Out of the darkness: Liverpool skipper wants to make amends for ‘nightmare’ of 2005 final
Liverpool skipper wants to make amends for ‘nightmare’ of 2005 final and believes cup glory can put golden sky back on horizon
If you want to gauge the mood of Liverpool Football Club, it is usually worth taking a good look at Steven Gerrard's face.
He hasn't so much worn his heart on his sleeve during his 13 years in the first team as pour mind, body and soul into every expression, on and off the pitch.
A discussion about previous cup final days can elevate his spirit in one moment, and remind him of pits of despair a minute later. It is an oscillation that traces Liverpool's erratic fortunes since his debut in 1999.
His first visit to Wembley in a Liverpool shirt tomorrow could sit alongside euphoric wins in Cardiff and Istanbul, when he not only scored in major finals, but defined his club's victories.
And yet so far as the League Cup is concerned, he is still tormented by his last final appearance, against Chelsea in 2005. The game was played amid the backdrop of Jose Mourinho's public pursuit of the Liverpool captain. Gerrard's own goal 11 minutes from time turned the match.
"It was a nightmare. I felt suicidal," says Gerrard. "It was bad, one of the worst days I have had, especially against Chelsea. I was linked with them for a while before that cup final. Then to go and score an own goal -- there were Liverpool fans who probably thought I meant it at the time -- and the defeat was a nightmare too, for me and the team.
"I very rarely go back to 2005 and Chelsea, or 2007 and AC Milan. They mean nothing to me, getting to those finals. The memories I like thinking about are the ones when I came away as a winner."
If 2005 represents his lowest personal experience, worse was to follow for the club. Soon after the ecstasy of the Champions League win and FA Cup success in 2006, the soap opera began. Liverpool became more newsworthy for takeovers, internal divisions, fans' marches and courtroom drama.
Gerrard was both captivated and disillusioned. He is still bewildered at how swiftly Liverpool were sent to the brink of financial catastrophe. He worried he'd attached himself to a club going nowhere.
"There were days when you wondered will I ever get to a major cup final or will I experience more success as a Liverpool player," he says. "Going back to the time under George Gillett and Tom Hicks, you suffer a defeat at Anfield and then go out to do a warm down, and there are thousands singing and shouting to get the owners out. Not good.
"Now the atmosphere is completely different. The experience and hurt from the lows helps you to get to places like this final, and to have good memories.
"When you win a trophy you don't imagine it will be your last for six years, do you? You hope you're involved in cup finals straight after, which we were in the 2007 Champions League, but that never went according to plan.
"It shows how difficult it is to win a major trophy. The competition is getting harder every year, with the emergence of Tottenham and the power of Manchester City. After the long period without a trophy, it becomes even more important to win one."
With the conversation at risk of resembling a Samaritans meeting, the tone shifts with more desirable recollections. Most of Gerrard's cup final experiences are worth cherishing, with the 2001 League Cup final of particular significance.
His first major trophy began a five-year spell when Liverpool won everything except the Premier League. Gerrard believes a win tomorrow could have the same galvanising effect. "If we deliver the Carling Cup it will give us confidence and hopefully can be a catalyst for the team," he said.
"The feeling is quite similar to 2001. Before we won the treble we were improving slowly and I think that's what is happening here. The new players are settling in well and getting better. The team is growing.
"I think we are a little bit further away than that 2001 team, and it's a lot more difficult now to win the league. We are still a little bit off that, but winning the cup competitions gives you the belief and confidence and if you can keep adding to what you've got, and keep improving.
"It's been so long since 2006, too long for a club this size, so it'd be really big. The important thing if we do win is not to rest on it, but to get back to winning ways in the league and try to deliver another Wembley visit in the FA Cup.
"I was thinking that when I was at Cardiff for cup finals, I was slightly gutted they were not at Wembley because when you're growing up you want to walk up those steps and lift the cup."
New ownership, new players and a new boss have blown away the stale air in the Anfield dressing-room. Gerrard enhanced the reputation of former managers with match-winning performances, particularly in finals. There is nothing he'll relish more than contributing to what he calls the "Kenny factor".
"This time last year the season was over, there was a lot of doom and gloom around the place," says Gerrard. "Kenny coming in gave everyone a big lift and slowly brought a bit of belief and confidence back. We have improved over the year. At the start of the season the plan was to go on long cup runs and get into the top four, so everything at the moment is looking good. He is a lot closer to the players, he's a very good man-manager.
"With Kenny it's more like he still thinks he's a player, still trying to get a game on the training ground, still laughing and joking with the players. But from a serious point of view, he's very loyal and honest with the players and that's all you can ask for.
"When you're a player and go out on to the pitch, you want to deliver something back for him, which we have done by getting to the Carling Cup final. We want to do the same in the FA Cup and to get to May with two trophies in the bag and a top-four finish would be a dream season for us in Kenny's first full year."
There was a time when Liverpool couldn't negotiate their way through the storms, never mind consider golden skies at the end of them. A Carling Cup win will justify Gerrard's view that the club has finally emerged from the darkness.
"I'm ever more excited because of the year I have had. It has been the toughest of my career so far," he says. "Tough days in the gym, days when I had to dig in when you know you're out with a groin injury, then to come back and get an ankle injury, both major ones. I had some lows but it was all to get back and experience days like this.
"You don't stop believing. You always need to have confidence things will turn around. Of course, you have to back it up. It's all right talking the talk, but you have to go out there and deliver."
If the trophy drought ends tomorrow, no one will need to consider how Gerrard feels. It will be etched all over his face. (© Daily Telegraph, London)