The One Moment

Was Stevie ever so young?

The only other League Cup Final those of my ilk remember fondly came in 2003. It was the only moment worth remembering of that season, because I pretty much drank all the others away.

2002-2003 was supposed to be "The Season". Liverpool had finished second the year before for the first time in what seemed like eons. They had finished above United. Their first foray into the Champions League, which back then had about 85 games, saw them to the Quarters where they really should have prevailed, setting up a kill-yourself-either-way semi with United. Everything looked poised to push on from there.

It never did. El-Hadji Diouf was signed after a pretty impressive World Cup (though one he never scored in, shouldn't have that been a harbinger?), and from the opening of the season it all went wrong. They were dumped out of the Champions League by Basle (on the same day a girl I had completely gone head over heels over chucked my ass to the curb. That was a wonderful three-day drinking binge, let me tell you). Celtic would eventually put them to the sword in the UEFA Cup after a limp performance at Anfield. And of course, a Champions League place was pissed away on the final day of the season after taking the lead at Stamford Bridge, which then caused Roman Abramovich to buy Chelsea, and here we are today.

But at least there was one moment, one day we could remember fondly for a very long time. By the time the League Cup Final came around, United had dusted Liverpool in the league. But here was the one opportunity to put one over on them the Reds would get. So I ruefully trudged to the Phoenix Landing in Cambridge, pretty much expecting one more humiliation in a season full of them.

Didn't quite work out that way.

Liverpool were inspired defensively that day, none more so that Jerzy Dudek. Gerrard got a deflection to crash one in from 25 yards, but who cared? From there it was all hands to the pump. Stephane Henchoz nearly put one in the roof of his own net, which nearly caused him to have an aneurysm right there on the pitch. I remember his violent shaking as the ball went high. Dudek made some incredible saves.

But United always score, don't they? It was only a matter of time. The more they pushed, something would break. A Beckham cross would find Solskjaer, as it always seemed to. Or a loose ball would be slotted home after a scramble. You could feel it.

But then the United defense let a clearance bounce at the halfway line. Hamann and Owen seized on it. Hamann looked to be clean through, but we all knew his drunken-tortoise pace would never get him there. But Owen didn't wait around. Hamann knew who had the better chance of ending it. I remember thinking after his final touch before firing that Owen had taken it too wide, he'd cut off his angle. But Owen never missed from there. He didn't this time, and all of us in the pub were nearly through the roof.

On my computer desktop for week after I had a picture of Ryan Giggs and Beckham sitting on the ground after the final whistle. Because of that picture, I never had to listen to a United supporter tell me they didn't care about that Final. Yes they did, so did the club. A final against Liverpool? They never want to lose those.

But they did.

Did it make up for the rest of that disaster of a season? No, not really. But I only remember sketchy details of the big losses that season. I remember Gerrard and Owen vividly. Funny how things work. That terrible season planted the seeds for Houllier leaving the following year after restoring Liverpool to the Champions League, which opened up for Rafa Benitez.

Let's hope Sunday is opening up something just as big in the years to come, without the disastrous middle bit. Preview of the FInal coming tomorrow.


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