Liverpool & West Ham send off the Millennium in style
The FA Cup final 2006 marked more than being the last (hopefully) one to be held in the fantastic stadium in Cardiff - it marked one which had a tremendous blend of passion and support. The West Ham fans were hugely marking the occasion for the first time since 1980. the only scorer in that game with Arsenal was present in his capacity of Director of Football Development at the FA, Sir Trevor Brooking. When West Ham faced relegation 2002/2003, Glenn Roeder collapsed from a brain tumour in April and Sir Trevor took over the reins and almost pulled West Ham to safety. For the 2003/2004 season Roeder thankfully recovered to continue his management but had to leave when results started off badly, Sir Trevor again taking over for some weeks until Alan Pardew left Reading to join the Hammers in October. Very few stood behind the former Crystal Palace defender and once again contemplation of a new manager was spoken of.
But Pardew was made of thicker skin than most would give credit for. Taking over a side that had to release Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Trevor Sinclair, David James, Jermaine Defoe, Michael Carrick, Glen Johnson, some of many to had left following relegation. He signed Hayden Mullins from Crystal Palace, and crucially Marlon Harewood from Nottingham Forest, who was quite prolific for Forest at the time. West Ham came off the pitch to boos from their fans following a 1-1 draw with Coventry in November, with Pardew's name linked with groans of impatience. He continued with purchases of Nigel Reo-Coker from MK Dons and Bobby Zamora from Spurs, and, despite the immense criticism and lack of faith in him, Pardew raised the side to the play-off position of 4th, losing to and then beating Ipswich to reach the final, only to lose to Crystal Palace 1-0. Back to the drawing board, he brought in those who he felt were suitable in his wisdom to lift the team. Matthew Etherington came from Spurs in August, and many fans began to voice a contrary opinion when he was rumoured to be interested in Teddy Sheringham from Portsmouth, a former Millwall, Spurs and Manchester United player. One fan stated Sheringham was second to Paul Ince as the player he mostly despised.
But Pardew continued with his plan, and took West Ham into the play-offs again by finishing 6th last season. They faced Ipswich Town again and again defeated them with a draw and a win to reach the finals again, this time to face Preston North End to an eventual victory through a single goal from Zamora. They were promoted back into the top flight after two seasons. Considered one of those to drop down again, West Ham have surpassed all odds to encapsulate a great first season, starting off very well and not only maintaining their Premiership status, not only a top ten position, but a UEFA Cup place by virtue of facing Champions League-placed Liverpool in the FA Cup final.
The pressure on Liverpool as expectant winners may have made its toll as the Reds seemed subdued from opening the match. Steven Gerrard raced down the right and was fouled for a freekick, but from then Liverpool didn't make the expected possession and play they are renowned for and West Ham took opportunities to come forward, so it was very much an open game, not the one-sided encounter anticipated. As a result of being sluggish, Liverpool were rocked on 21mins when Xabi Alonso tried to square to John Arne Riise with his weaker foot, Yossi Benayoun picked up on the ball and fed Dean Ashton. Ashton held on and then thread a sublime ball behind the Liverpool defence for the running Argentinian Lionel Scaloni, and Scaloni had time and space to square the ball across the box, which should have been comfortable to deal with by Jamie Carragher, but Carragher went to back-heel it and mistimed the ball, and it came off his left foot to go tightly inside the goal.
Then some six minutes later the Hammers struck again. A Benayoun cross was headed on by Ashton to come over to Etherington, who paused and then moved aside to get past Sami Hyypia, Gerrard and Carragher simultaneously sprinting across to block but Etherington's low shot went under, squirming towards Pepe Reina. The Spanish keeper should have comfortably saved but inexplicably spilled the ball, and Ashton reacted the fastest by making contact with the ball, managing to squirm it under Reina's body to trickle into the net. Two sloppy goals that were very uncharacteristic of Liverpool and their season, and it looked to be going horribly wrong for them. But they have been in tough situations before and there were still over 60mins to play for. Liverpool took the impact of the Hammer blow and were struck into action. A freekick outside the West Ham box was taken quickly by Gerrard and finished off superbly by Peter Crouch, who had little opportunity to come into the game more in the first half, but it was ruled out for offside, although replays showed it was the merest of elbows!
Not to be perturbed, Liverpool pressed on and it was yet another Gerrard ball from the right that went over the West Ham defence to meet the sweeping right boot of Djibril Cisse, who also had little to do in the half. Five minutes after Ashton's goal, his foot hit the ball for a sweet first touch volley that pulled the Reds back into the game. Half-time, and while the Reds had got one back, if they didn't get a grip and realise the danger of their sluggish start, they would become victims to an impressive Hammers side who were undisturbed by reputation, dogged, pacy and keen to strike at goal when close, and that all spelt a major danger if Liverpool were more than interested in winning the final. Yet from the second half the Hammers poured on the heat, as seconds from the kick off Etherington went down the left and squared delightfully for Harewood, whose touch was blocked by Reina's legs. The ball was picked up by Benayoun, who cut in past one Liverpool player and had time to shoot, only to have his effort equally blocked by Reina.
Liverpool had to pick up the pace and dictate the game. Harry Kewell had been mediocre at best and struggled with an injury, coming off for Fernando Morientes, Cisse drifted to the right, Gerrard had a free role on the left. On 54mins, their pressure going forward produced a freekick, quickly taken by Alonso, who squared to Gerrard. Gerrard was quickly closed down and back-heeled it to Alonso, the Spaniard then chipped the ball into the penalty area, Morientes and Crouch went to challenge and it was Crouch to made the contact, the ball dropped down for Gerrard to run in and strike high into the net. Now it looked as if Liverpool would get into the regular playing game and dictate it. But ten minutes on, fate had its call on dictating proceedings. Etherington again involved, he found Paul Konchesky on the left, Konchesky went on and aimed a high cross that deceived Reina and dropped into the net. To the delight of the nearby West Ham fans, Konchesky had scored to reclaim the lead, and it would be fitting for the Barking-born West Ham supporting left back to win it before his birthday on Monday, in the memory of Ron Greenwood and John Lyall, after 26 years, after relegation, after two play-off finals and eventual promotion.
Another setback for the Reds, after coming from 0-2 down to level. Alonso displayed some discomfort and was replaced by Jan Kromkamp, Gerrard moving to the middle, Cisse on the left. A number of opportunities went both ways, Liverpool having to maintain pressure but not enough leeway, West Ham not lying down and relying on their lead to get them through. With twenty minutes to go, changes were made by both sides, Dietmar Hamann replaced Crouch and Pardew threw on Zamora for Ashton. Liverpool had now used up their substitutions, while Pardew went on to introduce Christian Dailly for Carl Fletcher six minutes later and then Sheringham for Etherington with five minutes of normal time to go. As the clock ticked on, I felt compelled to accept West Ham would very much lift the cup and it would be a hurtful feeling to lose, but the way in which West Ham played they would be worthy winners.
As the ball came across the West Ham goal, Cisse went to chase with Scaloni and then pulled up with cramp. Scaloni sportingly kicked the ball out for Cisse to receive treatment. Hamann picked up the ball and returned it to Scaloni, who kicked it forwards but it landed to Gerrard. He passed to Riise, Riise chipped the ball into the box, the announcer over the tannoy then mentioned 4mins of stoppage time, the ball was headed out by Danny Gabbidon, it bounced between Mohamed Sissoko and Benayoun, and Gerrard stepped up to fire a volley from some 35 yards into the net that Shaka Hislop could not even react to, much less move to. The delight of the Liverpool fans was ecstatic. I didn't think it was possible but it was now level.
As it remained level, extra-time loomed. The 30mins that ensued found both sides equal in their determination to supersede each other, almost like two fighters having boxed each other well and both looking for one avenue to land even a sucker punch. That sucker punch almost came for West Ham as near the end of extra time Benayoun's freekick was headed on and looped to go in, but for the outstretched left-hand of the diving Reina, tipping it onto the post. The ball went across goal, Hyypia couldn't get enough contact to clear it and out of three West Ham players in nearby vicinity, Harewood aimed with his now injured left leg and couldn't get it round the ball to make sufficient contact, the ball going wide. Hearts in mouths, I needed medical attention. As Alan Wiley blew for full time and the end of the match, Liverpool had once again drawn 3-3 after being behind in a major Cup final and taken the game into penalties. I wondered if lightening would strike twice.
Then the penalty takers step up, those who are brave enough in front of over 74,000 fans to take the spot kicks, something which is not as easy as shooting from mere yards past the keeper anymore. Liverpool have been there recently, West Ham were new to the experience. First up was Hamann, one of those who scored in Istanbul last year, and he did it again. Up for West Ham was Zamora, left footed, but was denied by Reina's dive to the keeper's right. Next up was Hyypia but he tamely shot down the middle for Hislop to gather well. Sheringham restored the Hammers to level, fists clenched, urging the crowd to keep up the support. Captain Gerrard took stage and deposited his effort well. Local lad Konchesky was next to further his contribution to the cause, but he too was denied with an effort down the middle that was stopped by Reina's legs, the third time for the former Villarreal keeper renowned in Spain for his penalty kick stops.
Riise was next for Liverpool, their fourth kick and something for the Norwegian to make amends for after his denied effort in the Ataturk stadium. He scored, fists clenched and then rub his eyes with palms as if a personal ghost had been exorcised. Anton Ferdinand stepped up to take West Ham's fourth penalty. If he scored, then another kick apiece would ensue. If he missed, Liverpool would win. As the defender stepped back he aimed his effort to Reina's right and the keeper stopped it.
Liverpool ended the first FA Cup final in the Millennium stadium in 2001 as winners. Liverpool now ended the last FA Cup final in the Millennium stadium in 2006 as winners.
The jubilation that followed came after a pulsating match that looked to end on the wrong note for the eventual winners. West Ham United were stupendous in their efforts, and I have commented previously in the season on particularly the pace and play their midfielders have brought to the East End side. This is an exciting Hammers side with just rewards after a turbulent Pardew beginning, they have a strong, pacy striker in Harewood who I have said should be going to Germany. Reo-Coker has the captaincy and his running and creation in midfield engages many options in attack, Ferdinand and Gabbidon had played very well in stopping Liverpool's progression on occasion, Benayoun forever running around along with Etherington, on the flanks. While their goals maybe considered somewhat fortuitous, their playability certainly was not and they gave Liverpool more of a match than anticipated, almost to victory.
Pardew stated he was obviously disappointed with the ending but proud of his players. He wasn't the only one, as both fans applauded both teams during their presentation, and I think Mr Greenwood and Mr Lyall would be proud too.