“Does anyone like football?” – Part 3: The Steven Gerrard game

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk)

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk)

The Width of a Post ‘s new football series continues with the story of how deputy editor Katie Whyatt fell in love with football when watching the FA Cup Final in 2006, when Steve Gerrard inspired Liverpool to a late comeback and penalty shootout win over West Ham United.

“I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.”

― Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch

This was the very first game of football I ever watched.

Even today, nine and a half years on, I’m surprised by how vividly I remember certain spells of play; how particular fragments of details have preserved themselves so indelibly in my mind despite almost a decade having lapsed. I close my eyes, the landscape unfurls, and I am transported back to that moment instantly. The room around me falls way, the noise subsides, the light dims, and I return, again, to that caravan, to live once more the day that altered everything.

I see Djibril Cisse’s lime green boots. Jon-Arne Riise swapping shirts before the trophy presentation, wearing West Ham white in a sea of Liverpool red. I see Anton Ferdinand’s penalty. The Hammers players celebrating going 2-0 up. I see my brother’s face when that final goal flies in to force extra time. The Steven Gerrard moment in the Steven Gerrard game.

My memory bristles with the clarity of the moment – I see the pewter carpet, the paisley curtains, my brother poised on his buffet, craning forwards. I take on the eyes of an eight-year-old girl again, jaw locked, head propped up on two tightened fists, elbows rigid against the table, eyes locked, deep, ruminative, on the square of crackly picture on the CRT television. And I replay that moment again and again and again and again.

The ball bobbles out. Steven Gerrard strides up.

And the ensuing two seconds alter my life forever.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

My serendipitous encounter with an apogeic Steven Gerrard, back in 2006, set in motion the rest of my life. As mentioned, I was eight. The quarterly caravan holiday had coincided with FA Cup final weekend. My brother was a Liverpool fan. Steven Gerrard was his hero. This game was an event, the highlight of his year. Somehow, it became one of the highlights of mine.

But at the time, I wasn’t particularly interested in football. I woke up that morning as I had always lived, operating, winningly, in a land of fantasy and imagination and make-believe. As a child, I was always writing, drawing, reading, playing, cutting, sticking, colouring. The fact we’d be stuck in a caravan for two hours, watching Liverpool play West Ham United, was news to me.

Any other weekend, and I categorically would not have watched that game. Without a doubt, I would have gone merrily about doing all the things eight-year-old Katie Whyatt liked to do. Looking back, it’s inconceivable to think that so much hinged on so many things coming together at once – on being in a caravan on that particular weekend, and on Steven Gerrard having the game of his life, and on West Ham refusing to be denied, and on the game going to penalties, and on Djibril Cisse’s boots.

Without this game, I probably wouldn’t have discovered football.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

We all know the moment that would go on to define this game, but we’ll come to that later. Five goals came first. And as the whistle blew, and the match kicked off, and the scoreboard materialised in the top corner, I was playing at the table. For twenty one minutes, I am disinterested.

Then, somebody lets out a gasp. There is cheering. I look at the television. White shirts dance around the corner flag.

We see the replay. A low cross flies in. Reina comes out. Jamie Carragher, racing back, meets the ball, pokes it past his goalkeeper, and it settles in the net. It all happens so soon, so quicky. I put my toys down and twist in my seat.

Moments later, you hear a second ring of screams. Reina has smothered but the ball but spilled, and it’s squeezed into the far corner. Liverpool are now 2-0 down in the FA Cup final. This means something. It matters.

I think this is the point where I really begin focusing. I remember the next goal with a crystal clarity: Gerrard crossing in, Cisse volleying home. I think Cisse must have changed his boots at half time, because that shade of neon green is stamped on the forefront of my brain. I’d never seen neon green boots before, or even just neon green shoes, in general. I thought they were incredible.

“He’s got green shoes on, dad!” I remember saying. Alas, I was young. Watching the clip again now, I can appreciate the quality of the run, the vision in Gerrard’s ball – I still don’t think that finish gets the credit it deserves. (Random aside: When I was nine or ten, my mum bought my brother and me some flipbooks of football goals, and I got the Dijibril Cisse one. I sat for hours and hours, repeatedly ruffling the pages, watching the same finishes again and again. And, yes, his boots were green in there.)

Liverpool level through Steven Gerrard. It is a tremendous finish – you can see every limb tighten with ambition and drive, Gerrard infinitely more invested than every player on the pitch in that moment. But parity is fleeting. The ball is played into the path of an onrushing Paul Konchesky on the left flank. His strike penetrates the box, looping over the heads of the Liverpool backline, and settles in the top corner. Thank you and goodnight.

West Ham celebrate like they’ve won the cup. I suppose they thought they had. As Konchesky goes wild behind the goal, arms flared, mouth agape, you wonder if this already unfathomable tale has one final plot twist left. But you doubt it.

In some parallel universe, the narrative ends there. West Ham United win the 2006 FA Cup final. My brother remains inconsolable. I return to my life of old, disinterested in football.

Steven Gerrard and sliding doors.

At this point, players are collapsing with cramp. I remember Carragher and Cisse sprawled out in agony, legs elevated, faces contorted. They’d put so much into this game that there was absolutely nothing left. The margins between failure and glory were so perilously thin – this game was dying as it had lived, players dancing on the boundary lines of the finest of margins. Had Carragher read the flight of the ball a little better, Reina held on just a breath tighter, Morientes swerved left instead of right – the story would have been different. It was always going to be one moment that separated this contest. One moment, one snap-second decision, to change everything. To send them careering off the tightrope.

Sapped of energy. Drained. Exhausted. Limbs in spasms, rigid with cramp, each second perpetuating the agony. There was nothing left, in any of them.

There are four added minutes, we’re told. The West Ham fans behind the goal lean forwards, clamber to their feet, torn between commencing the celebrations and collapsing in fear. It’s over, guys – it’s done, I resign, as I watch the seconds die. There’s nothing left to give.

A punt into the box. A routine West Ham clearance. The ball makes it only as far as 35 yards. It bounces once, twice, but its path is interrupted. One man lunges forward, pulls back the trigger, and my life changes forever.

And Gerraaaaaard—

Can we just take a second? Seriously, what on earth?  To produce that finish, in that context, in that kind of game, with that kind of time left on the clock, with that kind of prize at stake, on that kind of stage? It was just completely and utterly unbelievable. From that distance, with that pace, with that much riding on the shot, and then to hit it right into the bottom corner with your first touch – it’s ridiculous. Just everything about that goal is absolutely world class. I don’t know how he managed to pull it off. And the more I watch it, the more impossible the whole thing seems. It gets harder and harder to comprehend.

The pace of it keeps striking me. I think the video preserved in my mind runs in slow-motion – watching that goal on YouTube, I can’t believe the speed. That game needed one man to stand up and be counted, one man to bridge the gap to the impossible. Steven Gerrard was alone on the pitch that day in being the player who could make that leap.

Who could produce when there was nothing left to give.

All bets are off. That number eight, that Steven Gerrard, has shifted the balance of this contest in an eyeblink. This game will go to extra time. There will be thirty more minutes of this. My brother is shaking furiously, eyes stitched open, mouth shooting into a smile. He knows. His belief in Steven Gerrard is unshakeable. He knows they’ve got this now.

I wish it didn’t, but my memory betrays me at this point. You remember moments, not games, after all. I know I watched those final thirty minutes intensely, searching constantly for the difference. It was tight, angsty, I remember. Close. Anything could have sealed it. But there genuinely was nothing left in the tank now. Three, two, one, zero. On the day I learnt of the last minute leveller, I would also learn of the penalty shootout. The cruellest way to lose; the greatest way to win.

My brother explains, hastily, palms plastered to his cheeks, how this is going to work. If there’s still no breakthrough, we go to sudden death. He tells me about Istanbul. He says Liverpool are good at penalties. We will be okay. But I’ve learned that anything can happen.

There are three things I remember from this. The first? Steven Gerrard’s penalty, obviously. Then? Reina saving two. And finally?

I see the ticks and crosses running along the bottom of the screen. Anton Ferdinand has to score this – otherwise, it is truly all over. A marathon two hours of yo-yoing, of watching players expend everything, culminates in just a single kick. It comes down to just one moment. One moment to change everything.

Reina saves.

My brother springs to life, and there is pandemonium in the caravan. I’m too stunned to celebrate for him, still unable to comprehend what I’ve just witnessed. I watch through somebody else’s eyes as the Liverpool players swarm Reina, embrace him, screaming, a floating mass of incredulity. But my mind is still with Steven Gerrard. Like a broken record, that’s the only thing I see. The bounce, the strike, and the ball racing, like a bullet, into the annals of history.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

For many of these moments, you don’t realise how iconic they are until years and years after. Sitting in that caravan, settling down after the trophy presentation, I had no idea I’d just watched history being made. I could feel a passion for football stirring, undoubtedly – but beyond that? At eight, I was too young to rank this on the pantheon of all-time great FA Cup finals, or even grade its resonance on the immediate football landscape, so narrow were the parameters of my experiences.

It was only in January this year, in fact, watching FA Cup documentaries on BBC One to mark the 50th anniversary of Match of the Day, that I realised how important this game was – how perfectly it encapsulates everything we believe the FA Cup is supposed to symbolise. The local lad, at the height of his powers, engineering that kind of comeback, in that kind of context, on that kind of stage, for the umpteenth time in his career, and scoring at the eleventh hour, and taking it to penalties – it’s the paragon of any sports final. You simply cannot festoon this game with enough accolades. It was the Steven Gerrard game, perhaps the greatest outing of his career bar that night in Istanbul.

And it was the first football match I ever saw.

I didn’t know how it all worked at that point. I just cared about the intensity and the immediacy of that moment. The emotion, the theatre, the drama. I just knew I liked that number eight, that Steven Gerrard. And I knew I wanted to see more of this.

That liminal state was extrapolated by the advent of the 2006 World Cup. I watched every single one of England’s games, and when they crashed out, typically, on penalties, I took to our plastic goal in the back garden with my brother to show the England stars how you should take a spot-kick. Everyone knows the France-Italy final. The words one behind Brazil. I saved up for an England kit, with, of course, Steven Gerrard’s name emblazoned on the back. My friends and I spent the whole summer ambitiously trying to catch a ball on the sweet spot like Gerrard did that day. I devoured hours of Premier League football, boasted a trading card collection just five cards short of completion, and tore posters of Premier League stars from Match and Shoot! I had an England birthday cake for my ninth birthday. I drew countless pictures of footballers at the kitchen table. I read autobiography after autobiography. I was hooked.

I didn’t really support a club at this point; I just consumed and played as much football as I could, and revelled in the feeling that every single movement and motion imbued me with. I played every single night after school, with my friends, and it was all so new, so exciting. I remember this, and this, and this. A year later came Bradford City’s cheap season ticket deal – the rest, as they say, is history.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Just as the Ronaldo-Messi debate wages now, the playground arguments of my childhood were framed by the Lampard-Gerrard contest. I’ve always recused myself from these kind of conversations. Yet on the school bus home in the weeks after Gerrard announced his departure, a group of us talked about whether Gerrard would one day regret not upping sticks for Chelsea or Real Madrid. The money was on the table, apparently; one move from Merseyside, and perhaps he would have had the one prize that alluded him all his career, the one thing he’d always wanted.

I understand those arguments. I do. But that kind of success has never felt like the point.

Growing up, it was never about the aesthetics of football for me – that appreciation came when I was much older, and I obtained a different sort of gratification by watching (neutral) passages of play unfold. It was, and still is, about something else; something so obvious, yet, at the same time, so impossible and slippery in its assignment and prescription. When you see it, it lights up the skies; when it’s gone, there’s nothing there.

Gary Jones has never won the Premier League. He probably never will. Yet his impact on my life, on every single Bradford City fan’s life, cannot be understated. Gary Jones was the greatest spearhead we ever could have had for that era. Succeeding one of the worst Bradford City teams of all time, he was the most perfect antidote we ever could have conceived. Every single minute of every single game, he played with an indefatigable, unadulterated, insatiable hunger simply impossible to define or categorise. He might never have won the Premier League – but he did something far greater for all of us.

I view Steven Gerrard in the same way. Someone on the bus that evening said Steven Gerrard could never feature in a Greatest Premier League XI just because he’d never won the title. It was such an awfully sterile statement.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Where have the years gone? This cup final happened nine years ago. I was at primary school. So was Rhys Burke. So many of England’s Golden Generation are preserved in my mind as those young players at the height of their powers – but this is incongruous. Elements of my childhood are beginning to inflect themselves permanently into the past tense.

Steven Gerrard played for Liverpool.

When he announced, last December, that he was leaving his beloved Reds at the end of the season, the magnitude of what that meant for my childhood truly hit me. Watching his farewell at Anfield, the denouement of a career lived constantly in the environs of the impossible, something either died or went full circle.

On the one hand, I had my own team now, captained by another Liverpool alumnus; yet, ultimately, Gerrard’s departure felt horribly anachronistic. In the scrapbook of my mind’s eye, I rifled through snapshots of Steven Gerrard, in that singular Liverpool guise, and just felt sad. The images rattled on, a staccato-fire montage of celebrations, of charges forward, of curling free-kicks. Even now, I can feel my heart pang with each memory. That era, that childhood, is over. Nothing lasts forever – but at eight years old, you assume everything will. Hundreds of players come and go, but you never forget your heroes. Your heroes stay with you forever – and in my head, Steven Gerrard will always ‘be’.

Relative to some City goals, I’ve probably not seen Gerrard’s leveler from the FA Cup final that many times – probably just a handful, in truth. My brother has a DVD of this game, but I don’t think I’ve ever watched it. Yet I’ve memorized every ebb and flow of that final finish. This game is my Yesterday Once More moment. One trigger, one allusion, one throwaway reference, and I am gone.

I lean instinctively towards a television that’s no longer there, still lost in a game that finished nine years ago. I hear fading, faceless, diluted snatches of dialogue. I watch embellished recollections, where facts have been redacted, details added. I scrabble around for memories already faded, curled round the edges, yellowed, blurred. Except one. There is one eternal in its clarity.

I wake up at the same point every time. The net bulges, and I am back in the room.

And Steven Gerrard dances on, ageless, immaculate, to the saraband of eternal youth, on the floor, in the round, in the vitrine of my mind’s eye.

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Categories: "Does anyone like football?"

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2 replies

  1. Interesting thing about THAT Gerrard goal – he has said since how had he not been so exhausted from what that game took out of them he’d have probably just taken the ball down and spread it out wide to start another move. Some things are just meant to be aren’t they!

  2. Great article Katie. I was there that day and it epitomised everything about a great FA Cup Final. Probably the most memorable one in recent history.

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