The smile on Steven Gerrard’s face said it all – for Liverpool, winning the 2012 League Cup Final is a big deal, for all that some continue to deride the competition as a ‘Mickey Mouse’ trophy.
Six years without a cup is a long time in football: ask Arsenal fans who are currently resigned to a seventh season without silverware; ask Alex Ferguson whose first success came in this very competition after the better part of six spartan years in his early days at Manchester United. More relevantly, ask Liverpool fans around the world who feel as fervently as anyone on Merseyside itself that Shankly was right to claim that Liverpool Football Club exists to win trophies.
A domestic cup win can act as a springboard to further success. Would Ferguson have been retained at United without that first League cup win? Would Jose Mourinho have been such a convincing special one without the platform of his League Cup victory (ironically against Liverpool) in 2005? More importantly, would Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher have as many medals if Liverpool had not won the League Cup back in 2001 when it was sponsored by Worthington’s?
The parallels between the 2001 success and 2012 make compelling reading when seeking omens for further trophies ahead for Liverpool. It was the first trophy for Gerard Houllier, a manager who had taken over from one of football’s nice guys, Roy Evans, in 1998. Current manager Kenny Dalglish also took over from a nice enough guy called Roy and has had to wait a mere 14 months for his first cup success. The 2001 victory also went to penalties after a less than convincing display against second tier opposition, Robbie Fowler’s opener for Liverpool having been cancelled out by a last ditch spot kick in normal time. Intriguingly, Liverpool had also been without silverware for six years in 2001, their last success having come in the same competition in 1995.
Houllier’s side went on to win a cup treble that season, adding the FA and UEFA cups in May. European success is not on the table this time around but Liverpool are in the quarter finals of this seasons’ FA Cup and, crucially, winning the Carling Cup ensures entry into the 2012/13 Europa League. Thursday nights on Channel 5 might not have the same glamour or kudos of the Champions League but Liverpool without European football is like Linda Pizzuti without a glamorous outfit and a beaming smile.
The season after the treble, Liverpool came second in the Premier League, re-establishing themselves as part of what became known as the Big Four. Things are a little different at present, with Spurs, Manchester City and even Newcastle as likely to finish in the Champions League qualification spots as Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool, but winning can become habit forming, if only because it can iron out the nerves and self-doubts that can sometimes nag at the back of even the best players’ minds. When Rafael Benitez brought back Liverpool’s fifth European Champions Cup in 2005, six of the squad from the 2001 Worthington Cup final were either in the starting line-up or on the bench against AC Milan. It’s not straining the imagination too much to assume that Gerrard, Hyypia, Carragher, Hamann, Smicer and yes, even unused sub Igor Biscan, had greater self-belief as a consequence of that February day at the Millennium Stadium back in 2001.
Amazingly, brilliantly, Carragher and Gerrard still survive from the team of eleven years ago. Local boys done rather good. While Jamie might be entering the winter of his playing career, Stevie G was as central to Liverpool’s best moments against Cardiff as he was against Birmingham in 2001; and as he has been to pretty much every success the club has enjoyed ever since. How wonderful would it be to be writing about the loyalty and successes of some of Liverpool’s current crop of promising local youngsters in a decades’ time? I can certainly see Martin Kelly emulating Carra and eventually establishing himself as a fine centre back while Jay Spearing and John Flanagan are both quite capable of growing in stature and importance as they mature.
Of course it is almost as meaningless to look for indicators of the future in the past as it is ungrateful: better to follow the Shankly/Paisley/Dalglish mantra of taking each game as it comes. Better to soak up the smiles on the faces of the Liverpool players and the fans lucky enough to have been at Wembley to see Stevie lift the cup. There are thirteen league matches still to go and, while many pundits are writing off Liverpool’s top four ambitions for this season Kenny will be aiming for it as long as it is still mathematically possible. And victory at home to Stoke in the FA cup quarter final would guarantee a return to Wembley for the semi-finals. Not bad for a team so clearly still in transition, just as Houllier’s squad were back in 2001.