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04/05: Reports:

League Cup Semi Final First Leg, 11/01/05, 8.00pm
First prize
By Ian Grant

It's half past three in the morning. There's a bloody milkfloat in the road.

It's the last obstacle at the end of a very long day. After overcoming ferocious weather, static traffic jams, endless miles of motorway and the Liverpool first team, we're in a narrow one-way side-street in Watford, tantalisingly close to home and stuck behind the local milkman as he does his round. Aware of our presence, he makes a demonstrable show of hurrying along for our benefit, darting nimbly between the parked cars to the right, coming back to collect more bottles, then suddenly appearing just up the road to the left. And then back again, to trundle forward for a few more yards before the inevitable brakelights halt our progress once more.

In the car, two and a half of us are almost crying with laughter. A half, because Matt is wavering between sharing our amusement and venting his considerable frustration. Somehow, this is the perfect conclusion to the evening; it's fate's last, desperate and slightly cruel attempt to dampen our soaring spirits. It doesn't work: from the confines of the car, we cuss the milkman to within an inch of his life, but merriment wins the day. It's really annoying, but it's also really funny. The latter wins.

A natural conclusion, because it's been a wonderful, wonderful night. Deeply rewarding, in so many ways. Exhausting and draining, in many others. But wonderful nevertheless, and memorable for incredible achievement rather than mere moral victory. We lost, I know. But I still celebrated the final whistle with tightly clenched fists and gritted teeth, not only a proud smile and some appreciative applause. Liverpool won, but it was our result, not theirs....

The scale of the achievement will only become fully apparent in about ten days' time, I suspect. When you won't be able to think of anything else, as the tension and anticipation and expectation and excitement become all-consuming, and you lose grip on whatever else is supposed to be happening in your life. When you'll start to understand what it means to have a major cup semi-final at Vicarage Road, against opponents who only have a single goal lead to protect and who looked far from confident in protecting such a lead last night. My word, you can drift off into mesmerising daydreams already; you can start to feel how the sights and sounds of that January night will combine to create something magical, unforgettable.

Even if they score in the first minute, that's the prize. Something that we've never experienced before, and may never experience again. And if they don't score in the first minute, just try to imagine the noise of the Rookery as we attack in the second half....

Stop. Rewind. It might've been a means to an end, this narrow defeat to keep the tie alive, but it really could've been much more than that. That's not to imply that I wouldn't have gladly accepted a one-nil reverse at any point during the ninety minutes, especially if it had meant the cessation of the terrible, gnawing tension that made this something of an ordeal. It is, however, to more than imply that we played very well indeed, and that our ambitions were certainly not limited to mere containment. Ridiculously, we could've had more than we'd possibly hoped for here. But it can wait for another night.

Instead, we'll take these memories, gladly. Starting with the spectacular cavalry charge of balloons and confetti that greeted the teams upon their arrival, swept across the pitch by the stiff wind from the away end towards the Kop until the pitch was completely engulfed by a storm of gravity-defying yellowness. Marvellous, and it'll be a fair while before I stop chuckling whenever I think of the poor steward who, as he gamely attempted to puncture a small lake of balloons on the left side of the pitch, suddenly found himself trying to deal with a yellow whirlwind as a defiant gust swept them up all around and about him. We have, you'll be pleased to know (if you're not a steward), a great deal more balloons for the second leg....

We had, of course, noted the Liverpool line-up by this stage, taken in its strength and obvious intent. And then forgotten about it again. We've spent several Saturdays being tormented by other teams' tactics, yet always when we've been shoved into the spotlight and expected to provide answers; this time, in contrast, there was no such pressure, and, if anything, the home side's selection just seemed to serve to focus our minds on the task.

That's the word of the evening: "focus". Really, the foundation for this immense performance was obvious, even if it's been somewhat obscured lately. Earlier in the season, we were travelling to other teams' grounds and doing exactly this, albeit against less dangerous opposition: we were strong and relatively error-free in defence, powerful and dominant in midfield, and we retained enough of an attacking threat to take advantage of whatever possession might be won. As a consequence, we were capable of controlling matches, even when we didn't have the ball, and results quickly and continually followed until our form began to desert us. We were never this good and never needed to be, but the basic ingredients were still identical.

So, we took that formula, and we inflicted it on Liverpool with insistent determination. At times, they were just a little too good for us, and we struggled to hold on as their attacks whizzed around our penalty area with defenders scampering and criss-crossing. In the opening fifteen minutes, as they attempted to put the theory into practice by ending the tie even as it began, there were wasted chances for Garcia, slicing way wide from distance, Sinama-Pongolle, striking a half-volley at Paul Jones and then volleying into the Kop after Nunez had dashed past Jermaine Darlington to cross, and Mellor, heading weakly at the keeper. Although this early pressure came only sporadically, it suggested that this might be a long and joyless evening, for the football was too fluent and the chances were too presentable for anything close to a nil-nil draw.

We were just looking for a foot-hold. It came in midfield, where both Gavin Mahon and Brynjar Gunnarsson were utterly imperious, and where our opponents found it increasingly difficult to retain possession against incessant pressure. As the game shifted gradually but decisively, to the astonishment and then to the roaring support of the travelling fans, we discovered that we were able to lie in wait and simply pick off any red-shirted stragglers when it suited us. Stray passes and weak challenges, and they no longer looked nearly so superior as we brought the presence of our key players to bear upon the game for the first time.

These were dramatic, charged minutes, in which our second semi-final in three seasons became something other than an exercise in pride. With Liverpool stuttering, we were able to do more than just spoil, and neat football on the right presented our first opportunity of the tie: James Chambers back to Paul Devlin, with Hameur Bouazza swinging wildly at the cross when he probably had time for a more composed finish. That brought us to our feet and we were still standing as Heidar Helguson retrieved the ball to provide Devlin with a second crossing opportunity, and Brynjar Gunnarsson, ghosting into the near post area, headed straight at Dudek. We did have an agreed agenda, and we'd just put it through the shredder....

Naturally, we didn't find it easy to create these openings. But heavens, when we hit our stride, we found it remarkably easy to break up whatever Liverpool were trying to do and then to offer much more than the remote possibility of a goal. This was not what we'd expected, but it was utterly magnificent for precisely that reason; while it's never difficult to proclaim attacking intent before kickoff, keeping that promise is more of a challenge. Here, we were never rampant, and yet we were undeniably the better side for the last half hour of the opening period. More composed, more capable, more focused, and therefore more positive too. Even if there was no goal to crown this astonishing spell - Hameur Bouazza was crowded out as he tried to shoot after another fine contribution from Paul Devlin after twenty minutes - the point was made, to be continued.

And then, having more than survived, we just needed to make it into the break. We did that, courtesy of an absolutely tremendous challenge by James Chambers to stop Mellor from escaping on one of the rare occasions when Gerrard escaped our shackles to set a break in motion. With the whistle imminent, Neil Cox cleared over his own crossbar as we perhaps became momentarily aware of where we were and what we were doing, losing that focus as a result. After such a breathtaking half, anything worse than nil-nil would've been an absolute travesty, and yet there was always the knowledge that top flight footballers can score from nothing and nowhere in an instant, regardless of what you might claim to deserve. We could've led at half-time, certainly. Me, I'd still have grabbed a one-nil defeat and dashed for the exits....

Even more so when the second half began with another flurry from Liverpool, forcing us to lose some of our composure and confidence in a somewhat untidy fifteen minutes. We lacked none of that determination, but we discarded possession just a little too easily, as when James Chambers' hesitation presented Gerrard with the opportunity to advance and curl a shot onto the roof of the net from the edge of the box. And again, when we gave the ball away to Hamann, who released Mellor into the right of the penalty area and Paul Jones was required to save the low finish well with his feet. And again, on the left wing, resulting in another Gerrard shot and a more comfortable save. It couldn't last, this. We were still snapping into tackles and keeping tight as hell, but you can't let a side from the higher parts of the top division start attacks in your own half.

This time, our luck didn't quite hold. If the arrival of Baros indicated the urgency with which Liverpool required a breakthrough, it also provided the means for that to happen, for his pace and movement were simply of an altogether different class. Almost instantly, he was skating through the offside trap on the left, crossing low into the penalty area, and Neil Cox and Paul Jones were scrambling the ball away. And Gerrard was picking up the half-clearance on the eighteen yard line, and finding what would've been the top corner if Cox's desperately stretching head hadn't deflected the shot into the roof of the net. Apart from a boisterous away section, Anfield had been largely quiet since "You'll Never Walk Alone". Suddenly, it was definitely not quiet.

It took every possible effort to hold on. The dreadful tension that had been lurking in your gut since kickoff could no longer be denied, and nor could the knowledge that another goal would effectively seal the tie and send us home heartbroken. There was some vocal impatience, some distraction from the task in hand, but it was all about keeping the score within acceptable boundaries. An endurance test for the stressed supporter, a deeply demanding position for the eleven players; like I say, it took every possible effort, and we did more than hold on.

Sure, Liverpool had further opportunities, but these can be counted on the fingers of Mickey Mouse's hand, despite their evident and understandable desire to score at least one more goal. There was another marginal offside decision involving Baros, who didn't get the benefit of the doubt and whirled his shot past a keeper who'd stopped after hearing the whistle. Another opportunity for the same player, fortuitously winning the ball from Jermaine Darlington and driving a cross-shot a few feet wide from the edge of the box. And a free kick from Gerrard, initially parried by Paul Jones and retrieved with the aid of the ubiquitous Neil Cox. But that's all, in more than half an hour of nervous clock-watching and anguished encouragement. That's all, if only we'd had the benefit of hindsight to spare some of the agony.

Given the situation, you'd have expected the last ten minutes to involve nothing but a driving wall of red-shirts, unstoppable and undeniable, especially given our well-documented capacity for succumbing to outright panic in the final stages. You'd have been very wrong indeed. Rather, we were slightly to regret the withdrawal of Neal Ardley - slightly, for his replacement, Dominic Blizzard, made at least three very timely and vital interceptions, including one quite heroic tackle to end a potential break before it had fully begun - as we won a series of free kicks and corners, forcing Liverpool to defend their lead rather than consider extending it.

Again, we were proving something, as Neil Cox's blazing drive whistled into the Kop and a full-stretch Traore intervened to prevent Heidar Helguson, who hasn't been mentioned often but provided such a strong attacking focus throughout, from latching onto Hameur Bouazza's perceptive through-ball. Impossibly, it ended thus, with a search for an equaliser that can continue in two weeks' time...but, more than that, with the vivid, piercing knowledge that Liverpool won't be looking forward to that at all. Because if they found this difficult - and my heavens, they did - they'll be in for an even harder time under the Vic Road floodlights.

Oh, just f***ing come on. At the time, this was often horrendously hard work, shattering and torturous. But released from the awful strain of sharing the players' concentration on their task, the rush of euphoria was worth every stopped-clock second. A defeat in scoreline only, it's almost inevitable that this mighty performance will ultimately be over-shadowed by what happens in the second leg, good or bad.

Let folklore prevent that from ever happening, then. This was awesome and inspiring, beyond our dreams and aspirations. We can't know the outcome of the return fixture, and so, for two weeks, this - the crescendo build-up to Tuesday 25th January - is the reward for a performance that ought to become utterly legendary.

They could beat us, just about. But they couldn't stop us from having our shot at glory....