13 May 2006
FA Cup final
Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
West Ham United 3-3 Liverpool aet (Liverpool win 3-1 on pens)
As they headed home victorious from the 2005 play-off final, West Ham United were already being installed as relegation favourites for the coming Premiership campaign.
Few would have backed them to be defying the odds and crossing the Severn Bridge to make it a hat-trick of Millennium Stadium appearances within 12 months. Certainly, with the 2006 FA Cup final all set to be staged at the new £757m Wembley, any return to Cardiff had been the last thing on Alan Pardew's mind as his newly-promoted West Ham United kicked-off the 2005/06 campaign focused purely upon preserving their precious top-flight status.
By mid-May 2006, however, Wembley still remained unfinished and Pardew was leading his troops out at the Millennium Stadium for that third-successive year after clearing a tricky path through Norwich City (2-1), Blackburn Rovers (4-2), Bolton Wanderers (0-0 & 2-1), Manchester City (2-1) and Middlesbrough (1-0) on their way to an FA Cup final meeting with European champions, Liverpool.
And following a wild and wacky Welsh afternoon in which East End emotions ebbed and flowed, the historic 125th final was destined to be eternally etched in the memory of anyone fortunate to witness this six-goal thriller.
Despite a week of cloak and dagger preparation, not even Pardew could have envisaged the dream start that saw Jose Reina twice picking the ball out of his net inside the opening half-hour. On 20 minutes, Dean Ashton's telling pass sent Lionel Scaloni racing away down the right flank and the Argentinian's unplayable, low centre into the six-yard box was deflected into his own net by the retreating Jamie Carragher.
That sent the claret and blue end of the stadium into raptures and just seven minutes later, it was pure ecstasy when Matthew Etherington's sshot from the edge of the penalty area was somehow spilled by Reina, allowing the predatory Ashton to prod into the net. Although Xabi Alonso's precision chip enabled Djibril Cisse to ghost behind Scaloni and send a textbook, eight-yard volley past Shaka Hislop from eight yards, the Hammers still went off at the interval with one hand on the cup.
Moments after the restart they could have had the trophy in a vice-like grip but Yossi Benayoun and Marlon Harewood were thwarted by Reina's incredible double save that kept the Reds in the contest. West Ham United paid the price, nine minutes later, when Alonso's flighted free-kick was glanced down by Peter Crouch, and the unchecked Steven Gerrard, 12 yards out, needed no invitation to crash in an equaliser.
Liverpool may finally have been in the ascendancy but West Ham, despite having seen their two-goal advantage evaporate into the Welsh air, were still on level terms and in no mood to surrender. Sure enough, midway through the half, the overlapping Paul Konchesky made it 3-2, when his left-wing cross towards Harewood drifted over the hapless Reina before nestling in the net to the shock of both Merseysiders and Cockneys alike.
Leggy Liverpool looked down and out and with the suits from the FA attaching the claret and blue ribbons on to the trophy for the first time since 1980, only a final four minutes of stoppage time signalled by the fourth official stood between West Ham United and their winners' medals. But, having had the ball returned to him after sportingly kicking it out of play to allow the crippled Cisse treatment, Scaloni launched an upfield clearance, which was to climax in Gerrard's unstoppable, legendary, laser-guided 35-yarder that ripped into Hislop's net.
The Liverpool skipper's stupendous, stinging strike - one of the greatest-ever witnessed in an FA Cup final - forced extra time in which the walking wounded of both sides heroically limped through another half-hour that saw the Hammers hit the post and the hobbling Harewood slice wide.
Ironically, Reina had been the villain of the piece for the Merseysiders but when the penalties began he went from zero to hero, denying Bobby Zamora, Konchesky and Anton Ferdinand in a shoot-out that only saw Teddy Sheringham beat the Spaniard, while Dietmar Hamann, Gerrard and John Arne Riise each duly converted to break the Hammers' hearts.
As each set of mentally drained supporters applauded the physically-sapped players of both sides, just for once, the mere taking part seemed far more important than the actual winning of the last-ever FA Cup final at the Millennium Stadium.
West Ham United: Hislop, Scaloni, Ferdinand, Gabbidon, Konchesky; Benayoun, Reo-Coker, Fletcher (Dailly 77), Etherington (Sheringham 85); Ashton (Zamora 71), Harewood.
Subs not used: Walker, Collins.