Richard Williams at the Millennium Stadium
Whether it was the sight of the two sets of fans playing impromptu games of football together in the streets around the stadium before making their way inside, or the whipcrack of noise that greeted the announcement of each West Ham player's name during the pre-match build-up, Saturday's FA Cup final promised something special. And at the end of a long and unusually gruelling season, in which the majority of Premiership clubs found themselves competing for something or other right into May, the players of Liverpool and West Ham United reached deep into their reserves of physical and mental stamina to produce the tournament's most compelling climax in recent memory.
Although far from the greatest match in purely technical terms, the 125th final was nevertheless a contest reaching the highest levels in other respects, a battle between near-equals that not even the essentially unsatisfying nature of a penalty shoot-out could diminish. And now, thanks to two right-footed drives of withering power and an overall performance of implacable authority, Steven Gerrard will join the list of those, including Stanley Matthews, Bert Trautmann, Jim Montgomery, Alan Sunderland and Ricardo Villa, whose names are forever associated with the trophy.
There had been a danger that this final would be overshadowed by Arsenal's meeting with Barcelona this week and by next month's festival of football in Germany, on which so many English hopes rest. Refusing to play second fiddle, however, Saturday's teams reinfused this frequently abused old tournament with the virtues that legend claims on its behalf.
Around the world viewers in other footballing countries will have had their impressions of the English game soundly reinforced. Whatever it may have lacked in finesse of thought and execution, this match lived up to the competition's finest traditions of emotional generosity. While it was going on, nothing else mattered. The universe consisted of one football pitch, two squads and 71,140 spectators. And for once extra-time and the shoot-out became bonuses rather than tiresome prolongations.
This may have been the last FA Cup decider to be played at the Millennium Stadium but it had more of the Wembley aura about it than all the five previous finals played in Cardiff put together; even more, surely, than any but the finest of the 72 matches played at Wembley itself. It had two clubs whose first successes in the competition came only a year apart (West Ham's in 1964, Liverpool's in 1965) and had gone on to repeat their triumph; it had a clear favourite, the current champions of Europe, and an equally obvious underdog, a side who have spent the last eight months consolidating their return to the top flight of domestic football; it had a sprinkling of imported stars in a setting of home-produced talent.
But for an FA Cup final to work properly, it needs mistakes. It has to have players who are overcome by the nature of the occasion or, in the case of those from other football cultures, who are disconcerted by sudden exposure to the passions unleashed within the stadium. The latter phenomenon found its expression in the performance of Xabi Alonso, normally such a cultured and calm presence at the heart of Liverpool's midfield but on this occasion a man who could hardly dispatch the simplest pass with any hope of reaching his intended target. It was his short lateral ball that was intercepted by the extraordinary Yossi Benayoun, who started the move which ended with Jamie Carragher's heel giving West Ham the first goal of the match after 20 minutes.
When underdogs take the lead, anything can happen. And when West Ham doubled their advantage seven minutes later, thanks to Pepe Reina's misfield, the drama intensified. Now any Liverpool comeback would need to be on the scale of that seen in Istanbul a year ago, and so it proved to be. But West Ham succeeded where Milan had failed by restoring their lead, thanks to Paul Konchesky's over-hit cross, after Djibril Cissé and Gerrard had brought Liverpool level.
The pitch was hard and the grass short but in the last half-hour of normal time we might have been at Wembley in decades past as the strength drained from the players' legs. One after another they went down, clutching hamstrings, calf muscles and groins. Harry Kewell was the first to leave the stage, unmourned and virtually alone in making a minimal contribution to the afternoon. Alonso, beaten by a glorious Benayoun dummy, could do nothing more than hack down the Israeli midfielder a minute later and was summarily replaced as both teams began to remove exhausted warriors.
"The fourth official has indicated that four extra minutes will be allowed," the announcer told the crowd, and on the final syllable of the word "allowed" the right boot of Gerrard sent the ball rifling past Shaka Hislop from a range of 30 yards, silencing West Ham's victory anthems and setting up an unforgett- able extra half-hour of pain and suffering.
By now all substitutions had been used and Liverpool's players, with a 62-match season in their legs, seemed to suffer most. After only five minutes of extra-time Carragher and Steve Finnan were both trying to stretch away the effects of cramp. Cissé, who had worn one red boot and one white boot in the first half and a matching fluorescent lime green pair in the second, pulled up with an injured thigh. Under other circumstances he would have been off the pitch and straight on to the treatment table. But if there was any thought of his place in France's World Cup squad in his head, he did not show it. With heavy strapping around the damaged muscle, he carried on.
And so, most poignantly of all, did Marlon Harewood, West Ham's heavyweight forward, who redeemed an otherwise unremarkable performance by playing out the last five minutes with a heavily bandaged left foot and ankle. It was West Ham's unhappy fate that when Nigel Reo-Coker's header came back off the post and bounced in front of Harewood with a minute of extra-time left, the striker could only flail vainly at it with that same injured limb, his movement now excruciatingly restricted.
Drama on drama, bad luck chasing good, a denouement featuring Reina's redemption, and an outcome that no one could claim was fortuitous or undeserved. In every other sense, however, you would have to say that a marvellous day ended with honours even.
Greatest ever? How the classics were reported
1953 Blackpool 4 Bolton Wanderers 3
The game that produced perhaps the most familiar piece of grainy football footage from the black-and-white era. The 38-year-old Stanley Matthews inspired Blackpool to come back from 3-1 down with half an hour remaining to win 4-3. It was the first Cup-winner's medal for Matthews, described as "carrying the hope of the nation", in three attempts.
1966 Everton 3 Sheffield Wednesday 2
A final that had almost everything, including a pitch invasion by a lone Everton fan. The star of the day was Mike Trebilock, a late addition to the Everton side who was not even listed in the programme. He scored twice in five second-half minutes to cancel out Wednesday's two-goal lead. Derek Temple then scored Everton's late winner.
1979 Arsenal 3 Manchester United 2
The "five-minute final". A game that seemed to be drifting quietly towards a comfortable 2-0 win for the Gunners was turned on its head in the 86th minute. First Gordon McQueen then Sammy McIlory scored in the space of 115 seconds to draw United level. But with Arsenal seemingly shattered, Liam Brady, "socks tumbling around his ankles, the sweat of effort darkening his shirt" according to the Sunday Express, embarked on one last mazy run. He set up Graham Rix to cross for Alan Sunderland to squeeze home the winner at the far post in the last minute.
1981 Tottenham 3 Manchester City 2
This time it was the turn of the light blue half of Manchester to come off second best in a five-goal thriller at the hands of Arsenal's north London rivals. The 100th Cup final went to a replay, which was settled in the most thrilling fashion when Spurs' Argentinian midfielder Ricky Villa embarked on a dazzling late 30-yard run, beating three defenders with mesmerising close control before clipping the ball past City keeper Joe Corrigan.
1987 Coventry City 3 Tottenham 2
Coventry's only major domestic honour was won in one of the most open and entertaining of finals, its iconic moment Keith Houchen's spectacular diving header that brought the Sky Blues their second equaliser against a talented Tottenham team. Gary Mabbutt's own goal in extra-time provided a rather cruel decisive twist, but few not associated with Tottenham begrudged John Sillett's side their success.
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