Twenty years ago this week, Liverpool won the League Cup in Cardiff. Aaron Cutler reflects on what it meant for a young side on their way to making history.
For Liverpool supporters of a certain generation, February 25 marks a significant date in the footballing calendar.
It was on this day, 20 years ago, that Gerard Houllier’s young Reds completed the first part of a historic cup treble, defeating Birmingham City in the Worthington Cup final.
The victory lives long in the memory of those brought up in the 1990s.
A barren decade had delivered only two pieces of silverware but no shortage of heartache, as a power shift saw every major honour gravitate to Old Trafford and an all-conquering Manchester United. It was frankly a miserable time.
It was worse still for those of us who started ‘going the game’ in the middle of that same decade. Indeed, young Kopites had been starved of any silverware whatsoever.
For that reason, this League Cup final was all-consuming. It marked a coming of age for a section of the fanbase but, more importantly, a burgeoning side about to re-establish the club as a force on both the domestic and European stages.
Setting the tone for 2001, the game itself was bonkers.
Few believed the Reds would have much difficulty overcoming their First Division opponents, particularly when you looked at the quality on show.
The Liverpool squad, arguably stronger than anything we’ve seen in the two decades since, included the likes of Robbie Fowler, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia and Dietmar Hamann.
Michael Owen – who was later to win the Ballon d’Or for his performances that season – remained on the bench. Houllier was certainly building some team.
That this was the first English final held at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium only heightened interest.
Wembley was being rebuilt and opinions were divided over an alternate venue. Those of a certain persuasion claimed it sacrilegious to stage the showpiece event outside of England.
Traditionalists and nationalists were never likely to draw support from Liverpool fans in this regard…
As the game kicked off the Reds seized the early initiative. Captain for the day Fowler had a near-post header blocked before reminding people of his genius 30 minutes in.
One of the great cup final goals saw the master predator latch onto an Emile Heskey flick 25 yards from goal. With one swivel of his body, he unleashed an astonishing half-volley which looped over a helpless Ian Bennett in the Birmingham goal.
Wheeling away in celebration Fowler made a beeline for the bench and a stricken Jamie Redknapp, the club captain forced to miss the entirety of a memorable campaign through injury.
It was vintage Fowler, the hero of our generation and the shining light in those preceding few years. He was unquestionably the best player on the pitch that day in Cardiff.
Sadly, however, the Reds failed to kick on from God’s divine intervention.
Vladimir Smicer hitting the side netting whilst put through on goal was about as good as it got heading into a nervy second half. Heskey should have put the game to bed late on but blazed a close-range effort over the bar.
Swiss defender Stephane Henchoz, no stranger to controversy in cup finals that year, then took centre stage.
Having already made a last-ditch block to deny Andy Johnson a tap-in he scythed down Garry O’Connor in stoppage time to concede the latest of late penalties.
Darren Purse despatched the resulting spot-kick with unerring accuracy to set up extra time. Liverpool fans were about to learn this team never did things the easy way.
The additional 30 minutes were not without incident.
Everton fan Brian Hughes almost embarrassed Sander Westerveld with an audacious lob of his own. Elsewhere, Fowler had a late header saved.
Oh, and Henchoz almost conceded another penalty. In fact, he should have done, making no contact with the ball in a desperate lunge that upended the spritely Johnson.
The experienced Hamann summed up Liverpool frustration when, dismayed at referee David Ellery’s failure to play advantage in the midst of a counter-attack, he grabbed the ball and threw it down in disgust.
The German duly apologised, received the resulting free-kick and hammered a long-range effort against the post.
Was it set to be one of those days? The 12-year-old kid crying in front of his television feared as much…
Heading into the penalty shootout there was the very real possibility Liverpool were about to succumb to lower league opposition in a cup final.
That agonising wait for a trophy could have been extended in humiliating circumstances.
Thankfully, the Reds had some accomplished penalty takers in their ranks, none more so than Jamie Carragher, who shocked many watching on in disbelief as he strolled up and rifled his effort high into the top right-hand corner.
Westerveld, a flawed but decent Liverpool goalkeeper, got his moment in the sun, saving twice to deny first Martin Grainger and, crucially, Johnson.
It was hard lines on Birmingham, but silverware was heading back to Anfield.
The old adage says the first is always the most important.
So it proved for a Liverpool side that built a winning mentality that would see them land two further trophies that year, as well as Champions League qualification for the very first time.
The last of those triumphs was arguably the most important…
The legend of Istanbul means 2001 is too readily forgotten in the history of the club. The reality is one doesn’t happen without the other.
Yes, Houllier had departed by 2005 but the nucleus of that European Cup-winning team was his, forged four years prior.
It was one who learned how to get over the line, not just in tactical battles on the continent, but ugly, domestic affairs when all seems to be going against you. VAR would have had difficulty stopping them.
The League Cup was a springboard and paved the way for a modern Liverpool that Houllier was determined to restore to the elite. Two months on from his sad passing this anniversary is a poignant reminder of what he achieved during his time at Anfield.
He wasn’t perfect, but he was a revolutionary and gave us some of the best days of our lives.
That 12-year-old lad is now 32 and remains forever grateful to the manager and squad that won the Worthington Cup.