Gerrard's FA Cup dream
The thirteenth of May 2006 was a good day at the office, a day to tell my children about as they grow older. ‘This is my FA Cup final,’ I told myself as Liverpool’s coach inched through the raucous crowd and into the fantastic Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. ‘This is my moment.’ I was Liverpool’s leader, settled at the club I love. I was in the prime of my life, settled with the woman I love. I had the respect of my peers, having just been named the Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year – an unbelievable honour. Christ, I was ready for the 125th FA Cup final. My stage, my time. In the build-up to the clash with West Ham United, I played the match through in my head at least three times. I used up a lot of energy thinking about every possibility, reminding myself constantly of the need to take responsibility, to seize the moment. Liverpool expected me to deliver. So did I. As I laced my boots, I looked at the name stitched into the tongue: Lily-Ella. Come on, this final’s for her. Let’s go to work.
I led Liverpool out onto the pitch and into an unbelievable scene. All the fans, from Liverpool and West Ham, were magnificent, cheering twenty-two players as we lined up. We were favourites, a strange sensation. In all our other cup finals, Birmingham apart, Liverpool had been underdogs. Even against Alaves we weren’t overwhelming favourites because we weren’t flying in the Premiership. In massive Champions League games, against heavyweights like Chelsea or Juventus, Liverpool were never given much hope. I liked that. Going into a game knowing the pressure was on the opposition was fine by me. But this was different. Everybody thought we would steamroller West Ham. I certainly never underestimated the Hammers. They have a terrific manager in Alan Pardew, a good captain in Nigel Reo-Coker, and other decent players.
West Ham were up for this final, all right, as I quickly discovered. Paul Konchesky and Carl Fletcher both clattered me early on. Straight through. Whack. Hide the pain, Stevie, don’t complain. Get on with it. I picked myself up, raised also by Liverpool fans singing the stirring ‘Fields of Anfield Road’, and hurled myself back into the fray. Get stuck in. Had to. West Ham meant business. We knew all about the Hammers but we didn’t expect them to be so good on the day, or so dangerous on the counter-attack. Early on we tried to dominate, but we got caught on the break because Pardew had packed his side with pace.
Within twenty-one minutes, we were behind. Carra couldn’t do much about the own-goal, diverted in from Lionel Scaloni’s cross. Carra had to go for it, because Marlon Harewood was lurking behind him and would have stuck it away. I was gutted for Carra. I knew how much the own-goal would hurt him. Carra’s dead proud. If Liverpool had lost that FA Cup final 1–0, he wouldn’t have been able to live with it. Defeat would have killed him for years and years. He’s such a competitor. In terms of goals scored at either end, Carra’s about one goal down overall. Whenever the Liverpool lads wind him up about his goals record, Carra shouts, ‘I’m about 350 up if you look at the goals I’ve stopped.’ Carra has an answer for everything. He’s right though. No-one could ever point the finger at him because he has been a rock for Liverpool.
We had to pull Carra out of the mess, had to fight back. But West Ham were on fire, and when they scored again, through Dean Ashton, a fear kicked in that I was not going to get my hands on the FA Cup. Ashton’s goal was a bad mistake by Jose Reina, who spilled Matthew Etherington’s shot into the striker’s path, but none of us Liverpool lads would dream of blaming Jose. Our Spanish keeper saved us so many times that season. But two mistakes meant we were 2–0 down. Come on, lads! Let’s get going!
The players lifted themselves. As we started to play a bit better, inspiring thoughts of Istanbul crept in. Time for another great escape. Pulling one back just before half-time was crucial. I spotted Djibril’s run into the box. Have to hit him. Can’t waste this golden chance. I took aim and whipped the ball into the box, where Djibril’s finish was sensational. He didn’t get much credit that season, but he deserves massive praise for that volley, because it got us back into the FA Cup. He had a rough year, playing out of position, and I know he didn’t get on with Rafa too well; it was no surprise when he moved to Marseille. Djibril’s a bit different. Some of his decisions to do with clothes, cars, tattoos and hair have me shaking my head in disbelief, but as a person Djibril’s a great lad, and really caring. He’ll do anything for you. I won’t miss his colourful clothes, but I will miss his bright personality. I hope he enjoys better luck at Marseille than he had at Liverpool. He will always be remembered at Anfield for that Cardiff belter.
In the Millennium dressing-room at half-time, Rafa made his usual inspirational speech. When the boys went back out, we were even more fired up. Liverpool lagged one goal behind but we had our tails up – let’s take West Ham now! But as the second half wore on I worried about whether it was going to happen. Whenever I received the ball in West Ham’s half, I tried too hard to push for the breakthrough. That’s natural, I know. I was desperate to get that equalizer. We cannot lose, must not lose!
It was Peter Crouch, tall, gangly Crouchy, who rescued us. After the game the press and everyone focused on my performance in Cardiff, but Crouchy was key. When Xabi lifted a nothing ball into West Ham’s box, Crouchy, Fernando Morientes and Danny Gabbidon went up for it. The moment I saw Crouchy stretching his neck, I started jogging into an area where I thought the ball would drop, around twelve yards out. Crouchy got the knockdown; it was bouncing and perfect for a shot. ‘Over!’ I screamed at Sami, ordering him to leave it. The set was ideal, and I caught it sweetly. Bang. Back of the net, 2–2. In the celebrations, I thanked Crouchy for the set. If Crouchy hadn’t been on the pitch, I would never have scored. He’s been a good buy for Liverpool, and he has proved a lot of doubters wrong. When Crouchy arrived from Southampton, he was flying in training. Dead confident. Then his belief dipped low because he couldn’t find the net, and that was when we played Bare Arse in training. Crouchy’s form and goal touch returned, and he now looks a top player for Liverpool. He will work well with Craig Bellamy, our new signing for 2006/07.
What a crazy final it was turning out to be. Liverpool were level for only twelve minutes. When Yossi Benayoun put Konchesky in on the left, there seemed no danger, no problem. We can handle this. I was running in at a decent speed and stretched out my leg into the perfect position to block his cross. But Konchesky mishit the ball. sh*t. There were only two places it could go: over the bar or into the top corner. Jose, off his line, was caught out badly. The ball sailed over him, a freak goal, but an utterly preventable goal. Jose should be really disappointed.
At that point, Liverpool looked doomed. A West Ham fan had just notched a winner. Our fans were quiet; their supporters were in party town. A few of our lads’ heads were down. West Ham’s name was on the cup. Call the engravers and make it official. It’s over. To cap it all, cramp plagued my legs, a season’s load of fifty-seven games at full throttle finally catching up with me. Cardiff is a big pitch, and the weather was dead hot, so I was close to meltdown. The clock ran down, and I prepared for the worst. We needed impetus from somewhere.
Rafa, always top man with the subs, sent Didi on, giving me licence to push further forward. We were all over the place, desperate for the equalizer. I saw Carra bomb on in the left-wing position, making up ground, carrying us towards West Ham’s box. We lost possession, but because Cissé went down injured, Scaloni sportingly put the ball out. When we returned the ball to Scaloni, the Argentinian hoofed it back to us. Thanks! I got it and found Riise, who drilled the ball into West Ham’s box. I heard the Millennium announcer declare, ‘There will be a minimum of four minutes’ stoppage time.’ The countdown had begun: Liverpool were 240 seconds from oblivion.
I was cramping up, nothing left, but I had to be around for the scraps. As the announcer’s words drifted away, I hobbled forward. Morientes and Gabbidon fought for Riise’s cross and the ball flew back out. Towards me. Christ! I stood there, legs stiff as boards, tank empty, thirty yards from goal with this ball coming my way. Everyone raves about what happened next, but they don’t realize one crucial thing: if my legs hadn’t been riddled with cramp, I would have brought the ball down and tried to build an attack. I was a long way out. Too far to shoot, surely? Come on! Be realistic! There had to be too many bodies in the way? But the cramp made up my mind. I looked at the ball. ‘It’s set decent,’ I told myself, ‘so have a go, try to hit the target. Nothing to lose, Stevie.’
I made contact, pouring my few remaining drops of energy into the ball, willing it on its way. People said the ball went in at a decent speed, but it seemed to take ages to travel those thirty yards. My senses were drained, the cramp and the tension taking their toll. Through blurred vision, I saw Shaka Hislop moving. Has he saved it? Has it gone in? Please God. Then I saw the net ripple and stretch. I saw the Liverpool fans leap up. I saw the West Ham fans and players collapse. It was in – 3–3.
My first reaction was of pure shock. I was surprised how well I hit it because of the mess my body was in. All my muscles were pulling. But there was no pain from hitting the ball so hard; there never is when you catch the ball so well. Those two strikes in the 2006 FA Cup final were the best I ever caught the ball. The feeling ripping through me matched the one after my Champions League header, although my second FA Cup final goal was better – my best ever goal. The brilliance of it still hasn’t sunk in. I still can’t believe I scored from so far out. On the Millennium pitch, I couldn’t celebrate properly, I was too shattered. I just smiled and patted the GERRARD on my back.
Extra time felt like running through wet cement. Everyone was tired, yet West Ham could still have won it when Reo-Coker headed goalwards. Has to be in. Somehow, Jose appeared from nowhere and pushed the ball away onto the post – an unbelievable save. That one in Cardiff and Jerzy’s off Shevchenko in Istanbul were the best two I have ever seen. I was made up for Jose. It would have been a shame if we lost the FA Cup final on Reina’s mistakes, because he had been one of our players of the season. Even then West Ham could have won it, but Marlon Harewood, hobbling badly, missed the follow-up. Football’s a harsh business; there’s such a fine line between success and failure. Harewood gets the shot on target, West Ham lift the FA Cup, and my heart gets broken. But I didn’t feel sympathy for Marlon or West Ham. I couldn’t. You have to be hard in football. I don’t think Harewood, Reo-Coker or Konchesky would have felt sorry for Carra or Reina if Liverpool had lost.
Football is brutal, and nothing is more brutal than penalties. Such unforgiving tests of nerve. But the moment the final went to a shoot-out, I knew it would be me lifting the FA Cup, not Reo-Coker. No question. The pens were down the West Ham end, an advantage to them as we would get battered by their fans when we stepped up. No problem. Confidence and a feeling of responsibility surged through me. As captain, I wanted to set an example.
‘Can I go number one, boss?’ I asked Rafa.
‘You are number three,’ he replied.
As ever, our brilliant manager had a plan. Obviously, I accepted Rafa’s instruction and joined my team-mates in the centre circle.
When Didi strolled forward to take penalty number one, my certainty intensified that Liverpool were on course for a seventh FA Cup. Germans don’t miss from twelve yards. Didi is made for big games, daunting occasions, anything that challenges a man’s mettle. Nothing fazes him. Ball down, step back, run in, goal. Hislop, no chance.
West Ham had no way back from that, I was sure. Reina would see to that. Jose arrived in England with an astonishing record of saving pens back in Spain. At Villarreal, he stopped nine out of eleven, and a keeper doesn’t save that many unless he’s a master. West Ham’s first taker, Bobby Zamora, was up against a goalkeeper with the quickest of reactions, a top professional who had done his research on his opponents. Zamora hit his kick hard and low towards the corner, but Reina read it. He stretched out his right hand and the ball was stopped. West Ham hearts must have stopped as well. If Zamora could take such a good kick and still not beat Reina, what chance did they have?
Hope then smiled briefly on West Ham. Next up for Liverpool was Sami, which surprised me. Our giant Finn has never been a penalty-taker and his kick was pretty disappointing. At least he showed the bottle to go up there. That’s why all the Liverpool lads stood in the centre circle, arms around each other, showing our unity: we were all in this shoot-out together. Win together, lose together – the Liverpool way. Teddy Sheringham then strode towards the spot, and I knew West Ham would draw level. Teddy’s as nerveless as Didi. Bang – 1–1.
Numbers three and four for Liverpool were me, then Riise. We were ready, confident. The pair of us had put in some serious shifts on our penalty technique at Melwood. Three days before Cardiff we thought Rafa might work on pens, but we never did. So me and Riise stayed behind and did our own practice. Unlike his placed effort in Istanbul that missed, Riise kept smashing them in at Melwood.
‘If we go to pens in Cardiff, don’t be changing your mind,’ I told John.
‘I won’t,’ he said. ‘I’ll never sidefoot a pen again. It’s getting smashed.’
I just worked on the same corner, over and over again. Same height, same spot. I’d taken advice off Liverpool’s keepers, Jose, Jerzy and Scott Carson. They showed me the tiny area where a keeper cannot reach the ball, even a keeper with a good spring and great anticipation. Through that practice at Melwood, I kept hitting the mark regularly. Riise shouted over to me, ‘Don’t change your mind in Cardiff either.’ I didn’t. That ball was getting buried, just as at Melwood. Bang, past Hislop, job done.
When Konchesky missed, Riise had the chance to make it 3–1. He went for power down the middle. It went like a bloody missile, a bit too close to Hislop’s feet for comfort, but still into the net. Brilliant! Riise’s quite an insecure character, and if he’d missed again, it would have killed him. His Champions League miss haunted him. Now the ghosts of Istanbul had been smacked away, bang into the net. Cardiff saw the real Riise, such a sweet striker of the ball.
All we needed was for Jose to save from Anton Ferdinand and my hands were on that lovely cup. I’ve met Anton a few times, and he seems a decent guy, but sympathy is the enemy of those chasing victory. I certainly wasn’t thinking ‘Poor Anton!’ when he missed. I was too busy hugging Steve Finnan and the rest of the team. Despite the brutality, penalties are the best and only way to settle finals. We can’t go having replays at that stage of the season. Fans would hate it, too. It would be unfair on them to fork out for another expensive ticket.
When Anton missed, Carra was the first to take off in celebration. It was like he was on a Scalextric track, heading straight ahead, then careering off. f*ck you lot, he’s thinking, where’s my family? I’m off to find my dad! Every time! Carra cracks me up. I love his celebrations. Winning trophies means everything to him and he never hides the emotion. Once he’d waved to his family, he came looking for me. It’s a Scouse thing. Sharing the moment of glory means everything to two kids from Scouse estates. After I collected the FA Cup off Prince William, it was a case of you grab one handle, Carra mate, I’ll hold the other, and let’s go and party.
After I finally laid off spraying people with champagne and was leaving the Millennium pitch, Alan Pardew stopped me and shook my hand. ‘I’d hoped you were saving that for the World Cup,’ he said with a smile. Top man. Pardew’s players were also first-class. They came across, man after man, concealing their agony to say, ‘Well done.’ Everyone associated with West Ham behaved with real dignity in Cardiff, just like the way I try to be in defeat. If they had won, Liverpool could not have complained. Too many of our players were too disappointing. West Ham were desperately unfortunate to lose. Having played so well, it must have been gut-wrenching to go home without the FA Cup, yet they were all gracious. It really moved me that in their hour of utter desolation, West Ham fans stayed behind to applaud as I lifted the FA Cup. I’ll never forget that sporting gesture. I’m Liverpool through and through, head to toe, but I have a place in my heart for West Ham supporters after Cardiff. Fans like West Ham United’s make football special. Usually when we do a lap of honour with a cup, the opponents’ section is empty. The fans have disappeared, dragging their heartache with them. Not in Cardiff on 13 May 2006. The West Ham fans were tremendous, clapping us as we paraded the cup. Both sets of fans were brilliant, which made it such a terrific occasion.
Back in the dressing-room we continued to celebrate, but I was gutted for Harry Kewell, who sat there, ice pressed on his damaged groin. Harry was really emotional, ripped apart with frustration after limping off in another final. I know how bad he felt in Istanbul, so my heart went out to him in Cardiff. It’s horrible seeing a team-mate I respect in bits. But the rest of the team were in party mood. ‘What a fantastic game!’ I screamed.
Everyone raved about the match. The 125th FA Cup final was called the greatest ever, even ‘The Gerrard Final’! That meant the world to me. I love the FA Cup. It has taken a few knocks over recent years, and Premiership clubs are perhaps more focused these days on the Champions League, but Liverpool and West Ham put the shine back on the trophy that day in Cardiff. Good. I never knocked the FA Cup. I never underestimated its importance to fans. When Liverpool went out embarrassingly at Burnley in 2005, I was straight in to see Rafa the next day. I was that upset.
‘What’s the idea of putting out an under-strength side?’ I asked him. I was confused, hurt. Explain! ‘Rafa, before every season I dream of winning the FA Cup. That’s one of our realistic targets every year. The cup’s all I thought about as a kid. Going out of the cup kills me.’
The boss sat me down, and calmly talked me through his reasons. ‘We are in the Champions League,’ Rafa began. ‘We have too many games. Our squad is not good enough to deal with them all. Watch. I will prove to you why I have done it.’
And, of course, Liverpool won the Champions League. I won’t be knocking at the gaffer’s door ever again! Rafa’s always right.
In Cardiff, Rafa helped me fulfil my childhood dream of lifting the FA Cup. For that special moment at the Millennium, and for Istanbul, I will always revere the man. My relationship with Rafa is different to the one I had with Gérard Houllier. I was very, very close to Gérard; he was almost family, almost flesh and blood. Benitez is not cold towards me, just detached. Rafa doesn’t think he needs close bonds with players, even the captain. But respect flows naturally between me and Rafa: he’s the manager, I’m a player. Even when all the Chelsea mess was going on, my respect for him remained strong. When I decided to stay at Anfield, I knew me and Rafa had to make our relationship work to carry Liverpool forward. We both had to make more of an effort. Now, after Istanbul, Cardiff and the Chelsea saga, we have a good professional relationship. But it’s professional.
Everything Rafa says and does is designed to strengthen Liverpool. Twenty minutes after I lifted the FA Cup, Rafa was downstairs talking to the press and telling them Liverpool could have won it without me. ‘I don’t think we would have lost if we didn’t have Stevie,’ he said, ‘because we have played a lot of games without him.’ I’d scored two good goals and banged in a penalty, which was not a bad afternoon’s work, but I understood Rafa. The gaffer was not belittling my contribution, as some people thought, he was just saying that the team is everything, that his number eight is simply a cog in the Liverpool machine. Fair enough.
I was not surprised to hear the gaffer’s comments. In fact, I’m more surprised when Rafa comes out and pays me a compliment. I know how he works now. He’s the complete opposite to Houllier. If Liverpool win and I stick away a dead good hat-trick and do ninety-eight things right and two wrong, Rafa will pull me sharpish. ‘Stevie, about those two mistakes,’ he will say, and then he’ll speak to me for ten minutes about them. Nothing about the hat-trick or the ninety-eight good things! Rafa will never, ever mention the goals, the tackles, the passes. Initially, I was gobsmacked by this. ‘Doesn’t the gaffer like me?’ I thought. ‘Has he got something against me?’ Friends ask me whether Rafa’s cold attitude pisses me off, but it honestly doesn’t. That indifference is one of the million reasons why Rafa is top man in the coaching world. He doesn’t like giving out pats on the back. Sometimes, though, I need that little bit of love, that reassurance during a bad patch. Recently, I’ve detected a slight mellowing in the boss, a willingness to think about giving a compliment. But even then it’s done in such a low-key way I almost don’t realize Rafa has made it.
After the FA Cup final, Liverpool threw a party for the players and families, and Rafa was there. I wandered across to him, buzzing with our victory. As I walked towards him, my mind was full of one hope. Go on, just say it, Rafa. Just say, ‘Well done, Stevie.’ For once. Would he? No chance! Our chat once again revolved around things that went wrong on the day; it was nothing to do with how well Liverpool had done to get back into one of the greatest FA Cup finals ever. ‘Next season,’ Rafa kept saying. ‘Next season, we have to do better in the Premiership.’ Typical Rafa, always looking forward, never revelling in the moment like me and Carra. Rafa never even mentioned my two goals. Top goals, great goals, rescue-act goals. Not a squeak! I smacked in twenty-three goals that season for
Liverpool – not bad for a midfielder. Any other manager would have been all over me. Not Liverpool’s gaffer. ‘You never hit twenty-five,’ he remarked. ‘You missed the target by two!’ But, a smile! Amazing! Rafa actually smiled! Thank God. I wandered back to the lads, thinking, ‘Jesus, that was a compliment off Rafa.’
There I was, on top of the world after the FA Cup final and having scored twenty-three goals over the season, and there was Rafa bringing me back down to earth. Even his tiny compliment was an encouragement to improve. But that’s Rafa, always challenging me to push myself higher. Go for twenty-five goals. Go for thirty. Don’t relax. And Rafa has helped my performances go to another level. He’s such a hungry manager. ‘Small details, Steven, small details’ is one of his biggest shouts. Leave nothing to chance, even the tiniest detail. I’m getting to like this Spaniard more and more, and my aim is still to get a ‘well done’ off him before I retire. But then, if he gives me a ‘well done’, I might need treatment and a long lie-down. My legs would go all wobbly, like that French presenter girl who fainted at the Champions League draw when I was handing the cup back. And it wouldn’t be just me who would keel over if Rafa dished out a compliment. Every player in the Liverpool squad would need serious attention off Doc Waller if Rafa went soft on us. His hardness drives me on. I must crack it, though. I want to deliver in games to impress Rafa. I dream of that ‘well done’!