When you think about it, Rafa Benitez really set the bar high for himself and for us, that was far too high.
Winning a European Cup final after being three goals down to one of the greatest sides the continent had ever seen was incredible. When you couple it with the fact we had a back four that included Djimi Traore, it set a precedent that he just couldn’t meet in his remaining time as manager of the Reds.
What he did do, however, was reinstate Liverpool Football Club as a genuine force in the League and in Europe for the next four years. He also managed to pick us up another pot after the Miracle of Istanbul – the 2006 FA Cup Final. Let’s take another journey back in time!
Bad Korea Move
Both 2005 and 2006 were strange old years. In February 2005, North Korea declared they possessed nuclear weaponry in order to protect themselves from the United States. In response, the US re-elected a president who certainly wasn’t an aggressive warmonger, George Bush Jr. Speaking of warmongers, Labour won another General Election in 2005, although by now the “New Labour” act was wearing thin. Rumour had it if you said Tony Blair’s name three times in a mirror, he would invade your house looking for WMDs.
The following year was a big year for all things space, with NASA redefining Pluto as a “dwarf planet” and not an actual planet, although nobody thought to ask Pluto how it felt about that. Typical scientists. In January of the same year, those virgins — I mean, boffins — at NASA discovered the possible presence of water on one of Saturn’s moons. And yet not one of those science nerds could figure out how Paul Konchesky could balloon a cross into orbit and have it come down into the back of Pepe Reina’s net in the FA Cup Final. These were strange times indeed.Embed from Getty Images
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Diao
The Reds had themselves a strange old time of it, too, across these two years. Rafa decided that he wanted to take Liverpool to new heights and signed Peter Crouch.
Some old faces – both welcome and unwelcome – were sent out of the club. Istanbul legend Milan Baros went to Aston Villa and the ultimate photobomber, Josemi, was bounced back to Spain.
Meanwhile, Salif Diao, one of the infamous trio of Gerard Houllier signings that included “the new Zidane” Bruno Cheyrou, was sent out on loan to Portsmouth. The big news was, of course, the signing of the unconventional, yet incredibly effective, Crouch.
But there was also genuine excitement about the new ‘keeper Pepe Reina – the manager using his Spanish knowledge to secure the new number 25 in what would be a fantastic signing. Reina replaced Jerzy Dudek, who while undoubtedly forever a Liverpool icon for his role in the European Cup, was not good enough to establish the secure defensive unit that Rafa wanted to build his dynasty upon.
The Liverpool squad that moved forward into 2005/06 was one that was confident, assured and yet still prone to the odd frustrating result. They would manage disappointing draws against Middlesbrough and Birmingham before the end of September and then taking an absolute hiding to Chelsea at Anfield in the first weekend of October, going down 4-1 in spite of a Gerrard equaliser.
By the end of November, Benitez’s European Champions had the unfortunate League record of played nine, won three, drawn four, lost two. Hardly the start that the Reds wanted.
However, the new signings were finding their feet – although Crouch was undergoing a goal drought the media were only too quick to publicise.
The the big man finally broken his duck with two goals against Wigan Athletic. The drought would take away a lot of the positives that Crouch brought to the team, qualities that his manager was always quick to bring to the fore in interviews.
Crouch provided a target to aim for up front and his ability on the ball brought fantastic link options between the midfield and the forward line.
The Winter of our Content
The disappointment of the beginning of the season quickly dissipated after a 2-0 win over West Ham towards the end of October, as the Reds found their groove with a ten-game winning run in the league, qualification for the knockout phase of the European Cup and establish an exciting style of play based on a solid back line and a bang in-form Gerrard.
He would spend much of this season cutting in from the right, as Rafa’s preferred middle duo was the imperious Xabi Alonso and the hugely underrated new signing, Momo Sissoko.
Impressive performances such as the away win and clean sheet against Aston Villa (back when they were good) and the 3-1 triumph in the Derby at the Theatre of Beams underlined the Reds as potential title challengers before the Christmas deccies went up.
Meanwhile, in the real world, other boffins in Australia in 2006 designed a jet engine that could travel at seven times the speed of sound – although this was still not as fast as Jose Mourinho mentioning the “ghost goal” from the previous season in literally every single interview he conducted that season.
The league run would grind to a halt with a disappointing 2-2 away draw at Bolton before bouncing back with a hard-fought 1-0 win at home to Spurs — a Harry Kewell goal being the difference between the sides. However, after this, the Reds went on a five game winless streak, scoring only once while conceding six, with a turgid pair of defeats to Manchester United and Chelsea thrown into the mix.
As far as Chelsea were concerned, they were fast becoming the side we hated most aside from the traditional two – and as mentioned earlier, Mourinho just couldn’t stop talking about us and the “ghost goal”. These words would haunt him again though, although not in the League where clearly his club were top dogs.
For Liverpool then, the league season would see only one more defeat after this poor run of games – a 2-1 away defeat to Arsenal – but the lost ground at the beginning of the season, alongside the end of January/beginning of February blip, meant that a title challenge was not happening any time soon. However, there was something to sing about at the end of January – forget the fact that in 2006, a Jackson Pollock painting became the most expensive of all time, or that the Human Genome Project published the last chromosome sequence: the real news was that in a blinding move, Rafa signed one Robert Bernard Fowler on a free transfer. The Toxteth Terrier, God, the greatest finisher to wear the red of Liverpool possibly ever, had come home. Wonderful.Embed from Getty Images
Did that one cross the line then, Jose?
A nine-match winning streak in the League between the 15th March (a 5-1 battering of Fulham) and the 7th of May set the Reds up for further good form in the cups.
Sadly, the League Cup was an early bust, going out to Crystal Palace, and our defence of the European Cup was timid – Benfica deservedly putting the Reds out across two legs. However, the FA Cup presented Benitez with a genuine opportunity to bring home a second successive major trophy in his second season in charge.
The first game of the FA Cup – the traditional third round start – was against Luton Town in a now legendary fixture, where Liverpool found themselves bafflingly 3-1 down after 52 minutes only to bounce back with two goals from Florent Sinama-Pongolle (remember him? Olympiakos hero), and two from the midfield conductor himself, Alonso. His second will live long in the memory – a frankly brilliant strike from inside his own half while his captain screamed at him to pass the ball, before sheepishly grinning as the ball crossed the Luton line.
The rest of the run provided no less drama, including a brilliant Crouch headed goal in a 1-0 win against United as well as smashing Birmingham 7-1 on the way to a semi-final with Mourinho’s Chelsea.
The game was at Old Trafford, back before the FA lost their remaining morality and started playing the semi-finals at Wembley, and this made an already terse affair much more anxiety-inducing.
Chelsea, of course, were in good form, but the memory of the European Cup exit the season before clearly got to them on the day, the Reds deservedly winning 2-1 in an electric atmosphere – something that Castle Greyskull isn’t used to, unless our fans are there – with the second being an absolute screamer from Luis Garcia (who else?). Absolutely no doubt as to whether that was over the line, eh Jose? Bellend.
The Gerrard Final
It is customary for Seasons I Remember for a funny quip, or a clever sentence, for the indents to these sections – but there really isn’t anything that could be more appropriate than the nickname given to the FA Cup Final of 2006.
West Ham were worthy competitors, and led 2-1 at half time with Liverpool, unusually, defensively all at sea as Yossi Benayoun masterminded a brilliant first half for the London club. However, Alan Pardew hadn’t reckoned on Steven Gerrard.
Of his two goals scored that day, the second (more on that in a minute) gets the headlines but the first goal was a thing of technical beauty. As Liverpool piled on the pressure in the second half, the ball bounced loose in the West Ham area and the skipper pounced on it, arriving at pace to cannon in a delightful half volley that crashed into the far corner.Embed from Getty Images
Now, if you were a fan of a normal football club, you would assume that the Reds would kick on from this point and secure the win. But this is not a normal football club, and in cup finals, we don’t do anything the easy way.
Konchesky, the West Ham left-back, floated a hopeful cross into the area on the hour mark. Bizarrely, the cross looped over a bemused Reina into the far corner, to make it 3-2 with thirty minutes to play. It was also not the last time Konchesky would give Liverpool fans nightmare fuel. Thanks, Roy Hodgson.
But, like on so many occasions while wearing the Red of his boyhood club, up stepped the captain to deliver one of the greatest goals ever scored in any cup final.
With players dropping with cramp, and with normal time fading away, the ball spun out towards the middle of the West Ham half. Gerrard raced towards it, meeting the ball mid-bounce, striking it with the same sort of venom Daniel Craig’s James Bond hit people with in the best film of 2006, Casino Royale. He’s a Liverpool fan as well, is our Daniel.
Anyway, the ball hit the back of the West Ham net with such speed and ferocity that Shaka Hislop needed to watch Match of the Day that night to see where it went. Another major final, another 3-3 score at the finish. You just can’t write these scripts.
Gerrard, having dragged his club through the final stages of the 90, helped guide the Reds into the penalty shootout where he would be one of three Liverpool players to score along with the original Kaiser, Didi Hamann, and John Arne Riise, exorcising his Istanbul demons by smashing his penalty into the back of the net. Anton Ferdinand was the final West Ham fall guy, with Reina marking his debut season with a winning penalty save and a lovely big pot for Liverpool to take back to Anfield from Cardiff. Cue Benitez calmly taking off his glasses, the ultimate sign of a job (if a little too fraught) well done.Embed from Getty Images
A third place finish in the league and another trophy in the cabinet. Another step forward – at least, that’s what it seemed – for the Rafa Revolution. We’ve had worse seasons. Up the James Bond Reds.