The 2006 FA Cup Final is widely remembered as being ‘The Gerrard Final’. To be honest, you could label many finals the Liverpool skipper was a part of in the same way. He really was a man for the big occasion. Last week I looked back at the 2001 Uefa Cup final where a young Gerrard imposed his will in a manner beyond his years and of course he had a decent impact on the Istanbul Champions League Final in 2005 as well.
However, there was a good reason that this particular final was above the rest. Before even going back and re-watching I distinctly remembered his many contributions. Surprisingly though I couldn’t recall for sure if it was at Wembley or the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Once the coverage started I couldn’t believe my memory had let me down so badly, of course it was at the Millennium! It was to be the last FA Cup Final there before returning to the new Wembley in 2007.
So without further ado, let the re-watch begin!
In Rafa Benitez’s second season, the Spaniard was slowly building the squad with the players he wanted but he was still without some key men for this fixture. Robbie Fowler had re-signed in January that year but was cup tied for the final and semi-final hero Luis Garcia was also missing through suspension.
Pepe Reina’s arrival had pushed Istanbul savior Jerzy Dudek into a substitute role. The back four were ever presents in Steve Finnan, Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia and John Arne Riise. Momo Sissoko had been recruited to play alongside Xabi Alonso which had in turn moved Gerrard out to a wider right position while Djibril Cissé and Peter Crouch started up top. Harry Kewell rounded out the team hoping to last a little longer than he did in the Champions League Final 12 months earlier (spoiler alert: he did but not by much!). Once again Didi Hamann had to make do with a place on the bench where he was joined by the wonderfully talented yet often underachieving striker Fernando Morientes.
The opponents West Ham were no pushovers but there was no doubt Liverpool were overwhelming favourites that day. Future Red Yossi Benayoun and Nigel Reo-Coker would pose a particular threat pulling the strings behind the lively trio of Marlon Harewood, Mattie Etherington and Dean Ashton.
Within 30 seconds, it was already clear that Gerrard meant business as he torpedoed down the right only to be scythed down cynically by Paul Konchesky. A tackle surely worthy of a yellow card at any other point in the match but the bumbling left back would get a reprieve here.
Crouch was also looking a handful early on. His audacious attempt at a bicycle kick from outside the box was vintage Crouch. It was unusual as well to observe two sides both playing 4-4-2. It is a formation that is so seldom used in the modern game and it shows how quickly the game can move on tactically.
With Alonso conducting the show, Liverpool won a free kick on the edge of the box when Carl Fletcher this time took down Gerrard. Once again a yellow card was not forthcoming and Riise hammered the ensuing chance into the wall.
The first twenty minutes were fairly uneventful until Xabi made a rare mistake in possession as his loose pass was intercepted by Benayoun who in turn found Ashton. He then released Lionel Scaloni with a peach of a pass in behind Riise. The ensuing cross was turned into his own net by Carragher in what still looks like the most awkward of own goals. It was part bad luck, part clumsy from Carra. All that mattered was the Reds were behind.
The situation got even worse just seven minutes later. If Carra’s mistake was understandable, Reina’s was hard to defend. Etherington picked up the ball on the edge of the box and squeezed a tame shot on goal that the Spanish keeper made a right pig’s ear of and Ashton pounced on it like a cat on a mouse to fire the rebound home. The struggle was very real at this stage…
It was interesting to note that while Liverpool were playing in a 4-4-2, the so called wingers in Kewell and Gerrard were popping up centrally between the lines to cause the Hammers problems. Once again Xabi picked one of them out and this time Fletcher hacked down Kewell. Also once again, no card. The resulting free kick was buried on the volley by Crouch but sadly marginally offside. The signs of hope though in overcoming this deficit were indeed evident.
Then just one minute later my instincts proved correct! Gerrard again slid back out to the inside right channel and picked out a supreme diagonal ball over the West Ham defence which was expertly swept home by Cissé. Game on! I’d forgotten how passionate the Frenchman’s celebrations were. His time in Red was ultimately held back by injuries but his impact in big moments was undeniable.
West Ham remained dangerous on the break though. Dean Ashton again went close shooting just wide. Much like Cissé, it was a shame that injuries derailed what was a very promising career for the big striker. He would retire just 3 years later aged only 26.
So we reached half time with the game evenly poised. Liverpool certainly didn’t have it all their own way but is hard to say that the Hammers deserved their lead. Whatever way you look at it, it was already clear it was set up for an exciting second half!
The second forty five began with a bang as Reina was called upon to make two massive saves on Harewood and Benayoun after good work again by Ashton. It wasn’t long afterwards that Harry Kewell’s afternoon was once more cut short by an injury. He had failed to have any sort of impact in the first half and the arrival of Morientes left Liverpool with three bonafide goal scorers on the pitch. Rafa Benitez was definitely going for it.
Tactically though, the shape didn’t change but Cissé moved out to the left and Morientes dropped in next to Crouch as Liverpool reshuffled the pack.
Sure enough, the equaliser was soon to follow as Xabi clipped in a short free kick into the box which was nodded down by Crouch right into the path of the onrushing Gerrard who truly thundered the ball into the roof of the net past Shaka Hislop. Unstoppable. It was a finish overshadowed by his later goal of course but this was a special strike as well by the captain.
The last half an hour of the match seemed almost redundant. After all I knew what was coming and was now impatient to see it. I still of course had to suffer through Konchesky’s fluke of all flukes. In retrospect, I hadn’t realised how avoidable all three West Ham goals were in contrast to three quite brilliant scores by the Reds.
On a side note, Yossi Benayoun was a joy to watch in the second half. I certainly couldn’t appreciate his performance the first time around but he was a true thorn in our side. Clearly, Rafa was also impressed!
The suffering I felt when Xabi Alonso was forced to come off came rushing back when the maestro limped off with 20 minutes to go. At the time losing Alonso seemed to be a devastating blow. However, with every cloud comes a silver lining and the arrival of Jan Kromkamp (are there many more random players then Kromkamp by the way?) pushed Gerrard back into the middle of the pitch.
Didi Hamann then also entered the fray in place of Crouch. The arrival of the German in big finals is akin to the sight of an angry Gini Wijnaldum storming onto the pitch for an injured Andy Roberston against Barcelona: you don’t really know why but you just sense something great is about to happen!
Liverpool were looking short of ideas in the last 15 mins. The prospect of little bubbles being blown all over the stadium in celebration seemed painfully close to a reality.
Then with seven minutes to go, Gerrard went down briefly with what appeared to be a calf issue. If losing Xabi was bad, the sight of Stevie struggling nearly broke me back in 2006. Hopes were not high at all…
Yet on 87 minutes, Liverpool won a free-kick and Stevie was getting in some target practice for what was to come. Never has a shot into Row Z filled me with so much hope. I just knew that wild effort was but mere preparation for the decisive act.
I had forgotten the possible element of controversy that surrounded the equaliser. Cissé too went down with cramp and the Hammers sportingly knocked the ball out. Hamann did give it back but Scaloni decided to hoof back to the Reds straight away. Soon after, the ball came back to Gerrard and the rest is history…
No words can quite describe the emotions I felt when that ball hit the back of the net. It was like a spring was launched through my chair in the pub as I was vaulted forward in celebration. It was a strike that shouldn’t even be attempted by any sane footballer, he really was just that far out, and with possible cramp. It was a stupendous hit.
Credit as well is due to Fernando Morientes in winning the header which bounced kindly back in Stevie’s direction. The Spaniard was part of Liverpool folklore now no doubt.
How on earth could Liverpool lose from here you’d think? In all honesty, after the Gerrard strike they really should have just ended the game. I mean it was a goal of such quality that is deserving of winning a match. It would be offensive to the goal to even imply that it could still end up not deciding the game.
Here we were again though, just like in Istanbul: 3-3 yet still with work to do to seal the deal. Extra time was a bit of a blur. There was of course a fantastic save by Reina on an effort by Reo-Coker late on but it was a mostly uneventful period. I had forgotten though about Sami Hyypia’s impressive run and shot at the end of the first period of extra time! That would have been a worthy winner as well.
I genuinely couldn’t recall the penalty shootout at all. I suppose with all the Gerrard memories the shootout seemed less relevant. I’m surprised there was any players with energy to take a spot kick though with all the cramping that was taking place!
Zamora: saved by Reina!
Sheringham: no mistake 1-1
Gerrard: top corner 2-1
Konchesky: saved by Reina! (karma!)
Riise: buries it 3-1
Ferdinand: saved again by Reina!
So Pepe Reina certainly cemented his reputation as a penalty saving specialist. No need for heroics by the takers really at all. What a final this was. West Ham played their part but they couldn’t do anything to stop the Gerrard final going Liverpool’s way. I do wonder though, who was on the 5th penalty? Cissé? Morientes?
I suppose it doesn’t really matter… We haven’t won an FA Cup since but what a memory this still is to cherish. This final would absolutely not have been won without the Roy of the Rovers heroics from Steven Gerrard. His performance that afternoon was up there with anything he has produced and it is a timely reminder of how influential he was on our success during that era. His ability to win games almost single handedly is almost unparalleled. What a player he was…