For some players, it only takes a moment to forge an unbreakable bond with the Liverpool crowd. For Neil Mellor, that came with an incredible winner in 2004.
Liverpool vs. Arsenal is a fixture that has thrown up its share of classics down the years. Along with the heartbreaking defeats we’ve witnessed victories that sent our souls soaring.
The day the Gunners stole the title from under our noses on the last day of the 1988/89 season still lingers like an ugly stain for many Reds of my generation. Others will remember how Charlie George robbed Shankly’s men of a second FA Cup in 1971.
Fortunately, though, we can ease the pain of such losses by recalling games like the 2001 triumph in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, a game that saw Michael Owen’s single-handed deconstruction of a rampant Arsenal team in the space of just 15 minutes, wrenching the FA Cup from the clutches of Arsene Wenger in the process.
Then there’s Crouch’s perfect hat-trick in a 4-1 demolition at Anfield in 2007 and the astonishing 4-2 conquest of the north London outfit in the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 2008.
There are many more, good, bad and ugly, but truly memorable nonetheless.
Here’s the story of a fairytale game, from an enchanted season that saw an unlikely group of red heroes conquer the summit of European football.
The 2004/05 season marked yet another changing of the guard at Anfield. The summer had seen the departure of Owen to take up his position as bench-warmer at the Bernabeu. In return, Liverpool received a bag of magic beans and Antonio Nunez.
They’d use those beans to slay the giants of Germany, Greece and Italy and they’d use Nunez hardly ever. Still, he’ll be able to tell his grandchildren he witnessed a miracle in Turkey.
Owen wasn’t the only high-profile departure, either. Danny Murphy, Stephane Henchoz and Markus Babel had helped Liverpool secure a historic treble in 2001. However the wind of change was reaching storm-force proportions and they would be blown out of the door along with Owen and their French manager, Gerard Houllier.
The Reds would replace the Frenchmen with a Spaniard, Rafa Benitez, and the Kop instantly warmed to the man who had usurped both Barcelona and Madrid with his unfashionable Valencia team.
I remember one game that season when we sang his name nonstop for about 20 minutes.
Rafa’s time at the club was a tumultuous one for sure. He frequently fell out with the owners (a fact that only served to increase his stock among supporters) and had a stormy relationship with the press.
However, nobody can deny that he restored Liverpool’s pride after the Houllier revolution had run out of steam.
Under Benitez’s reign, the Reds ascended the summit of European football, reached two finals and won one of them. By the time he left Liverpool were ranked No. 1 by UEFA.
For that alone, he deserves a place alongside all the greats who have served in the Anfield hot-seat with distinction.
Joining Rafa in the Premier League that season was the self-styled ‘Special One’, Jose Mourinho. The two men were polar opposites and a new rivalry was born that would reach unimaginable heights later that season.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Long before that season caught fire, Liverpool got ready to host an Arsenal team in their pomp. Wenger’s men had won the league the season before without losing a single game.
When they arrived at Anfield on November 28, 2004, they boasted the likes of Sol Campbell, Robert Pires, Cesc Fabregas, Freddie Ljungberg, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry.
Liverpool’s league form hadn’t been great. They were 13 games in and already 13 points off first place. Crucially, though, they were just four points behind United in fourth.
Houllier’s legacy had ensured that they were competing in the Champions league. However, Benitez’s men had succumbed to a 1-0 defeat to Monaco in midweek; a result that meant they would need to beat Olympiakos by two clear goals on December 8 to progress from their group.
So, as they took to the pitch to face the Gunners, it’s fair to say the Redmen had a lot on their minds.
Liverpool had a decent spine, with Sami Hyypia, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso, but around the edges, they oozed inexperience.
In goal was Chris Kirkland, and up front were two youngsters who, for all their promise, were as green as the Anfield turf.
To be fair, Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Neil Mellor would make huge contributions in Liverpool’s quest for European glory later that season.
However, on that chilly Sunday afternoon in L4, it felt like the Reds were about to be hopelessly outgunned by an Arsenal side, spearheaded by one of the most clinical strikers in Premier League history.
In a year when many were questioning George Bush and Tony Blair’s tall tales about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, there was no doubting the potency of the Gunners’ arsenal.
Henry was a phenomenal player. In all he spent eight years at Highbury, scoring 174 goals in 254 appearances.
What a shame Liverpool couldn’t turn his obvious admiration for us into a move. Alas, not even the magic 2004/05 could conjure up a trick like that.
There was a real air of anxiety around the ground as the game got underway, but within minutes the home crowd were on their feet. Attacking the Anfield Road end, Liverpool immediately put the visitors under pressure.
Gerrard, back for his first game for months, was once again in the thick of it. He broke into the Arsenal box and seemed to have been upended by Kolo Toure.
The referee waved away our appeals and the noise levels rose as the Kop began to realise the Reds had come for a fight.
However we’d have to wait until the cusp of half-time to break the Gunners’ resolve. Steve Finnan hit a long pass that was picked up by the skipper.
His vision was sublime and he fed a delightful pass to the waiting Alonso, who drove a stunning shot beyond a despairing Jens Lehmann from the edge of the box.
It was a goal made in heaven.
The move would have graced any game from the ’70s and ’80s as the Reds had carved open the so-called Invincibles with just three passes and one clinical strike. The ground seemed to explode.
Then, in what seemed like an instant, the half was over and the players left the field to rapturous applause.
Our joy was to be short-lived though. It was inevitable that Arsenal would come out fighting in the second half.
Surely Rafa’s team talk would have covered the need to keep it tight during the opening exchanges. Survive the first 10 minutes and we’d have a base from which to counter.
They managed that – just. Liverpool’s lead was wiped out after just 12 minutes of the restart. The Gunners had barely troubled Kirkland’s goal and their leveller was their first shot on target.
In fairness, it was the result of a brilliant move, consisting of a series of short, first-time passes that found their way to the feet of Vieira, who swept into the box. His finish was so calm, you felt like he was going to light up a cigar as he took the plaudits from his team-mates.
It was like a gut punch and, in that moment, I’m sure many of us would have taken a point.
For me, it was infuriating. The Reds had dominated and the opposition had only needed one move to undo all our hard work. I feared the worst.
We had nothing to fear though, and instead, Liverpool rallied. The expected Arsenal onslaught didn’t materialise. As the game edged towards its conclusion a sense of relief, tinged with the frustration of two dropped points took hold.
We were into added time and I kept looking at the referee, waiting for the whistle to go. The ball was down in the corner, between the Main Stand and the Anfield Road end and the referee blew for a free-kick to us.
Kirkland stood over the ball.
In my head I was pleading with him to go long. Into one of the corners would do. That would allow one of our forwards to hold it up and run down the clock.
The last thing I wanted was for him to gift the enemy one more attack. Around me, people were screaming for one more push from the Reds. Did they know something I didn’t? All I could do was chew the last of my nails.
What happened next was the stuff of legend; the sort of fairytale ending made famous in comic books like Roy of the Rovers.
Neil Mellor had been prolific in reserve team football, but had yet to explode in the first-team arena. All that changed on November 28, 2004.
The ball seemed to hang in the air for an age. Harry Kewell and Sol Campbell both jumped for it and somehow it fell to the youngster. He looked out on his feet and he must have been about 30 yards from goal.
In front of him was a sea of players and the goal must have seemed like it was shrinking before his eyes. There was no time left to build a move and, somewhere in his tired mind, a voice screamed shoot.
Time seemed to slow down. Mellor swung his leg at the ball and, in total disbelief, every one of us stared in awe, mouths open, as it flew into the net.
The roar that followed was ear-splitting. Fists punched the air and people fell over their seats, some still hugging the person next to them. There was dancing in the stands and players piled on top of the unlikely hero, who had ran towards the Kop, chest pumped out, arm in the air.
He had scored a winner in front of the Kop with literally the last kick of the game – it simply does not get better than that.
The look on Campbell’s face spoke volumes, and I can only imagine the pain and anguish inflicted on the travelling Londoners. But that just made the victory taste all the sweeter.
My abiding memory of that game, though, is coming home and listening to a commentary clip. I don’t know if it was Radio City or the club’s audio, but I can remember listening, with a beaming smile on my face, to John Aldridge in raptures as the goal went in.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) November 28, 2022
“That’s for ’89,” he was saying. “They hurt us, they hurt my club and now it’s their turn to feel the pain. Yes, yes!”
Spot on John, spot on.
In the end the victory itself is but a footnote in the history of the club. Liverpool would have bigger fish to fry in 2005.
However, nobody will ever take that goal away from Neil Mellor and maybe, just maybe that was the moment that Rafa’s Liverpool first learned that the game ain’t over, until it’s over.
• A version of this article was first published on March 2, 2017.