Balls of confusion, step back in time – Part Two

FA Cup Final 2001

12th May 2001 Millennium Stadium

Liverpool 2
Owen (82), (88)

Arsenal 1
Ljungberg (72)

Att: 74,500

Thirty years on from our last FA Cup Final against Arsenal and the only thing that was the same was the bright sunshine. It was even a different stadium.

The fortunes of both sides had waxed and waned over these three decades.

Arsenal in the ten years or so after the success of the double became perennial “also rans” seemingly losing every final they reached. The only success during this time was an classic FA Cup win in 1979 against the Mancs. Fortunes were revived in the late 80s and early 90s under George Graham with two league cups, two titles another FA Cup the Cup Winners Cup before there was a kickback! Success was to come again under current manager Arsene Wenger who took them to their second double in 1998 plus arguably even greater things in the seasons after this final.

Hopefuly readers of this blog will know how were fared during the twenty years after 1971 if not, come back when you have! However, coming into the final were going through one of our most barren spells. No league title since 1990, when Kenny Dalglish was in charge, (and this still remains the case today) and only one FA and League Cup win under his respective replacments Graeme Souness and then Roy Evans. In 2001, under Gérard Houllier we were having better times having won the League Cup again via penalty shoot out against Birmingham and had managed to reach the UEFA Cup final beating Roma, Porto and Baracelona en route to the final in Dortmund.

Our FA Cup run started off easily with the 2-0 defeat of Rotherham. However we then faced Leeds, a much tougher prospect than are now, away triumphing 2-0. Man City at home were next 4-2 and then Tranmere in the quarters by the same score. The draw was kind to us for the semis although we made hard work of beating Wycombe Wanderers 2-1.

I was unable to make the final having just been presented with a new born son. So I had to opt for the “drudgery” of a seat in a sunny Richmond pub in the company of three of my bestest friends. I seriously don’t think I would have gone had I been offered a ticket as I would have felt guilty about going having been to none of the Liverpool games that season due to domestic commitments oh and lack money through doing up a new house! I know what it’s like to miss out on going to a final having been a regular attendee only to see the smug to**er from down the road, who spends his Saturday afternoons shopping or watching Grandstand, go because he knows a friend of a friend.

Off the top of my head I can’t think of an FA Cup final that has been so dominated by one side only for them to lose. However, Arsenal only had themselves to blame oh, and the referee. As Arsene Wenger said “We should have had a penalty and we’re disappointed because the game should have over before the end. We didn’t take our chances…. and were the dominant team but we’ve been punished for not killing Liverpool off.”

Arsenal definitely started the stronger and the penalty appeal was certainly a cast iron one. Thank the Lord something similar hasn’t happened today, who knows what Wenger would have done? However, he was considerably less animated, and more retiring, in those days! On the 17 minute mark Ljungberg released Henry, who left Westerveld for dead only to be clearly denied by the arm of Henchoz on the goal-line. The officials added insult to Wenger’s injury by claiming they didn’t see it ! Hoisted by your own petard or what?

Perhaps mindful of the energy sapping hot conditions Liverpool continued to allow Arsenal space and tried to hit them on the break. However, chances were few and far between. The only one I can remember was a Danny Murphy’s free-kick which Heskey nodded straight at Seaman. Arsenal however, just couldn’t make their dominance pay off. Just under the hour Henry again left Westerveld foundering and set up Ashley Cole with the easiest of chances. However his effort was cleared off the line by Hyypia. Sami came to the rescue again shortly after he headed off the line once more, this time from Ljungberg.

By now the writing was on the wall in big ten foot letters saying “Arsenal goal”. Around the 70 minute mark Westerveld, who putting it mildly wasn’t having one of his better days, made a poor defensive clearance. Pires collected and set up Ljungberg who rounded the Dutchman and to score with ease. A deserved lead and I wouldn’t have complained had Henry made it two afterwards but Westerveld redeemed himself with a brilliant point blank save.

It’s very easy in the cold light of day nearly six years after this game to say that Arsenal should have won but at the time, such is your bias, that your mind works in mysterious ways. I remember clearly thinking, much to my friends disbelief, that for all Arsenal’s dominance we were still in the game and that we were bound to get a decent chance at some stage or another and that, unlike Arsenal, we would make it count. One friend likened these protestations to those of the knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” that’s had all his limbs removed in duel with another knight yet still maintains he can continue fighting and beat him! However, in terms of the game one Michael James Owen was about to serve us with “something completely different”.

Take yourself back to 30th June 1998, St Etienne, France. Its England v Argentina World Cup last sixteen. Seventeen year old Michael Owen picks up the ball from David Beckham and embarks on a bewildering run that puts the Argentine defence on the back foot. Having kept the ball what seems an age and pushing further and further in the Argentine territory, Owen unleashes a terrific shot to score one of the best England goals ever and one of the best in World Cup history.

Of the next six minutes in the 2001 FA Cup final Michael Owen said “I will go to bed dreaming about those goals. It was better than scoring in the World Cup”

Ray Parlour fouled Jamie Carragher on the left side of the pitch. Gary McAllister’s free kick was only half dealt with by Martin Keown. Markus Babbel nodded the ball back towards Michael Own who smashed it across Seaman’s body into the far corner. 1-1.

Every time I look at the winning goal I can’t quite believe that it went in. I still think Seaman’s going to save it or that it’s going to go wide. Owen picked up Berger’s long pass, left Adams and Dixon in his wake and threaded an early, precise, low drive that squeezed past Seaman and then inside the his near post. To me it looks as Seaman did everything right in covering the near post. The gap must have been miniscule yet Owen’s effort found it with almost laser guided precision.

The relief at having been under the cosh for so long then to produce something like that was amazing. I could talk up our performance and say that we had a plan to use “dope on a rope” tactics, aka Ali in the Rumble in Jungle Fight against George Foreman, by absorbing Arsenal and then, once they were spent force hitting then on the break. However, in all honesty I just think they didn’t take their chances and we took ages to get going. Arsenal fans will say all sorts of things about that game but they too, twelve years earlier, experienced the joy of securing silverware in the most dramatic, last minute circumstances! For that reason I hope they can appreciate why this is one my favourite ever Liverpool Cup finals. It’s Roy of the Rovers stuff, the sort of game you would act out in your back garden as a kid.

After this game Henry Winter in Daily Telegraph said “Gérard Houiller is building a team capable of challenging in the championship marathon”. Four days later we would win the UEFA Cup and four years later the Champions League but to date we have never broken Manchester United’s and Arsenal’s and now Chelsea’s vice like grip on to top domestic honour. For all the glory of that hot day at the Millennium this is still the one trophy where our achievements still lie, gathering dust, in the previous century.

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