In a career that deserved more medals than it ultimately got, Gerrard will look back on that crazy night in Turkey as his crowning achievement. However, in years to come when I talk about our greatest players (one of which Gerrard undoubtedly is) to my son, it won’t be the comeback in the Ataturk I eulogise about. It will be the 2006 FA Cup Final and for me, Steven Gerrard’s finest moment in a Liverpool shirt.
It has become known as “The Gerrard Final” and whilst it isn’t a term I’m a fan of, it’s understandable. It is one of the finest individual displays I’ve ever seen from a Liverpool player and without a question the greatest goal I’ve ever seen live.
The road to the 2006 cup final was of mixed difficulty. A comeback from 3-1 down at Luton Town in the third round ended with a 5-3 victory at Kenilworth Road. You might remember this game for Xabi Alonso scoring from inside his own half with more or less the final kick of the game. A fourth round test at Fratton Park was passed as we won 2-1 and a Peter Crouch header was enough to vanquish Manchester United in round five in our only home game in the cup that year.
A crushing 7-0 demolition of Birmingham City in the quarter final left us to tangle with Chelsea. That semi-final was played at Old Trafford and most of us will remember Luis Garcia’s thumping late goal giving us what proved to be an unassailable 2-0 lead and we hung on for a 2-1 win.
Amidst this path to the final, we arrived at the Millennium Stadium as hot favourites to win the FA Cup for a 7th time. The football community had adjudged that we had won the final by beating Chelsea and that seeing off West Ham United would be a formality. What they hadn’t reckoned with was Liverpool and cup finals. There’s seemingly an unwritten rule that Liverpool must make hard work of every final they play.
With Alaves in Dortmund and of course Istanbul still very much fresh in the memory, it was another cup final for the ages if not for my blood pressure. West Ham settled into the game much quicker than we did and found themselves 2-0 in front inside of the first thirty minutes. Due to injury Dean Ashton never really had the career he should have because I remember thinking he looked a real prospect during this final.
His lay off lead to Lionel Scaloni putting a low cross in that Jamie Carragher backheeled into his own net. I think you’d need to ask Carra what he was thinking but it looked to me he wanted to clear it with one foot and then changed his mind at the last second. He just looked rather foolish, all told.
Speaking of looking foolish, it looked like it would be one of those days when Reina dropped a nothing shot from Matt Etherington and Ashton tapped it in to give the London club a 2-0 lead. It was a hot sunny day and not the kind you want to be chasing a match in. I had already begun to give up hope.
At that point we settled down and Peter Crouch had one disallowed. It was a close call but we were back in it when Djibril Cisse volleyed home cleverly from Gerrard’s raking pass. It was a tough finish but the Lord of Frodsham took it very well. Cisse was generally best when he had to be instinctive and had no time to think and it was an excellent finish on the stretch.
The second half was a red tide. West Ham couldn’t get out and even I thought we would go on to win it when Gerrard slammed into the top corner from the penalty spot to make it 2-2 after 54 minutes. That goal barely gets discussed because of his second but it was every bit as impressive in many ways. The technique to put it in the top corner at such speed was incredible. Crouch’s knock down was perfect.
Liverpool being Liverpool, we didn’t get ourselves in front but instead fell behind again. Paul Konchesky’s aimless cross from the left floated over Pepe Reina’s head and into the far corner. Not really fair to call it a mistake but it was definitely freakish. And it wasn’t as hurtful to Liverpool as Konchesky’s performances in a red shirt would be four years later.
We huffed and puffed and in the Cardiff heat, we looked like we were going to slip to a defeat. Enter Gerrard with the greatest goal I have ever seen in the flesh. There’s nothing much more dramatic than a 90th minute FA Cup final goal but in the circumstances this was and always will be one of the great cup final goals. I can still see in my mind’s eye with staggering clarity the 4th official putting the board up for 4 added minutes.
Before the stadium announcer could finish his sentence, an exhausted Gerrard swung his right foot and from thirty five yards, the ball flew into the bottom corner. It was an absolutely exquisite finish and I’m not so sure how he managed it given he was one of many suffering with cramp not long before that moment. It was an instinctive strike borne of tiredness and a “what have I got to lose?” mentality. Nothing was lost and everything was gained.
I was exhausted by this point just watching but the heat was taking a toll on our players. Enter Momo Sissoko. The Malian midfielder had earned rave reviews in his first season due to his engine and enthusiasm if not his passing. He was never the same player after suffering a serious eye injury but he stood head and shoulders above everyone in midfield in that extra time period when he was virtually performing shuttle runs. I also remember a certain Yossi Benayoun running rings around our defence for large chunks.
I don’t think Liverpool had a single chance in extra time as West Ham’s fresher legs took control of the game and we had to dig deep. I thought the game had gone when Nigel Reo-Coker’s header looked like it was looping in for all the world only for Reina to claw it onto the post and Marlon Harewood was too exhausted to capitalise on the loose ball.
As soon as the full time whistle went I knew we would win the shootout. We had more experienced players and cool cats, fresh from the triumph in Istanbul a year previous. It’s no coincidence that Teddy Sheringham was the only West Ham player to score. Bobby Zamora and Paul Konchesky (of course) had their spot kicks saved by Reina. Hamann, Gerrard and Riise slotted their kicks whilst Sami Hyypia missed. Anton Ferdinand had to score to keep West Ham in the match but he was easily thwarted by Reina who became the hero after an indifferent 90 minutes.
I’m not sure how Gerrard had the energy left to lift that trophy. Given it was a world cup year, then manager Sven Goran Eriksson must have been worried his key player had burned out before the tournament had begun. Heatmaps weren’t a thing in 2006 but you can guarantee that Gerrard covered every blade of grass. Nobody will remember that of course, they will just remember his two absolutely stunning goals. And so will I.
That second goal was mesmerising. It is one of those moments where it does seem that time stops. My view was perfect, I was in the corner diagonally opposite and I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was one of the very, very greatest FA Cup final goals from one of the greatest players.
We haven’t won the FA Cup final since, with just the one final appearance since when we lost to Chelsea in 2012. We need to get back there because we all used to live for days like that. The FA have allowed a situation to develop where the FA Cup isn’t as important as it once was but that feeling was nowhere near my mind that crazy afternoon 12 years ago.