After six years and one League Cup medal with Liverpool, Phil Babb's career was coming to a stand-still. So in 2000 on the advice of Peter Schmeichel, he made a bold career move by Irish standards in signing for Portuguese giants Sporting Club de Portugal.
There was no fee paid for the central-defender, as the 29 year old Babb was surplus to requirements at a changing Liverpool under Gerard Houllier. Yet, in spite of his accepted faded status, Babb went on to become a major player for Sporting in two years with the club.
Babb wasn't born in Ireland, but rather hailed from Lambeth in London. However, he would earn 35 caps for the Republic, including four appearances at the 1994 World Cup in the USA.
His career began in Newcastle, but he played his first senior matches for Bradford City from 1990 to 1992. He next moved to Coventry City where he made a name for himself, and won his first caps for Ireland. After the World Cup he moved to Liverpool. He was a mainstay at Anfield until Gerard Houllier became coach, when he began to be sidelined. A brief loan spell with Tranmere proved fruitless, and in the summer of 2000 he was technically released by the Reds.
Also wanted by FC Porto, Babb's move to Sporting was intended to revive his once illustrious flagging career. After impressing so much during World Cup '94, he had been seen as Paul McGrath's heir apparent But years of inconsistency at Liverpool since 1998 had damaged his reputation, and he was loosing to competitors for an Irish shirt.
With over 100,000 registered fans, Sporting CP are Portugal's most well supported side. They constitute one of the Tres Grandes of Portuguese soccer, along with Benfica and FC Porto. Playing at the (newer) Estadio Jose Alvalade the club have won 18 Portuguese League titles and 15 Portuguese Cups. In Europe they were Cup Winners' Cup Champions back in 1964.
In the 1999-2000 season they were crowned champions of Portugal for the 17th time. This was their first title in nearly two decades and that summer, manager Augusto Inacio was looking to bolster his squad to defend the title. Chilean international Rodrigo Tello, Dortmund striker Jovan Kirovski and Portugal legend Paulo Bento were all drafted in alongside Babb for this purpose.
Other squad members were Mbo Mpenza, Peter Schmeichel, Hugo Viana, Ricardo Quaresma and Mario Jardel.
|Babb (back-row, seventh from left) with Peter Schmeichel and the Sporting team|
Sporting also decided to sign his international team-mate Alan Mahon, perhaps as a guarantee against Babb becoming homesick.
The season started with mixed fortunes for the Lions and they found themselves sitting in 11th place by the end of September with Babb failing to really make it into the first XI for most matches.
That month his Ireland career took a further nose dive. Two days prior to a World Cup qualifier against Holland, Babb was arrested along with Wolves winger Mark Kennedy following a late-night incident in a Dublin street. Both players were sent home in disgrace and did not travel with the rest of party to Amsterdam for the game which finished 2-2.
|Babb after signing with Sporting|
His next match wasn't until November 7 when Sporting limped out of the competition with a 0-0 home draw with Bayer. Real would go on to beat Valencia in the final that year.
Domestically, Sporting finished 3rd in the Primeira Liga, thus failing to reach the next season's Champions League. They also failed to reach the final of the Portuguese Cup, amounting in an utterly underwhelming season.
Babb had been largely overlooked, making a total of 19 senior appearances for the club, netting one goal. The next season, things would be different.
2001-02 saw Sporting sack coach Inacio and hire Romanian tactician László Bölöni as First Team Coach. With over 108 international caps to his name, Bölöni's tenure with Sporting was his second in management. This spellt good news for Babb, as it was under the Romanian that he would thrive at the club.
That season, Sporting would compete in the UEFA Cup, where they met Midtjylland of Denmark in the First Round. Babb himself got on the scoresheet in a 3-0 first leg win. A Second Round 7-1 hammering of Halmstad was followed by a Third Round pairing with Italian mega-club AC Milan.
Babb scores Sporting's first goal against Midtjylland
They were well beaten 2-0 in the first leg after goals from Shevchenko and Inzaghi, but did manage a 1-1 home draw a week later, with Niculae getting ont he scoresheet.
|Babb takes on Milan|
Domestically, Babb was beginning to establish himself as a first team regular. Strong and confident performances alongside André Cruz in the centre of defence were seeing Babb resurrect his career.
Sporting were crowned champions of the Primeira Liga, winning with 5 points ahead of fallen-club Boavista. This would be Babb's only league winners medal of his career and he made an incredible 39 appearances for Sporting that season.
That famous league win, was followed up by a Portuguese Cup (Taça de Portugal) Final tie with Leixões on May 12. Babb was named on the bench and 37000 fans filled out the Estádio Nacional in Lisbon to watch the Lions win 1-0, resulting in an unprecedented double that year.
The Irish defender would leave that summer with two honours to his name. A rather successful take. The following October, a 17 year old Cristiano Ronaldo would make his first team debut for Sporting.
Babb announced on May 24th that he had turned down a new offer from Sporting would leave the club, saying at the time: "I love Sporting and Portugal, but I have decided to return after two good years here. The call was mine and my family's. For us at this moment, the best decision is to get back."
He signed for Sunderland in England's Premier Division, but couldn't help the club from getting relegated. The next year in the First Division, he helped the club (by then under Mick McCarthy) reach the Play-Off semi-finals, but no further.
In August 2002, Babb was finally recalled to the Ireland squad by Mick McCarthy for an away match against Russia. This return would turn very sour for the defender however, as his first touch was an own goal, and Ireland lost 4-2. This would be Mick McCarthy and Babb's last appearance for the Republic.
Babb retired in 2004 and now works as an agent and sports manager. His impact at Sporting cannot be underrated, and he remains one of our finest football exports to the continent.