THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

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

Comments (24)
Comment by Mumpo 2012-02-24 10:57:46

I for one can't wait to see the broad smile upon Kenny Dalglish's too often despondent face should Liverpool triumph on Sunday. It will be a welcome relief from all the club's recent tribulations, and provide the fans with an opportunity to reciprocate some of the warmth and support their manager has given them this season!

Comment by HORN 2012-02-24 11:47:44

I wonder if the fans of Fallen Big Clubs equate an appearance in the League Cup Final to something approaching a crafty bit of self-abuse in the office toilets during a rather dreadful day at work?

Comment by jameswba 2012-02-24 12:14:45

In Slovakia, this game is being billed as Skrtel vs Kiss.

Comment by Sash08 2012-02-24 12:40:57

Was thinking about the parallels with 2001 - D-2 oppo, new venue, 6 years since last trophy, 5 since the last final, opportunity to win another cup and pushing for 4th, Europe's all that's lacking, really.

Liverpool League Cup final stats - only 3 have finished in 90 mins.
78 - Replay. L
81 - Replay. W
82 - ET. W
83 - ET. W
84 - Replay. W
87 - 90 mins. L
95 - 90 mins. W
01 - pens. W
03 - 90 mins. W
05 - ET. L

Comment by Sash08 2012-02-24 12:48:32

Also, only one of Liverpool's 21st century finals was relatively lacking staid - the last one against Milan in Athens. The others:
2001 LC - extra-time & pens.
2001 FAC - battered for most of the game but stealing 2 late goals.
2001 UEFA - golden goal 5-4.
2003 LC - good game, Dudek played a blinder.
2005 LC - extra-time
2005 CL - quite a match
2006 FAC - 0-2 and 2-3 down before extra-time & pens.

Comment by Sash08 2012-02-24 12:49:14

*"lacking staid" = "staid".

Comment by ian.64 2012-02-24 13:29:21

I now define trophy-hunting as one of football's most overrated aspects and ranks alongside waiting to see whether a bus turns up in terms of need-to-know value. When I turn on the radio phone-ins, you can bet trophy-yearning (which in itself is become a sport, albeit a tiresome one) will be on the agenda, a mantra all too often heard with grinding regularity from select bands of supporters who take to missing out on trophies with all the dramatic heft reserved for international crises. When will we win a trophy again? Will it be our year? Will any manager come in who will guide us to the handles of a domestic cup? Will there be anyone left to actually hear our pleas, or will they have buggered off down the pub to avoid us belly-aching about not winning a trophy?

Arsenal fans, for example, bemoan the abscence of honours each year that wait lengthens, but seriously, is it that this hotly-sizzling little world of football, with each failure painted as a crisis and each win depicted as a step towards the gods, made them a bit doolally with worry? Is not having a trophy/trophies really worth cacking your pants with fear? When is it that having a bad run or being unsuccessful for a certain length of time was seen less of a way of footballing life - which it is - and more of a hysterical lurch towards soccergeddon?

Failure to win things and bad runs and all that isn't tragedy. It's not even that. It's the way things are. I'm bemused at the calls for the heads of, say, AVB or Wenger, because they're made by people who've forgotten that losing or going without glory is precisely one of the things that make the sport what it is. Without those experiences, you become a glory-saturated automaton who craps himself because he hasn't won a trophy that week. Like relegation, failure is necessary to give depth and understanding to the sport itself. It's not the end, it's the sport itself.

Some clubs are glad just to exist. Who gives a shit about winning trophies?

Comment by rbrunning 2012-02-24 13:32:52

Minor point from the piece but as a United fan I too can only really remember Inzaghi deflections from his repertoir. Dirty Goal hanger.

Comment by Analogue Bubblebath II 2012-02-24 13:34:53

"I wonder if the fans of Fallen Big Clubs equate an appearance in the League Cup Final to something approaching a crafty bit of self-abuse in the office toilets during a rather dreadful day at work?"

Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Comment by rick derris 2012-02-24 15:39:07

I dont think Kiss will start

Comment by geobra 2012-02-24 15:45:15

@ ian.64

Brilliant.

Those who think that if their clubs go a few years without 'winning anything' it's a disaster are missing the whole point of football. 'Winning things' is, or should be, the occasional icing on the cake, not a divine right. The game would be much more interesting if the honours were shared around more, but alas that doesn't look likely to happen any time in the near future, especially in Spain. Which leads to a question that I find myself asking regularly these days:

Do Barcelona and Real Madrid fans really enjoy watching their teams giving regular thrashings to so many of their opponents? Wouldn't they prefer to see real contests, even if some of them resulted in defeats?

Comment by Lincoln 2012-02-24 16:23:14

As a Lincoln fan I treat defeat as the norm. Winning a trophy is a pipe dream and very exciting when it happens. As a Buffalo Bills fan I have been used to not winning for a while. However for the start of this season they won 3 on the bounce and I came to expect them to win. When they didn't I whinged and moaned and felt the excitement that top teams must feel.

Despite being a Lincoln fan, I would say that sport is all about winning trophies, there is no other reason for being in sport. However I think football at lower levels is more than just a sport, it is a culture and a place you meet your friends and crucially where you attain an identity based on who you follow. This is something I feel as a Lincoln fan because I am from there and have been involved in selling tickets for them and been to grounds with just 10 of us in to see them. A level of association I don't have with the Bills having only briefly visited the state they belong to. I think that to me sums up why the fallen clubs generally have the bigger whinging fans, they only have is the glory of winning the trophies and not the deep lying affiliation. That's not to put that down at all, it is just following a club in a different way with one no better than the other. Some do it for the pure thrill of winning and watching quality football, some do it because it is part of their town and life style.

Comment by geobra 2012-02-24 17:40:34

'sport is all about winning trophies'

No it isn't. It's about playing to the best of your ability and hoping that this might eventually lead to a trophy. There's a difference. It's about knowing that even if you didn't claim the ultimate prize, you did your best and your efforts were not a waste of time. It's also about those who do win trophies treating those who don't with respect, because without opponents to beat they wouldn't win them either. I'm not sure that that's part of Jose Mourinho's philosophy, as he is on record as saying that those who finish second have failed.

And let's never forget that in the pursuit of trophies some clubs overstretch themselves and go out of business. Others, who may never win anything, live within their means and survive. And the most valuable 'trophy' of all is having a club to support.

Comment by Rogin the sunlounger fan 2012-02-24 18:46:34

Liverpool went all 7 years (from the League Championship of 1966 to the UEFA Cup win of 1973) without a trophy under the managership of a certain Bill Shankly. And yet that era is one eulogised by most Liverpool fans as far greater than anything that has happened in the last twenty, Houllier's various cups or Benitez' Champions League win included.

I rather view Wenger, now, like I imagine Shankly must have been viewed by some in 1972 - "okay, you built a good team, they won a title or two and a cup, but what have you done in the last six years?". Of course, Shankly's 1973 side went out and then won the league, the cup, and in due course the European Cup too.

But will it mean a lot to win a trophy on Sunday? Yes, of course it will. A lot. Liverpool haven't endured a trophy-drought like this since the days of, er, Shankly. It's about time it was ended.



Comment by jameswba 2012-02-24 21:19:51

I don't think 'trophy hunting' is actually as overrated an aspect of modern football as 'finishing in the top four' or 'surviving in the Premier League'. I'd be happier if the likes of (to give a few examples) WBA, Norwich, Swansea etc had given the FA Cup more of a go this season, or if, in years gone by, Villa and Spurs had taken the UEFA Cup/Europa League more seriously.

Nothing has undermined the domestic cups and UEFA Cup/EL more than the fact that half the teams who enter have little real interest in being there.

Comment by grippersi 2012-02-25 08:40:05

Agree james. The best bit of being a Birmingham fan in recent years has been that we have made an effort in the cups. Now if we can just get to Wembley in the FA Cup then I'd be well-chuffed (until I discover the ticket prices and ticketing arrangements, that is).

And Liverpool robbed us in 2001.

Comment by Red Letter 2012-02-25 13:34:43

Every supporter likes their team to win a trophy every now and
then but winning now seems to have become an obsession with
supporters of the 'big' clubs. As a Manchester United
supporter since 1962 of course I'm very happy with the
trophy haul of the last twenty years with Fergie at the helm,
and doing it playing atttractive attacking football has been
a bonus. However this winning will not go on forever and a whole new generation of United supporters will just have to accept this.From 1968-1990 we only won the FA cup on four occassions while Liverpool were winning all before them, as much as I did not like it there was little we could do about it - they were much better than us. Modern football suporters have been bought up on the notion that losing is a disaster and sacking the manager is the only option. Will United supporters be soon
joining the ranks of the phone-in 'sack the manager' brigade ,unfortunatly I expect so .

Comment by ian.64 2012-02-26 11:38:04

'I don't think 'trophy hunting' is actually as overrated an aspect of modern football as 'finishing in the top four' or 'surviving in the Premier League'. I'd be happier if the likes of (to give a few examples) WBA, Norwich, Swansea etc had given the FA Cup more of a go this season, or if, in years gone by, Villa and Spurs had taken the UEFA Cup/Europa League more seriously.'

I mean it's overrated in the sense that some fans (usually of the top clubs) place great stock in winning trophies to an almost insanely hysterical degree whereupon if they don't then they will plunge into some deep, humiliating abyss of failure. They'll regroup again and have the foundations to have another go, then another (clubs of less profile will never have this luxury) and eventually succeed, but to hear them you'd get the impresssion that their club will melt or their bums will drop off or that something dreadful will befall them lest another bauble is added to the trophy cabinet. It almost sounds like the Michelin Star debacle, where restauranteurs go as far as killing themselves because of the horror of living up to the expectations created by some doofus giving it a rating. Pressures of an almost comical degree created in the minds of those open and susceptible to them.

What will happen if you don't win a trophy? You'll have another go. You'll survive. You'll carry on. You won't get chased by marauding villagers and made to wear sandwich boards saying, 'Trophy Losers', or have a dumb swimming-pool-sized stigma attached to you just because you didn't make the final, or lost it all together. As Geobra points out, it's just doing your best and hoping that the chance arrives, so you can capitalise on it and hold that trophy aloft when you finally do make it.

The irony for Birmingham and Portsmouth is that their gaining of honours came at a huge financial price. But what was special was that they didn't expect it. No belly-aching, no season-long wailing about 'another year without trophies', no sense of privilege. Suddenly, they had memories worth treasuring. Suddenly a trophy cabinet had a little less room.

What's missing is that some fans have now placed an abnormal focus on winning honours to the detriment of all other concerns, so they come off as whinging, one-dimensional bores, unable to grasp the other realities of the sport - that you'll lose, that you won't win everything, that sometimes those pesky outfits you'll expect to steamroll over will want to compete against you. Everything will not fall to dust and tragedy if you don't win.

Winning has always been the prime objective, but not everyone can handle or tolerate the other reality. If they did then perhaps the game would be a little less stressful, viewpoints wouldn't be so comically overheated in the fields of fan, club and media perspectives, heads wouldn't be called for on a regular basis and the game just might improve.

He says, hoping.

Comment by jameswba 2012-02-27 08:38:54

ian.64, the BBC newsreader this morning introduced the sports news with, 'at last, after six years of waiting, Liverpool have won a trophy'. I definitely take what you're saying. But I do partly think it's a media-driven thing and partly it's just one of a myriad things I find irritating about the top 4 (or 5 or 6?), their fans, their sense of entitlement etc etc.

Also, I'm just not convinced it's quite as big an obsession as the 'finishing in the top four business'. If Arsenal don't qualify for the Champions League this season, I've a feeling that will take over from the 'six trophy-less years' as the source of all the gnashing and wailing. Mind you, after yesterday, I see Wenger is officially a genius again, having been officially declared a serial loser just one short week ago.

Or take Liverpool. If they finish outside the top four this season, expect much heated debate over their 'three-year absence' from the Champions League. And aren't we more likely these days to hear players justify signing for Man City, Chelsea or whoever on the grounds that 'I want to play Champions League football' than on the grounds that 'I want to win medals'? I think so - and I seem to recall a witty riff in WSC a few years back on this very theme.

As for Birmingham and Portsmouth, you say, 'suddenly, they had memories worth treasuring. Suddenly a trophy cabinet had a little less room.' Exactly. But for that to be the case, as grippersi says, they had to put out proper teams in the respective competitions, believe they had a chance and obsess just a little less over the holy grail of (in Blues' case) Premier League survival. I do agree with you that 'everything will not fall to dust and tragedy if you don't win'. On the other hand, it's competition that's the glory of football - and it's that that Albion, Norwich, Swansea etc have undermined this season by not giving a flying f**k about the FA Cup. If they give it a proper go and still come up short, that's fine, - try again next time. In that respect, I definitely agree with your last paragraph.

Comment by Lincoln 2012-02-27 09:27:19

"'sport is all about winning trophies'

No it isn't. It's about playing to the best of your ability and hoping that this might eventually lead to a trophy."

Yes it is. Playing to the best of your ability is not enough. Sport is about wanting to win, about wanting to be the best. Taking part is fun but it is all about wanting the glory. As I say, there are cultural aspects to sport but when I step over a white line at my level I want to win not just take part.

Comment by donedmundo 2012-02-27 16:46:44

geobra - Talking to a Real Madrid season ticket holder recently. He suggested that all teams coming to the Bernabeu (except Barcelona and Athletico) be given a two goal start as games are 'so boring'

Comment by ian.64 2012-02-27 18:31:25

jameswba: I pretty much agree with you, even though, by my own admission, I may be going the long-winded way about it. I'll make it clear that I'm not against the idea of winning at all, but I think the sports media - as you rightly point out - has actually played its part in sucking the joy out of winning in the game by turning the whole exercise of gaining honours, triumph and the like into two things. First off, an arena where only the best and mightiest are allowed to make plans for success. If Cardiff had won last night's penalty shoot-out, I'd bet you a pound to a penny, the credit the Welsh club had deserved would've been overshadowed by the debate given over to how Liverpool missed their chance to lift the trophy, so ingrained are media sympathies to the highest-profile clubs and their quest for glory. Secondly, the irritating tendency of most sports writers to paint the cup journey of a Liverpool or Man Utd as a po-faced, against-all-odds slog where instead of making the road to the new Wembley an exciting and joyful adventure (which it's supposed to be) it's transformed into this teeth-grindingly soap operatic carnival of bollocks where the participants sound as if they've been climbing up a mountain with their bare hands and all is pain. One has visions of Steven Gerrard looking moodily on a mountain top, dark clouds swirling all around him as cinema-trailer voice-over booms 'the day of reckoning has arrived....today one man will grasp the fire and set the heavens alight!' Cue annoying choir.

This melodramatic gubbins was prevalent as soon as Sky started to paint its televised games as clashes only titans could enjoy, and this fire-and-thunder, triumph-at-all-costs dramatic toss, I suggest, has filtered down to some fans' sensibilities and made them think the game has become much more than it is. Of course, it's the money too, but football has become written about and portrayed with such portentousness that those who look at it with neutral eyes may be forgiven for thinking why it's filled with self-serving, humourless success monsters and followed by the impatient, the addled and the worried.

A certain joy's been lost. The search for success has become not one riddled with excitement but a grindingly predictable slog where the hard-faced, self-important, unsmiling participants seem to talk more about how much they're obliged to have success (note Liverpool's 'first of many' and 'back where we belong' declarations of last night) rather than communicating the bracing, humble (if that's possible) search for such honours. How could you be invited to back them? It's like being asked to warm to a bouncer with a grudge.

Comment by trickydicky 2012-02-28 10:17:48

You get a lot of fans of "small" or "lower League" clubs on here commenting, and their dislike of fans of "big clubs" is often stereotyped and wrong. I know a lot of fans of "big clubs", as we all do, but I don't think any of them are obsessed with "trophy hunting" or get suicidal if they don't win stuff. Obviously, it’s a bonus if you do win stuff but I don't think any fan of Liverpool would swap this year for 2009. Fair enough, we've won the League Cup, but we aren't an especially good side and we have been routinely crap in the League, especially at home, which is where we pay to watch. In 2009 we won jack all but played fantastic football, hammered Man Utd and Real Madrid in the space of a week and narrowly lost out on the League thanks to the aforementioned Manchester club bagging a freakish run of injury time goals scored by Italian teenagers. For me, I would prefer to see my team be good and be involved in "big" games, rather than be bad and scrape a trophy against a lower league side. The atmosphere, emotion and just general stressfulness of a genuinely championship deciding game against United or a European Cup semi final cant be replicated for me, even if you lose them. Its those games I think "big clubs" fans want to be involved in. I don't think Spurs fans would swap the buzz of Champions League knock out ties and top of the table league clashes for the Carling Cup Final.

Comment by ian.64 2012-02-28 19:01:18

Tricky, I wouldn't disagree with you, but, sadly, those voices you think that bring accusations of being stereotypical are usually the first and loudest to be heard when the relative bad times come along, with a virtual monopoly demonstrated on national phone-ins and websites. Currently, AVB's tenure at Chelsea is under threat primarily because Chelsea fans are being occasionally enduring the temerity of other sides to fulfil their side of the footballing bargain and compete, gaining points off their team, the luxury of taking a win for granted having been temporarily removed from them.

When Hicks and Gillett were a blight on Liverpool's status there were understandable protests, but these were accompanied by voices angry that their obligation to win trophies and remain in the comfort zone of the Premiership summit was being eroded. Nowhere was this more apparent than the spokesman of the Spirit of Shankly on 5Live, chuntering annoyingly about 'trophies' for most of his airtime. To me, it was more about what the two hucksters who owned the club were doing and their corrupting influence on it, rather than this hankering for a full trophy cabinet that seemed to occupy some. The more Liverpool slid down the Premiership, the more I sense that there was also a growing unease that their fans were getting a taste of what every other team was enduring: defeats, losing runs, lame performances. Suddenly, it was welcome to our world. No safety net. No seeing off the hoi-polloi and not breaking sweat.

The publication which this website is associated with had an editorial which touched upon those fans who, like the Chelsea fans who want AVB out, had perhaps been pampered with a diet of success for so long that when the merest hint of trouble and underachievement came along, they heaved their toys out of the pram and demanded someone else in who would provide them to the continual glory to which they had been accustomed.

It's these voices that always come forward first when they're not satisfied. Voices like your own, happy to see things as they are and to accept situations on their own merits without the ballyhoo and bluster, are drowned out by the wailing of those who seem to think they deserve the obligation of unending reward.

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