Ever-present Skrtel proud of progress
It may be of meagre consolation to the Premier League forwards who have been left bearing the bumps and bruises of a brush with Martin Skrtel this season, but the Liverpool defender isn't half as menacing off the pitch as he is on it.
The centre-back and a neighbour from across Stanley Park, Everton's Leighton Baines, are the only two outfield players not to have missed a single minute of the Premier League season with Roy Hodgson's replacement by Kenny Dalglish doing nothing to alter Skrtel's stature as a first-team regular at Anfield. Despite that, his imposing shaven head has not swollen an inch.
"I'm a totally different person on and off the pitch," Skrtel told ESPNsoccernet. "As a defender, you have to show some aggression and strength, but in my personal life I try to be a quiet, nice guy, even though it's not always possible."
The laugh that follows his final statement is testament to the Slovakia international's sunny disposition, though it is hardly surprising Skrtel should be smiling after a memorable 12 months for him. Slovakia's first-ever World Cup finals appearance last summer saw the no-nonsense defender help his largely-unknown nation of five million souls take down reigning champions Italy. The late goal-line clearance from the man himself, which helped secure a 3-2 win and progress to the knockout stages, is now writ large in Slovak footballing folklore.
But he has not always been flavour of the month with his compatriots. "When I came here, a lot of people talked about the way I play, and many said I didn't have the quality to play for Liverpool. Many of them were from Slovakia, and I was determined to prove them wrong," said Skrtel, whose contract extension to 2014 last summer should be enough to answer the critics. "I was surprised, because I think they should be proud of me as a Slovakian player who is playing for a big club. But that's Slovakia - a lot of people are jealous, and that's not good."
That determination to confound the odds was learned the hard way as a teenager in St Petersburg when Skrtel left Trencin to join Zenit. Russia and Slovakia may have shared a virtually common history for much of the previous fifty years on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, but Skrtel found the leap a large one.
"It was very difficult for me, because I was just 19 years old and I moved to a big and strange country. I was a bit nervous because I'd never visited Russia, and had no idea what life was like there," said the centre-half, who spent four years in Russia's former imperial capital. "I was lucky, because when I joined Zenit there were four players from the Czech Republic there and one Slovak, so they helped me adapt. Dick [Advocaat] gave me a chance to be a regular first-team player. I could feel his confidence in me - that was very important for me."
Advocaat's conviction proved well-founded as Skrtel not only established himself in Russia, but also caught the eye of then-Anfield boss Rafa Benitez, who brought him to England for £6.5 million on a four-and-a-half year deal.
"Rafa helped me, because he gave me a chance and he also tried to help me every day in training," said Skrtel, whose step up in class was assisted by fellow centre-back Sami Hyypia. "Sami was a great player and also a nice person. He always tried to talk to me and explain the things that I could change on the pitch. But it wasn't just him. Players like him, Carra, Daniel Agger, Steve, Fernando, Xabi Alonso...I can say every single player from the squad. I could watch them every day in training, and I could learn from them."
Skrtel has proved an attentive student, and as Hyypia hangs up his boots at Leverkusen, the Slovak has slipped snugly into the Finn's shoes at Anfield. "For me personally, yeah, it's probably been my best season, because I have played every single game, but it would have been better if the results of the team had been better," admitted Skrtel, who after Hodgson went - "He didn't come in at the right moment," according to Skrtel - found himself taking on board the words of wisdom of Dalglish.
"After he joined the club in January, in his first meeting with the team he said to us that we had to trust him and trust ourselves. He gave us confidence. He is a great man, a nice person, who tries to talk to us all the time, and this is very important for everyone."
Dalglish's inspirational leadership skills brought Liverpool to within four points of European football, a relative success given the storm clouds around the club when the Scot took the helm as caretaker-manager in January, with the Reds stumbling along in 12th place. A permanent three-year deal means Dalglish will be taking the team forward into next season, which Skrtel feels holds more promise after the additions of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll.
"They are both great players, and totally different. I think they can form a great partnership and they will score a lot of goals. They've shown their ability, and I think and believe they will show their best next season," said Skrtel, who has had an up-close-and-personal look at the pair brought in with Fernando Torres' transfer stash. "It is very difficult playing against them even in training. For me as a defender, I'm happy they are here in our team and I don't need to mark them in a game, because they are very dangerous." Suarez and Carroll are probably equally happy the tough-tackling Skrtel is on the same side, too.