Liverpool held talks to sign Brazilian superstar Juninho prior to his move to Atletico Madrid, the ex-Middlesbrough and Celtic playmaker has revealed. The now 44-year-old illuminated the Premier League during two separate spells in the north-east, and in 1997 was close to moving to Anfield but eventually complete a switch to the Spanish capital.
'The Little Fella' was one of the first players to hail from Brazil to play in the English top flight, one of several from the country of the five-time World Cup winners to move to the Riverside Stadium in what at the time was a pioneering move from 'Boro. The team, which also including Italian Fabrizio Ravenelli, reached the finals of the FA Cup and League Cup but were also relegated to Division One in the 1996-97 campaign. In his second spell he won the League Cup at the second time of asking in 2004 under Steve McClaren.
Juninho netted 29 goals across two spells with Middlesbrough, a haul which was the highest by any Brazilian player in the league until Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho beat the record against Stoke City last weekend. And Juninho admits he had the chance to emulate Coutinho 20 years ago when he held discussions over a move to Merseyside.
"If l could go back to the past, l would never leave English football when I did. I had the chance to go to Liverpool in 1997," he told The Daily Mail. "The manager [Roy Evans] spoke to my father but I had already given my word to Atletico Madrid."
On the record achieved by Coutinho, who scored his 30th Premier League goal since moving to Liverpool from Inter Milan in January 2013, Juninho is thrilled to see him eclipse his success and earn the reputation as one of Brazil's best players. 'Selecao' became the first nation to qualify for the 2018 World Cup during the last international break and Juninho believes that Coutinho is the stand-out player in the current team, behind Neymar.
"I am delighted that he takes my record," he added. "I can't think of anyone better – the record couldn't be in better hands. In England you have to be able to adapt to the speed. You have to get used to how fast the football is. It's not like anything else you've experienced before.
"Coutinho can be considered, after Neymar, the best player in Brazil. He's different class and he deserves everything he is achieving because he has worked very hard for it. If you have an intelligence to your game then you can find the space on the pitch and because the game in England is so fast that means a lot of the time it is also very open.
"One of Coutinho's biggest qualities is that ability to find the space. People think that type of player will have more difficulties adapting to English football than, say, Spanish football but in England I found a lot more space than I did in Spain. The intensity is there but if you get past the first wave of pressure then the pitch opens up."