Peter Gulacsi interview | 'LFC experience was key in my development'
When Liverpool line up against RB Leipzig in the first leg of the Champions League last 16 this week, it won't have escaped the attention of supporters that one of the club's former employees will be doing all he can to thwart their prospects of progression.
Peter Gulacsi is set to keep goal for Die Roten Bullen at Puskas Arena in Budapest, facing the Reds for the first time since he brought a six-year stint with them to an end in 2013.
The Hungarian's Anfield connection began when he arrived on Merseyside to join the Academy as a 17-year-old from MTK Hungaria in 2007, initially on loan.
In his maiden year, Gulacsi formed part of the backbone of the successful Liverpool Reserves side of 2007-08 before his deal was made permanent.
Over the following seasons, the 'keeper was named on the bench for the first team on a number of occasions - most notably for the FA Cup semi-final against Everton at Wembley in 2012 - without making a competitive appearance for the seniors, though he did feature in pre-season friendlies.
In addition, experience-building loan spells with Hereford United, Tranmere Rovers and Hull City were undertaken before Gulacsi bode farewell to Liverpool by joining Red Bull Salzburg in the summer of 2013.
There, he became a regular starter and after a century of appearances were chalked up in Austria, which included two league titles and two Austrian Cups, he switched to Leipzig in 2015, where he has firmly cemented himself as No.1 for both club and country, with 36 international caps and counting to his name.
Indeed, heading into the meeting with Liverpool, Gulacsi has been a key component in helping Julian Nagelsmann's side boast the best home and defensive records in the Bundesliga so far this term, and they currently sit second in the German top flight standings.
Having reached the Champions League semi-finals last year, Leipzig progressed to the knockout phase this time around by navigating a taxing group that included Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United and Istanbul Basaksehir.
And, ahead of the first ever meeting between the clubs in Budapest on Tuesday, Gulacsi took time out of his preparations to speak to Liverpoolfc.com and reflect on his spell with the Reds as well as offer his thoughts on the last-16, first-leg tie in his home country...
Firstly, Peter, how did you feel when Liverpool were drawn against Leipzig in the Champions League?
I knew sooner or later it was going to happen and, of course, it is two sides for me personally: I'm happy to have the possibility, the opportunity to go back and play at Anfield and play against Liverpool. But on the other side, we are an ambitious club and, of course, we wanted to have the best possible draw… and Liverpool is not the easiest of opponents! So, in that case, maybe it could have been a little bit easier, but it's a big challenge for our club, for our team and we have one goal of course, which is to qualify for the next round even though we are not the favourites in this match-up. We also have great quality and we have shown that throughout the seasons behind us and also in this season. We are quite close to first place in the Bundesliga even though Bayern now has a bigger advantage ahead of us, but still it's a really successful season we've played so far. I mean, we have nothing to lose; we play against one of the strongest teams in Europe and we just want to give our best and see what happens.
You left Liverpool in 2013. Since then, have you followed the club's results? Do you keep an eye out for how they are doing?
Yes, of course. If you spend six years at such a special club I think this connection what you have with the club will never go away, even though my focus is on my own team now and my own club. Still, I made many friends at Liverpool. I went there when I was 17 in 2007 as a young kid and it was a big challenge for me personally to go to such a big club and develop as a player - and as a person as well. When I left at 23 I was ready for the next challenges and I have no regrets. I'm really grateful to have had this opportunity to be at Liverpool. For me in this way, it's a special game but on the other side it's a game like all the others, so I will just do what I do all of the time, keep my focus and try to have a good game.
How important was that time at Liverpool and the Academy in helping you get to this position now where you are first choice for Leipzig, Champions League semi-finals last year and playing for your national team?
If we see my development throughout my six years with Liverpool and the experience I gathered, of course I didn't get a chance in the first team to play a competitive game but I was always there with the first-team squad on the summer pre-season tours. I was still involved with the squad a lot of times in cup competitions, I was on the bench over 50 times and that just shows I was part of the squad. To just spend time and be in this environment with these kind of players in such a great club can give so much to a young player and this is how I see my time at Liverpool. I developed a lot there and I had many coaches, many managers, some changes also in the goalkeeper coaches position so I could always have new impact and learn from different people. As I mentioned, at 23, I just thought it was the moment probably to go my own way and leave the club and I had a great opportunity going to Salzburg. Since then, it proved to be the right decision but still I think these six years [at Liverpool] played a very, very important part and role in my whole career, and it just made it possible to be where I am today.
Is there anyone from your time at Liverpool that you still keep in touch with and still speak to?
I write sometimes with John Achterberg, who was my goalkeeper coach for three years at Liverpool. Of course, we kept contact and after the draw he wrote to me straight away. If you look at the squad really, I think probably Jordan [Henderson] is the only player still there from my time and that just shows you what kind of changes and development Liverpool went through since I left the club. There's no surprise with this manager that they built such a successful team and won the Champions League, the Premier League. As a player from another club, but still in a way connected to the club, I was really happy about that. In the six years I was there I also saw what it means for the fans of the club to be that successful again and I'm just happy about it. I think there are a few people around, not Melwood anymore but the new training ground, who I know, but from the squad I know more people from Leipzig and Salzburg.
In terms of Jordan, how impressed have you been at what he's gone on to achieve since you were at the club as obviously he was a young guy too when you were there, and now he's the captain and he's lifted the two big trophies for Liverpool?
I mean his commitment, his attitude I think is one of a kind. Already when I was there and he came from Sunderland, as a captain from Sunderland but as a young player, it just showed that he's the type of guy who would be a leader as well even in a bigger club. I remember spending a lot of time on the pitch with him after training; there were a few players, we always stayed out and he was always putting this extra work in. As a young goalkeeper, for me, I said it was a perfect environment to improve and develop and I had the opportunity to spend time with these kind of players. I'm really happy about how the future - or how the present is - for Jordan and that he became such a successful player and also a successful person outside of the pitch. We all know what kind of impact he had, not just on the football pitch but outside of the pitch as well, and I think that just shows that he's a fantastic person and a great leader for Liverpool.
You know Naby Keita too from your time at Salzburg and Leipzig…
At Salzburg I spent one season with Naby and then also one season in Leipzig. He is a fantastic talent. He has unbelievable quality and when he came to the Bundesliga he changed the whole game here and he was one of the most important players for us. In our first season in the Bundesliga we went to finish second in the league, which was of course down to the team effort, but Naby was one of the key players, and it's no surprise that after such a successful season Liverpool signed him. Since then, he's been hit by quite a few injuries, so I think he's had a tough time to really hit his top form and just keep playing all the time, but his qualities are not to question. I'm sure that if he can stay fit and healthy then he will show again that kind of consistency on the highest level.
In terms of your current club Leipzig, how has your season gone so far? As you said before, second in the Bundesliga, you came through a very difficult group in the Champions League and very impressively so. How is it going for you guys?
I think if you look at everything together it has been a very, very successful season so far. We lost our main goalscorer in Timo Werner going to Chelsea and if you look at the seasons before, he always scored 20 goals for us, so it was a big challenge to replace him. I think we did that so far because even though it's not one player who has stepped into this role but we have split his goals around the team and we have shown our other strength as well. We are really stable defensively; we've conceded the least goals in the Bundesliga and have the most clean sheets. We came through a really tough group in the Champions League with Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain in our group. I think that also shows the development of this club and what this team went through.
We are second in the Bundesliga and our main goal still is to finish in the top four because it's a tough race behind us and we keep focused on just winning our games and try to get a little bit away from those teams behind us. And who knows what can happen in this season? We still have to play Bayern Munich at home, we have a good team and in these difficult times football has already showed that a lot of things can happen, so we just keep focusing on ourselves and see what happens. We are still in the cup, in the last eight, which again is a competition where probably if you look at the chances, we have the best chance to win a cup and win silverware, which is now the main target for this club. We've been really successful in recent years as well, but what is missing really is to win a competition and who knows, maybe in the cup we have a chance this year. But as I said, the Champions League and the Bundesliga is still open and we just try to do our best.
Was the experience of getting to the semi-finals last year in the Champions League a big thing for you for the development of the team?
On one side yes, because of course to experience these kind of games at the very highest level against the best teams in Europe under a lot of pressure in this relatively young club for a team which has a lot of young players, it's an immense experience. I think we could already use these experiences in this season's games. If you look at how our group was, we had a final against Manchester United at home here in the group stages which we had to win, and we managed to do that and that just shows you know maybe with some extra experience we gathered from last season's Champions League we are an even better team.
Obviously for you the first leg will be extra significant because it will now be played in your home country, your home city…
Of course. I mean, it's an unfortunate situation because for us it would have been ideal to play here in Leipzig. We have been really strong at home this season, we won three games in the Champions League and in the league we are the best home team, so of course it's not ideal for us. But I know that we are also capable of winning away from home, so Budapest for me personally, it's a great location, but also for our team. We have a great stadium there, a new stadium, which unfortunately opened just before coronavirus broke out and nobody could really enjoy that stadium so far. It's a great opportunity now for these two clubs to travel to a beautiful city and play in a fantastic stadium. Still, we have our main goal, which is to play a good game, get a good result in the first leg because we all know that it's not easy to win at Anfield, so we need a good result in the first game.
You touched upon it earlier, but how will it feel to play at Anfield?
If you spend such a long time in a club - and I experienced many matchdays at Anfield, I didn't play a competitive game at Anfield for the first team but I was involved with the squad a lot of times - it's a special place for me, no question. I haven't been back at Liverpool since they opened the new Main Stand, so it will maybe even be a different experience this time. I just think it's really a shame that we play without fans because this whole Anfield experience is complete with the fans, with the Kop behind the goal and it's a shame that we can't have that experience. On the other hand, as an away team without the Liverpool supporters you always have a better chance because the environment, the atmosphere is maybe not the same as normal and we'll try to use that to our advantage. We'll see, it's two tough games for us. I think if you look at the form Liverpool has been in during the last couple of weeks, it's not going to matter because it's two games separately from what's happening in the Premier League. It's Champions League, it's the highest level, it's the most important games for every footballer's career, so we'll try to give our best and hope to have a good result.
Just finally, Peter, what would be your fondest memory from your time at Liverpool, your best memory?
Wow… it's a good question actually! I've been involved in some special games. The first time I was on the bench for the first team will always stay as a special memory for me. The first game I played, even though it was a pre-season tour for the first team, it is also a special memory. I got so much from this club, I got so much from the city. Even though I was not the most important player at the club and I was a young player at a big club, but I always got a lot of respect from the other players as well, how I was treated, and I'm really grateful for that. To be at such a young age to get that opportunity, for me was a privilege and, as I said, I'm very grateful for that. I can't really highlight one moment, really. I had many nice moments. I'm still in contact with Pepe [Reina], I made so many friends throughout my time there and it's always nice to see some faces, some ex-teammates when I play against them, we played against Bayern Munich against Xabi Alonso, I played against Fenerbahce with Dirk Kuyt. I played against Luis [Suarez] with the national team and it's always a nice experience to see these faces. It was a great time for me there, I'm happy that I had this opportunity and I'm happy that I decided to go my own way after these six years and to be where I am today.