The League Cup was never easy, not even in the days when Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan and company made it part of the Liverpool trophy room's fixtures and fittings on their routine away days to the stadium they liked to call Anfield South. Their red-and-white ribbons had actually been tied on the three-handled pot at Wembley in 1981, only for West Ham United to score a late equaliser, requiring more Dalglish heroics in a replay. A year later Whelan, a Wembley debutant, waited until the 87th minute to collect a gorgeous dalglish pass and take Tottenham Hotspur to extra-time and break their hearts.
That was when Liverpool were England's invincibles, collecting 11 trophies in the four years from '81. Yesterday was as unending as ever on the fingernails, and though it showed Dalglish needs time to return his club to those kind of heights, he can at least reflect today that he has taught them how to be winners again. "The trains are now running back to Liverpool Lime Street," the stadium announcer declared after 90 minutes had passed, though the sight of Dalglish, a players' manager, out on the pitch leading directions, suggested that no-one was going anywhere.
The route back to Wembley was tortuous from the start. But after the strife of the past few years a broken-down maintenance train an hour south-east of Liverpool was not going to stop the fans. Emerging into the Wembley Way sunlight, many were training digital cameras on the spectacle for their first time. We were not far out of the Polaroid era when the club were last at Wembley in 1996.
Liverpool finished third in the Premier League that year and Cardiff were third bottom of the fourth tier, and though the financial gulf has narrowed, it was still substantial enough for Dalglish to have a point to prove. He is the manager bestowed with £105m of Fenway Sports Group money. Malky Mackay is the manager who inherited a mere 10 players this summer and whose squad for the first League Cup tie, against Oxford United, included three youth-team players.
Dalglish seemed to be seeking to demonstrate the shrewdness of his investments, in front of his club's owner John W Henry. His starting XI included all the players on whom their money has been seriously lavished in the 500 days since they took over. There was no role for free signing Craig Bellamy, though he was the last man off after the pre-match warm-up, socks rolled down as he tramped across the red carpet. He evidently wanted to start.
Stewart Downing suggested he was worth the dollars, with a level of movement and touch unmatched in his seven months at Anfield, and so too, of course, did Luis Suarez. Jordan Henderson did not and Andy Carroll, though influential in moments, didn't resemble a £35m footballer. In the 40 minutes of purgatory in which Liver-pool trailed, Dalglish was haunted again by the fact his side convert fewer of their goal chances that any other side in the Premier League.
Things were looking fairly desperate when Bellamy went on. There are no guarantees that he, a man of intense emotions, will stand the psychological test of an occasion such as this. He did not actually command the game as the script had suggested and he looked to be to blame for failing to track Don Cowie, provider of the late chance with which Kenny Miller should have won the match.
All that was before salvation arrived in the form of a player who Dalglish had no special desire to parade: Dirk Kuyt, a workmanlike totem of the Rafael Benitez regime, deeply disappointed not to start – he would later reveal – and still waiting for his first Liverpool trophy. He crashed in an equaliser, cleared off the line, scored his penalty. Benitez's judgment was revealed to be sound.
Bob Paisley always used to say the League Cup's significance was the European place it put in the bank. But the Champions League is the only type with value attached these days, as the noises from the owners made all too clear last night. Dalglish's next challenge is the really significant one. At Liverpool, it is never easy.Reuse content