Heskey heads off bravehearts

An hour and a half before the kick-off, the players of Wycombe Wanderers walked out on to the Villa Park pitch in their new warm-up kit. Each had just been handed his copy of the match programme, and most of them were busy ensuring that their names were there, next to the legends of Liverpool in a real-life FA Cup semi-final.

In all honesty, that was the closest they were to come to taking the next step. Despite the display of copious amounts of courage and endeavour, there was never any real doubt that the side currently 18th in the Nationwide Second Division would be forced to yield to the team standing fourth in the Premier League.

Not that they made it easy for their opponents. As the match went into injury-time, with Liverpool desperately clearing their lines, it was impossible not to admire the way Wycombe had conducted themselves. Their limitations were plain to see, but they had strained every sinew to give an account of themselves that would at least do justice to their feat in reaching the last four and reward the 20,000 fans who made the journey up the M40.

Even when goals from Emile Heskey and Robbie Fowler, in the 78th and 83rd minutes, had appeared to put the issue beyond doubt, Wycombe came back to keep the match alive with a classic underdog's route one goal, finished off by a looping shot from their captain, Keith Ryan. And then, urged on by the blue-clad mass in the Holte End, they produced a feverish final assault which Liverpool repelled only at some cost to their manager's nerves.

So Lawrie Sanchez could lead his team back home with a real sense of pride. After all, with 45 minutes gone the score had been nil-nil -just as it had been at the Nou Camp on Thursday - except that then Liverpool's opponents had been Rivaldo, Kluivert and the rest of Barcelona's all-star team, rather than Andy Rammell, Paul McCarthy, and Wycombe's collection of Conference veterans and honest journeymen. And the other difference was that this time Liverpool were trying to score goals rather than prevent them.

Liverpool had appeared in 21 previous semi-finals in the competition, and Wycombe in none. Now Liverpool will attempt to win it for the sixth time, which would give them their second trophy of the season, with a third - the Uefa Cup - still a possibility. No wonder Gérard Houllier received an ovation as he left the pitch.

Once again Houllier shuffled the starting line-up to meet the particular requirements of this tie, selecting Gary McAllister to provide the service for the two strikers, Fowler and Michael Owen, but the plan was foiled by a glistening surface which made accurate through-balls difficult to achieve and McAllister a peripheral figure. The first half passed with few chances for either side, although Martin Taylor in the Wycombe goal distinguished himself by twice dashing out to smother the ball at Owen's feet.

Wycombe's goal attempts before half-time were limited to a speculative 30-yard chip from Ryan which floated over Sander Westerveld's bar and a glancing header with which the same player met Michael Simpson's free-kick, caught with some difficulty by the Liverpool goalkeeper. Both sides had penalty claims denied, first when Chris Vinnicombe appeared to clip Owen's ankles and then when Markus Babbel seemed to push Steve Brown as they tussled under a cross.

The first of Liverpool's two crucial substitutions came six minutes into the second half, Steven Gerrard replacing the limping Nick Barmby and immediately injecting extra pace into Liverpool's attacks. Sanchez replied by throwing on Roy Essandoh, scorer of the last-minute winner in the quarter-final against Leicester City, after 55 minutes, but Wycombe were never able to attack the penalty area with the sort of high balls that might have made the most of his ability in the air.

When Houllier sent on Heskey for Christian Ziege just after the hour, Liverpool switched to a 4-3-3 formation and immediately raised the pressure. After the Wycombe goalkeeper met Heskey's powerful 75th-minute header with a tremendous diving catch, the cries of "Taylor for England" were still ringing around the Holte End when the 34-year-old former coalminer raced out yet again to dive at Owen's feet as the England striker tore in to meet Gerrard's incisive pass. The ball went out for a corner but, after Taylor had punched McAllister's kick away, it was knocked back in by Gerrard with such speed and accuracy that all Heskey had to do was incline his head to send the ball into the net and give Liverpool the lead.

The immediate arrival of Danny Murphy in place of Owen saw Liverpool revert to their original formation, but they were soon able to extend their advantage. After Jamie Bates was adjudged, perhaps harshly, to have brought down Heskey while they tussled for the ball just outside the area, Fowler carefully curled his free-kick inside Taylor's left-hand post.

Ryan's reponse raised the vision of a last-minute miracle, adding statistical respectability to a proud day in the history of a club which played its first match in 1887 but which entered the Football League only eight years ago. The refusal of the dignified Sanchez to employ the tactics of cynicism against more gifted opponents did enormous credit to him and his players, among whom the resolute Brown and his midfield partner Dannie Bulman were outstanding.

Wycombe (0) 1 - 2 (0) Liverpool
Ryan (88) Heskey (78)
Fowler (83)

Wycombe Wanderers
Taylor; Bates, Cousins, McCarthy, Townsend (Carroll); Brown (Whittingham), Bulman, Ryan, Simpson, Vinnicombe; Rammell (Essandoh).

Westerveld; Babbel, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Ziege (Heskey); Hamann, McAllister; Barmby (Gerrard), Fowler, Owen (Murphy).

Referee: P. A. Durkin (Portland)

Attendance: 40,037

Wycombe Wanderers: Brown (28) Cousins (55)
Liverpool: None

Sent off
Wycombe Wanderers: 11
Liverpool: 11

Wycombe Wanderers: 6
Liverpool: 5

Goal attempts
Wycombe Wanderers: 4
Liverpool: 8

On target
Wycombe Wanderers: 2
Liverpool: 6

Hit woodwork
Wycombe Wanderers: 0
Liverpool: 0

Wycombe Wanderers: 0
Liverpool: 1 

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001

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