Golden Goal: Gary McAllister for Liverpool v Everton (2001)

Golden Goal: Gary McAllister for Liverpool v Everton (2001)

The Scot’s arrival at Anfield raised eyebrows but following a stunning winner in the Merseyside derby he was well on his way to becoming a club legend
Sachin Nakrani

Sachin Nakrani

Thu 6 Oct 2016 10.42 BST

For Phil Thompson it is simply “that moment”, and a little over 15 years on he can recollect it with crystal clarity. The build-up, the pressure, the atmosphere, the seconds ticking away, the set-up, the strike, the joy that followed and how ultimately he was delighted to have been proven wrong.

It was towards the end of the 1999-00 season that Gérard Houllier, Liverpool’s then manager, asked his assistant what he thought about signing Gary McAllister, a highly-skilled, much-respected midfielder but who by that stage was 35-years-old and had spent the past four campaigns as part of a Coventry City side that was locked in the bottom half of the table. “I told Gerard that it may send the wrong message to the fans,” Thompson says. “We were meant to be building a team around our talented set of youngsters so it didn’t feel right to bring in someone of Gary’s age. He was a top-quality player, of good footballing stock, but he was at the end of his career. I didn’t see the logic in bringing him in.”

Houllier took on board what his assistant, and friend, said but went ahead and acquired McAllister in late May 2000 on a free transfer. Less than 12 months later, the Frenchman’s decision had been well and truly vindicated. “It proved to be a masterstroke,” Thompson admits. “Gary cost nothing and within a season had became a Liverpool legend. It’s hard to think of another player making such an impact in such a short space of time.”
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There have been others, at Anfield and elsewhere, who blew away expectations in a blink of an eye but few whose contribution was so tangible, in the short and long term. McAllister not only played a pivotal role in Liverpool’s stunning success in the 2000-01 season – the club won three trophies and qualified for the Champions League for a first time – but also helped inspire that “talented set of youngsters” on to greater things, most significantly a 20-year-old, cropped-haired midfielder called Steven Gerrard.

Such was the span of McAllister’s impact at Liverpool that it should be difficult to pick out a standout memory from his two years at the club, but Thompson can. For the 62-year-old boyhood Red it can only be what the Scot did to Everton in April 2001, that stunning stoppage-time winner in a stormy derby that not only silenced the majority of those watching on at Goodison Park but injected a surge of belief into a team that would go on to clean up.

To fully appreciate what McAllister did against Everton, and went onto do during the final weeks of the 2000-01 season, it is worth remembering how testing the player’s arrival at Anfield had been. Thompson wasn’t the only one who had doubts over a club of Liverpool’s standing and ambition acquiring someone who was in their mid-thirties, albeit a crucial member of the Leeds United team that had won the title eight years earlier and at Coventry had showed he still retained the ability to dictate the tempo of top-flight matches from central midfield. McAllister was a pass master but many felt he was past his best.

Fortunately for McAllister, Houllier did not share that opinion and so targeted the softly-spoken son of Motherwell towards the end of what was his first full season in sole charge of Liverpool, one that would end with the club finishing fourth.

Back then, that was not good enough for Champions League qualification – you had to finish at least third and Liverpool missed out to Leeds by two points. Ahead of the new campaign, a return to Europe’s elite competition for the first time since 1985 was a must and Houllier, going against the scepticism and concerns of others, including his second-in-command, felt Coventry’s No10 could help.

“Gerard wanted to shake off the Spice Boys image at Liverpool,” McAllister told the journalist Graham Hunter during a recent interview. “I never really brought into that image – they were a good team, a team that should’ve done better – but the Spice Boys thing hung around them and Gerard wanted a senior player who could bring something a wee bit different.

“He told me: ‘You won’t be playing every game – we want to bring you in to lead by example’. That was fine but once you get there you think: ‘maybe I can influence things a wee bit more’.”
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Such was McAllister’s desire to take full advantage of a move he described as a “fairytale”, and aware of the doubts regarding his ability to cut it at the very highest level, he got to work immediately on reaching a standard of fitness that would allow him “to hit the ground running from minute one in the first day of training”. The Scot took his lead from seeing how his compatriot Gordon Strachan had prepared himself prior to joining Leeds at a similar age in 1989 and the impact was as he intended: “I got immediate respect,” McAllister recalls of his early training sessions at Liverpool’s Melwood base.

On the pitch, life began less than smoothly for the oldest of Liverpool’s six summer signings. Having come on as a 68th-minute substitute in the opening day victory over Bradford City, McAllister was picked from the start for the visit to Arsenal three days later. He only last 39 minutes of the 2-0 defeat, however, after being shown a straight red card by referee Graham Poll for a two-footed tackle on Patrick Vieira, who himself was later dismissed, as was Dietmar Hamann.

McAllister didn’t play again for Liverpool until the 4-0 victory at Derby County in mid-October but from there his influence on the team grew, so much so that Houllier trusted him to start in a number of high-profile games, including both legs of the Uefa Cup last-16 tie with Roma.

In part, McAllister got his chances to impress due to the injuries Gerrard was collecting during a period of early-career growing pains for the tyro who would go on to become king, but that did not lead to resentment on his part. Quite the opposite, in fact, with Gerrard testifying to the importance of having McAllister in close proximity during his formative years.

“On away trips I timed my run to the bus so I could sit next to McAllister, absorbing advice,” Gerrard wrote in his 2006 autobiography. “Every journey was like a lesson, with me an awestruck pupil. Gary Mac definitely helped me, particularly with my passing. He was such a clever man in possession himself. Just watching Gary in training improved me. He was a master-class on legs.”

The like of Danny Murphy, Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen, who were 23, 22 and 20 respectively when McAllister joined them at Liverpool, have also spoken of the impact the Scot had on them. “There couldn’t have been a finer role model for any young player,” Carragher wrote in his own autobiography. “Some older heads when they offer advice can sound preachy and make you want to switch off. Gary Mac wasn’t like that. When he had something to tell you, it always made sense. I’m sure the two years many of us spent working with him had a huge influence on our careers.”

Influencing games and influencing players around him, McAllister had firmly settled at Liverpool as the ‘business end’ of the 2000-01 season approached, but one thing he was struggling to do in a red shirt was score goals. By the spring there has only been one – the opener in a 4-1 victory over Coventry in November 2000, and the midfielder’s record suggested he should be chipping in with more. Indeed, he got 13 during the 1999-00 campaign, finishing as Coventry’s top-scorer, just ahead of Robbie Keane.

A fair few of those 13 goals came from set pieces and in fairness to McAllister, he did not have similar responsibility for free-kicks and penalties at Liverpool. What he needed as the season moved towards its conclusion was a chance to show what he could do with a dead ball ...

Liverpool travelled to Goodison Park on 16 April 2001 – Easter Monday – in stuttering form. A 1-1 draw with Derby the previous month saw them slip out of the top three and so the last thing they could afford was to drop points in their back-to-back games against Ipswich Town and Leeds, two of the teams they were competing with for a top-three finish. Liverpool drew with Ipswich and then, on Good Friday, lost to Leeds at Anfield. It was a blow and one that made the trip across Stanley Park even more significant. Sat in fifth with seven games remaining, Houllier’s men simply had to win.

Remarkably, Liverpool had not done that at Everton since 1990. The Blues, to put it mildly, were not the force they once were but they got themselves up for the derby. “The pressure was really on us going into the game,” Thompson remembers. “Leeds had beaten us a few days earlier and now we were facing a team who love nothing more than beating Liverpool. We knew it was going to be a battle”.

And that it was. Reporting for the Guardian, Paul Walker described the 164th meeting of Merseyside’s big two as “chaotic” and “spiteful” and for Liverpool, the hostilities began prior to kick-off when a minority of Everton fans failed to respect a minute’s silence for the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster. During the game itself, there were 12 bookings, with two of those shown to Igor Biscan, Liverpool’s right-winger on the day. The visitors also had to endure a missed penalty by Robbie Fowler and, most galling of all, two lost leads, with David Unsworth getting Everton back on level terms for a second time with just seven minutes remaining.

Heading into the third minute of stoppage time, a 2-2 draw looked like being Liverpool’s lot. That was unless someone could produce a late moment of magic.

Cue “that moment.”

McAllister had not been having the best of games – the frantic nature of proceedings making a player of such refined skills a somewhat peripheral figure – and instead it was Hamann, the Scot’s partner in central midfielder, who was the more influential of the two, with the German playing key passes in the build-up to Liverpool’s first two goals, scored by Emile Heskey and Markus Babbel. But after Gregory Vignal was fouled by Niclas Alexandersson as he led a counter-attack into Everton’s half, McAllister had no hesitation stepping up to take the free-kick.

Liverpool’s No21 was 44 yards away from goal but, as Evertonians are quick to point out, he did not stay that far out for long. “Thank God referees didn’t have their sprays back then because Gary moved that free-kick forward by at least five yards!” Thompson remembers with a hearty laugh.

Positioned left of centre inside Everton’s half, McAllister’s intention appeared clear – to play a right-footed cross towards the back post. That certainly seemed to be how Liverpool’s posse of four players inside the area read the situation, in particular Sami Hyypia, who having been by the penalty spot, jogged in that direction. McAllister raised his left arm and pointed towards where the centre-back was moving. His body was also facing that way. Everything seemed set for a deep, inswinging delivery.

“Gary showed his experience and intelligence, and just how crafty he could be, because he saw the goalkeeper also move towards the back post and decided to give him the eyes,” says Thompson. “Normally you give the keeper the eyes from 10 yards, Gary did it from closer to 40.”

In front of McAllister was a two-man wall consisting of Alexandersson and Kevin Campbell. Had they stood firm the result, and history, may have been different. But they didn’t. As McAllister ran towards the ball, Campbell edged towards his left, creating a gap which the midfilder’s subsequent shot travelled through.

Alongside a huge element of surprise, it had whip and bounce – one to be precise, just before the goaline and strong enough to take the ball past Everton’s keeper Paul Gerrard as he made a despairing and ultimately futile dive back towards the near post.

“What a goal by Gary McAllister!” exclaimed Sky Sports commentator Alan Parry as the player ran in celebration towards the Liverpool bench. There stood Houllier, whose wide-eyed, wide-mouth expression was akin to that of a toddler who had just spotted his mummy at the nursery gates.

“It was mayhem when the ball hit the back of the net,” recollects Thompson. “The Liverpool fans over by the far side celebrated like we’d won the FA Cup while all the staff went completely mad. I was all over the place and I’ll never forget seeing Sammy Lee [Liverpool’s assistant coach] jumping on the players as they charged over to us.”

Liverpool supporter and football writer Steven Scragg was at Goodison Park that evening and, like Thompson, will never forget the moment McAllister struck. “The Upper Bullens is one of the most aesthetically pleasing places for going nuts to an injury-time winning goal on derby day and it’s fair to say the away section embraced bedlam when that ball hit the back of the Everton net,” he says. “It was a release of utter joy, an exorcising of anger and frustration. There was a sense of Everton getting away with something, but then McAllister obliterated it all with that swing of his right boot.”

The victory was dramatic but it did not lift Liverpool from fifth. Crucially, however, they were now only three points behind Leeds in fourth and six behind Ipswich in third with a game in hand on the former and two in hand on the latter. Given the nature of their triumph over Everton, there was also a sense of destiny swirling across Anfield.

“That’s why I call Gary’s goal ‘that moment’,” says Thompson. “It not only won us the derby but gave us real belief that we could get into the Champions League and reestablish the club among the biggest and best in Europe. It was huge.”

And that is what Liverpool did – winning five and drawing one of their remaining six league games to pip Leeds to third. They also beat Arsenal in the FA Cup final and Alaves in the Uefa Cup final on the back of having triumphed over Birmingham City in February’s League Cup final. It was a remarkable achievement by one of English football’s most underrated squads, one that combined ruggedness and resilience with craft and a killer edge.

And central to their surge to glory, in position and contribution, was McAllister. Following his goal at Goodison Park, the Scot scored in each of his next four appearances, with each strike not only important but also reiterating the player’s deadly accuracy from dead balls – a penalty that secured victory against Barcelona in the Uefa Cup semi-final, second leg at Anfield, the penalty which reestablished Liverpool’s lead in their 3-1 league win against Tottenham Hotspur, the free-kick that sealed all three points against Coventry at Highfield Road, and another successful free-kick away to Bradford.

And then there was the 41st-minute penalty and the free-kick in extra time that led to Delfi Geli’s decisive own goal in the 5-4 win against Alaves. Amid the celebrations at Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion, McAllister was presented with the man-of-the-match trophy by Johan Cruyff. Not surprisingly, the Scot describes that night as the best of his career.

McAllister final season at Liverpool was a more muted affair – he made 38 appearances but scored just twice and not at all after 9 October 2001. But as far as the fans were concerned he had done enough, see by the fact he was given a standing ovation after coming on as an 82nd minute in his final appearance in a red shirt - the end-of-season 5-0 victory over Ipswich at Anfield.

To this day, his name is still sung by the Liverpool faithful via the ‘Gary Macca’ song, which to the tune of Alouette celebrates “yer derby goal”. And from those who worked with McAllister have come the most resounding of tributes. Houllier hails him as his “most inspirational signing”, while Thompson recalls the Scot being “perfection in everything he did.”

And from Carragher comes perhaps the most profound and poignant piece of praise: “If ever a player was born to play for Liverpool it was him. He fitted the bill as someone the fans could relate to, classy and cultured on the off the pitch and reminding the club of the working-class Scottish heritage that has been so influential in our history.

“No player has been at a club for such a short period but made such a lasting impression. It’s a tragedy for Liverpool they didn’t sign him 10 years earlier. The club would have won a lot more trophies during that time.”

Copyright - The Guardian

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