24 February ~ It just had to be Cardiff. Eleven years ago, Gerard Houllier took Liverpool – then without a trophy for six years – to the Welsh capital to face Birmingham City in the final of the Worthington Cup, the first League Cup final to be played at the Millennium Stadium. Over the next five years, Liverpool would play another four finals and two Community Shields at the same venue. In the build up to Sunday's Carling Cup final against Cardiff City, many commentators have noted that Liverpool’s first visit to the new Wembley is a long-awaited return to the place they used to call “Anfield South”. But for any fan of my generation, that moniker is spoken with a particularly Welsh accent.
The last decade was good to Liverpool. Istanbul goes without saying. There were the Chelsea wars and Athens in 2007. There was a UEFA Cup win. There were Michael Owen’s dramatic late goals against Arsenal to win the FA Cup in 2001 and Steven Gerrard’s heroics to help scrape past West Ham on penalties and land the same trophy five years later. There were second-place finishes in the Premier League in 2002 and 2009.
These are the more famous triumphs and near-triumphs, but it all kicked off with that first win against Trevor Francis’s Birmingham. Now Liverpool find themselves in a very similar situation. Without a major trophy since the aforementioned "Gerrard final" in 2006, the club is in need of tangible success.
The Cardiff native Craig Bellamy, who scored the winning goal in the semi-final against Manchester City, may think finishing in the top four is the priority, but silverware is what fans remember. Qualifying for the Champions’ League only really matters if you win the thing.
I know all about the financial implications and the attraction to the best players of being in the biggest cup of all. But being behind the goal where Owen scored the second of Liverpool’s goals against Manchester United in Cardiff in 2003 will remain a personal highlight of mine, no matter how hard I try to erase him from memory. That was the most recent of Liverpool's record seven Carling Cup wins.
Arsenal found themselves in a remarkably similar position to Liverpool ahead of last year's final. Overwhelming favourites to end their own trophy drought by beating a side who were eventually relegated to the Championship at the end of the season, the Gunners self-destructed. Their wait goes on.
If Kenny Dalglish's side can emulate Houllier’s, it could be the start of something bigger. Rafa Benítez’s first final as Liverpool boss was in this competition too, in his amazing first season. Gerrard will have less happy memories of that one as his headed own-goal just minutes from the end of normal time led to Chelsea’s triumph. The match was perhaps best remembered for Jose Mourinho hardly endearing himself to Liverpool’s travelling contingent, not for the last time.
One common theme running through all of these finals is how tight and tense each encounter has been. Nearly all of them were decided in the closing stages or in the drama of a penalty shoot-out. My own memories of them all are vivid.
In contrast, my recollections of Liverpool’s trips to the old Wembley are altogether less colourful, only partly due to age. A fairly routine 2-0 win over Sunderland in the 1992 FA Cup final conjures only the memory of manager Graeme Souness convalescing beneath a blanket after his heart surgery. Steve McManaman lit up the 1995 Coca-Cola Cup final win against a plucky Bolton Wanderers side that included the future Spice Boy, Jason McAteer.
Which brings me to the white-suited elephant in the room. Liverpool last played under the Twin Towers in 1996, in a final that pitted them against their rivals from the other end of the East Lancs Road. This one will forever remain firmly buried in the basement of my memory bank, beneath a collection of Emile Heskey misses and Filipo Inzaghi deflections.
It is time to write a new chapter in Liverpool’s history at the new Wembley. Once again there will be a distinctly Welsh flavour to the occasion. I’m hoping that the Cardiff native Liverpool's ranks isn’t celebrating on Sunday – not because Bellamy’s hometown club will have shattered his (apparently lacking) dreams of silverware, but because he has already said he won’t celebrate if he manages to score against them. Stephen Adams