies alongside qualifying for the Champions League for the first time.
Throw in leaving your home and moving to a new country when just a teenager at the same time, and it was certainly an life-defining period for the young Frenchman.
Fortunately for Vignal, he was part of a very special squad.
“I was close with Stevie G. I was close with Nicolas Anelka as well when we came,” he recalls. “Of course, the French guys. When I came, Rigobert Song was really good with me and he helped me a lot. Vladimir Smicer as well.
“But all of the guys. It was a good dressing room and I had a nice relationship with everybody.
“Sami Hyypia was the best in training. He was excellent. Stephane Henchoz was pretty good too. He was a strong defender.
“Then Nicolas Anelka or Emile Heskey were so tough. Emile was really, really strong. We had a massive player in Michael Owen too. He won the Ballon d’Or that year and was on fire. But I could have said a lot of players. It was a good squad.
“It is difficult when you bring in a lot of foreign players. It is a different culture. When you arrive in the country, you need to adapt really quickly to the lifestyle.
“And we are talking about 20 years ago. Now it is easier with FaceTime to stay close with the family.
“When I left, I only came with my, at the time, girlfriend. Now she’s my wife. It was really difficult and it was like that for everybody.
“And it’s difficult for the manager too. But we all had the same target and the same goal and at the end of the day, we won five trophies with this squad.”
Vignal actually only made one cup appearance during his maiden year on Merseyside, when making his Reds debut against Rotherham United in the FA Cup.
But he still played a part in Liverpool’s FA Cup and UEFA Cup final successes over Arsenal and Alaves, as well as the following year’s European Super Cup against Bayern Munich, with the Frenchman an unused substitute for all three games.
“It was a great experience. I was 19 or 20-years-old, I came from a French club and after a year I was involved against massive clubs in massive games,” he said. “They are massive finals and they are great memories.
“We went through the city, on top of the bus with all of the players with the cups, it was amazing.
“The time went too quickly as you don’t have the time to realise. They are part of my life and even at Rangers or Marseille, the young players come to you and ask you questions about these games because they realise it’s a fantastic achievement.
“The team meeting stands out. The way Gerard prepared everything. The attention from players. You could see all the concentration and focus on everybody’s faces.
“When you left the team meeting room and walk to the bus, you’re thinking about your game on the bus, the game-plan, the way you will play and what the boss told you. That was a great experience as well.
“The way the staff prepare you to be ready for the whistle. But I think we won because the squad was strong and was so close with the staff. That was a big part of the success.”
While Vignal’s contributions to Liverpool’s cup final successes might have been limited to the dugout, he played a much more vital role in the Reds clinching their self-proclaimed biggest prize - Champions League qualification.
With the race going down to the wire, arguably the Frenchman’s most memorable moment in a Liverpool shirt helped keep Reds hopes alive as he played a small but crucial role in one of the most famous Merseyside derby goals of all time.
With Liverpool down to 10 men against Everton at Goodison, Houllier sent on Vignal to help his side see out the game and claim a 2-2 draw.
But when Niclas Alexandersson brought down Vignal 45-yards from goal, deep into stoppage-time, Gary McAllister had other ideas...
“It was a lovely one! I think it was an important game for us,” he said. “I’ve got in my mind Gary Mac’s face after when he scored.
“It was an unbelievable year for the squad and the club and it’s always a pleasure to win against the Blue team! A lovely day.”
Battling Leeds United for Champions League qualification, the tide looked to have turned in the Whites' favour after they beat Liverpool at Anfield in early-April.
But the Reds won five of their next six matches, including the 3-2 win at Goodison, to set up a final day decider.
Victory against Charlton Athletic on the last day of the season would secure Liverpool third spot and a place in Europe’s elite club competition for the first time since it replaced the European Cup in 1992.
The Frenchman started against the Addicks as, after a nervy first half at the Valley, a second half Robbie Fowler brace plus goals from Danny Murphy and Michael Owen secured a 4-0 win to finish the season in style.
Having won their own match, Leeds remained a point behind Houllier’s men and Vignal was under no illusions as to how important that day proved to be for Liverpool’s modern rise.
“What a day, what a game. Robbie scored two or three. We won 4-0. Another special day,” he beamed. “We had to win this type of game because Champions League qualification was so important for the club and for Gerard to keep going and build the squad.
“When you are playing Champions League it is easier for you to bring in better players and have better quality around you in the dressing room.
“We had a massive game and played really well. We played as a team. Charlton had a couple of chances but we stayed strong. We were a strong unit and won the game.
“It was a superb day and a great season. Great memories again. It was a good celebration!
“Everybody was happy because we reached our target, to secure Champions League qualification. It was good for everybody.
“When you are playing for Liverpool, you always want to win the title but to finish the season in third to qualify for the Champions League and win three trophies was great for the club and great for the staff and the squad. We had a really good season. It was perfect.”
While Vignal played a vital role in helping Liverpool return to the Champions League, his time at the club was coming to an end when the Reds famously lifted the trophy in 2005.
Having struggled to re-establish at Anfield following injury, he spent time on loan at Bastia, Rennes and Espanyol prior to Houllier’s departure from the club, before spending the 2004/05 season with Rangers.
The likes of Djimi Traore and Stephen Warnock were given opportunities at left-back under Rafa Benitez and while the Frenchman could have stayed at Anfield, he has no regrets about his decision to leave on loan again - even if it did cost him a Champions League winner’s medal.
“I had the phone call from Alex McLeish and decided to go,” he said. “Of course they won the Champions League but I won the double with Rangers and played regularly so it was a great season for me at a massive club.
“I watched the final from my dad’s garden. We had a BBQ in the south of France. TV on and watched the game there with my friends, family and my wife. I couldn’t miss the game!
“I was invited for the last one in Madrid. It’s the same feeling. It is great to see the club at the top of the mountain winning everything and I hope they win something this year.”
Vignal ultimately left Liverpool in the summer of 2005, cancelling his contract a year early to move Portsmouth on a free transfer.
Again, he could have tried to fight for his place, but now 24 with a taste for regular football, the time was right for the Frenchman to move on.
But he was given another taste of just how special Liverpool Football Club is when returning to Anfield with new club Portsmouth.
“I wasn’t too sure (about my future) because I had another year,” Vignal recalled. “I was on the phone a lot with Pako (Ayesteran) because he was impressed with me. And I know Rafa was impressed with my performances as well.
“I was thinking I could come back or maybe stay with Rangers because I had a top season.
“In the end I went to Portsmouth. Returning to Anfield, I realised how hard the fans make it to play against Liverpool. I had never felt that kind of pressure and I was so tired.
“You realise the power of the fans when they push the team. The intensity, the pressure from the fans. I realised how difficult it was for opponents to come and play at Anfield.
“The reception they gave me was fantastic. If you do well for the football club, if you respect the football club, you respect the DNA and the culture and you try to give everything, the fans will always respect you.”
He continued: “The fans are amazing. The first time I witnessed them after I came over, I had an idea about the power of the Liverpool fans when in France but it doesn’t prepare you.
“I never said bad words against this football club, even when I left, because I respect the institution. The institution is stronger and bigger than anyone.
“It was an honour to play for this football club. They gave me the opportunity to play with this strip on and I gave everything back.
“The fans have always been fantastic since the first day. That is why I love to come back to Liverpool with my family.
“I hope to maybe come back one day as a coach. That is part of my plan. You never know, we will see.”
Vignal has mixed emotions about his time at Liverpool. On one hand, he lived his dream and won trophies but on the other he can’t help wondering what might have been had it not been for injury.
Now forging a career as a coach back in France with Olympique Marseille, he dreams of returning to Anfield as a coach and completing what he considers his unfinished business.
But even if such an opportunity never arises, he considers himself a Liverpool fan and will always cherish the memories.
“Of course I have regrets. When you play for a club like this, your target is to win, to win the title,” he admits. “It is a big regret. Maybe one day we will win it together as staff. We will see.
“I was a happy, young boy. A young footballer who realised his dreams. To come to England to come to Liverpool. I was so happy. I enjoyed being part of this football club and I was so happy to win these trophies.
“I was really young and I played a part. I gave my best. It could have been better but it is three trophies in the bag.
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“I played at Anfield. If you asked a thousand young Scouse boys if you would like to play at Anfield one day, they would give everything away to say yes. It was a dream come true.
“I realised one of my dreams to come to England, to play for Liverpool and to win trophies.”
He continued: “When you play for this football club, you must now support them. I am a Liverpool fan now.
“The first game is always the best one. First time on the pitch and first time in front of the Kop. First time “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and first win. That is the best one. My family was in the stands as well so it is a great memory. I still have the first shirt in a frame.
“I kept that, the first Champions League game, the UEFA Cup final, the UEFA Super Cup final and the FA Cup final. I show them to my son. It is important to keep memories.”