Rough and tough

Martin Skrtel has become a key player for Kenny Dalglish's side with his no-nonsense style of defending and he has formed a solid pairing with Daniel Agger. By Pete Thompson.

Martin Skrtel rejected the opportunity to become an ice hockey player before choosing to pursue a career in football and that decision has undoubtedly been vindicated,

While the likes of his Liverpool team-mates Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez dominate the headlines, Skrtel's influence cannot be underestimated.

The Slovakia centre-back has become a key player for Kenny Dalglish's side with his no-nonsense style of defending and he has formed a solid pairing with Daniel Agger. Agger's injury problems have again disrupted that pairing this season, but the 27-year-old has been as reliable as ever and a tower of strength in front of goalkeeper Pepe Reina.

Liverpool fans must have questioned former Reds boss Rafael Benitez's decision to splash out GBP6.5 million for the big defender in January 2008 when he endured a shaky debut against part-timers Havant & Waterlooville in the FA Cup.

But Skrtel soon silenced his critics and he has come a long way since opting to follow in his father's footsteps and become a professional footballer rather than ply his trade on the ice rinks back in Slovakia.

Skrtel's father, Roman, played for Slovan Bratislava but had to cut short his career due to a knee injury.

But that did not put Skrtel junior off as he began his career with Slovakian club FK AS Trencín and played for his country at youth level as a centre-half, having started out as either a winger or a striker.

After making 45 appearances for Trencín, Skrtel was snapped up by Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg in 2004.

Skrtel made the most of his opportunity with Zenit and was a consistent performer, with the club winning the Russian Premier League in 2007.

His performances did not go unnoticed and several leading European clubs were linked with his signature, while further honours followed as he was voted Slovakian Player of the Year in 2007 and 2008.

Liverpool came knocking in the January transfer window in 2008 and a bid of GBP6.5 million proved to be too good for Zenit to refuse.

After completing his move to Anfield, Skrtel was handed his debut against the minnows of Havant & Waterlooville, but he made two mistakes which led to both Havant goals and despite the Reds winning the game, questions were asked over Benitez's new recruit.

But the tough-tackling defender soon settled in and made amends for those mistakes with some solid displays for the five-time European champions.

“I knew the people were talking about me — that I wasn't good enough for Liverpool who had paid a lot of money for me. I just wanted to show I was a better player than I had shown against Havant,” said Skrtel. “Of course, I can see people look at me in a different way now to how they were looking at me before and I am happy about that.”

Despite some injury problems along the way, Skrtel has endeared himself to the Anfield faithful and rarely puts a foot wrong for the Merseyside club.

Skrtel has also played on the biggest stage of all, with Slovakia making it to the World Cup in South Africa two years ago and qualifying from their group after surprisingly beating then world champions Italy.

And this season in particular he has been increasingly influential for the Reds, with his bravery and will to win making him one of the toughest defenders in the English Premier League.

Skrtel also celebrated winning his first trophy during his time at the club when the Reds lifted the Carling Cup last month. “I'm really enjoying my football under the manager,” he said. “The atmosphere around the club is very good and he has played me in almost every single game which gives me a lot of confidence. I'm happy I am playing and I am working as hard as I can to stay in the team.”

Skrtel can expect to play many more games under Dalglish on current form and ice hockey's loss is certainly Liverpool's gain. Skrtel is married to fellow Slovakian Barbora. The footballer has owned a Range Rover Sport and a Bentley, but it is not known what he is currently driving.

FACTFILE Name: Martin Skrtel Position: Defender Club: Liverpool DOB: 16/09/1982 International caps: 53 International goals: 5

Moment to remember: Playing for Slovakia in their win over Italy at the 2010 World Cup which ensured they reached the knockout stage and dumped the Italians out.

Moment to forget: Making two mistakes and playing poorly on his Liverpool debut against part-time club Havant & Waterlooville.

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