Simon Davey has had better starts to the day. On Saturday morning the Barnsley manager was walking round Liverpool and a bird landed a deposit of the unwelcome kind on his head. "I hope that's lucky for me," he said, although he had private fears that it might be the first of several unhappy events.
By 5pm his doubts had been assuaged. Barnsley of the Championship had beaten Liverpool, last May's Champions League runners-up, and were in the last eight of the FA Cup. Who would blame Davey if he prepares for the quarter-finals by scattering bird seed in his hair? He might also give thoughts to unsettling the equilibrium of his squad by bringing in a key player at the last minute.
Barnsley did not have a tranquil week in the build-up to their biggest game since their season in the Premier League in 1997-8. On Thursday they were still without a keeper because Heinz Muller was injured and Tony Warner was Cup-tied, and the emergency replacement borrowed from West Bromwich Albion, Luke Steele, had to spend Friday night on the internet learning the names of his team-mates.
Whether the 23-year-old former Manchester United and England Under-18 keeper is a quick learner is open to debate, given the 90 minutes of pressure on the Barnsley goal, yet it is without question he was the outstanding figure in the tie. Stephen Foster and Brian Howard got the goals that caused the biggest upset of the fifth round, but it was Steele and a hugely obdurate back four who kept Liverpool at bay.
Davey and the Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, both described some of Steele's saves as "world-class", which fully justified Barnsley's faith in a goalkeeper who has struggled to make an impression at The Hawthorns. "He hasn't been as involved with West Brom as he would have liked," Davey said, "but he has had a good grounding at Manchester United and we knew he has the potential to be a top class goalkeeper. I knew when I put him in it wasn't going to be a big gamble because he's assured and he's agile and athletic. He proved it today on a world stage.
"He's a quiet lad, he's not a bubbly character who's going to announce himself to the dressing room. But he excelled himself and did his talking with his hands."
Steele had to be articulate because for much of the 90 minutes a shock seemed totally unlikely. Dirk Kuyt put Liverpool ahead after 32 minutes and if the home strikers had showed even a modicum of composure in front of goal the result would have been beyond doubt long before Howard stunned the Kop with the winner in stoppage time. Of course, if Fernando Torres been playing ... but that is a mystery that makes sense only in Benitez's mind. This was Liverpool's last chance to win a domestic trophy but his stellar striker was in the stands and Steven Gerrard did not make an appearance as a substitute until the last 15 minutes.
Gerrard, Liverpool's talisman, was on the pitch when Howard got the winner but that was not the last of the paradoxes because Davey was urging his players to stay back when his captain broke forward. Instead he should have had a penalty when Sami Hyypia grabbed his leg and then he won a 50-50 ball with Xabi Alonso before beating Charles Itandje at his near post with a low left-foot shot. "Totally irresponsible," was his manager's description, although he did say it with a grin. "You are at Anfield, it's 88 minutes and you can see our fans are over the moon and are dreaming of a replay back at Oakwell, Davey added. "Then you have ambitious young players who want to take the limelight. You can't criticise them."
Which is more than you can say about Liverpool's forwards. Kuyt, Peter Crouch, Ryan Babel and Yossi Benayoun all had chances but seemed gripped with indecision. Liverpool seem to be a team stripped of confidence, which is hardly the best state when tomorrow night's Champions League first-leg tie against Internazionale could seal the fate of Benitez, who was under fire even before losing to a team 29 rungs lower on the League ladder.
The result caused a change of script for the Liverpool manager, who has repeatedly bemoaned his side's inability to score the first goal this season and, thanks to Kuyt's opener, had to complain about the lack of a second. That apart, he might have been a stuck CD because questions about his future, the backing of the fans and the confidence of his players provoked the same response: "If we continue to make chances, we will score goals."
As he was risking bringing repetition into disrepute, a demonstration of several hundred Liverpool supporters was noisily denouncing the American owners of the club, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. "Yanks out" was one of the more printable chants, although the boos from the home supporters that greeted the final whistle suggested that Benitez is also coming into the sights of the protesters.
On Saturday night he had the bearing of a man under pressure and if things go badly tomorrow that weight will intensify. As Inter are runaway leaders of Serie A, the chances are he will be the next manager with something unpleasant heading his way. Bird droppings would be preferable in comparison.
Goals: Kuyt (32 ) 1-0; Foster (57) 1-1; Howard (90) 1-2.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Itandje; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Benayoun, Lucas (Gerrard, 75), Alonso, Babel (Kewell, 70); Kuyt, Crouch. Substitutes not used: Martin (gk), Arbeloa, Pennant.
Barnsley (4-4-2): Steele; Hassell, Foster, De Silva, Kozluk (Van Homoet, 60); Devaney, Souza, Howard, Leon (Campbell-Ryce, 71); Ferenczi, Nardiello (Odejayi, 55). Substitutes not used: Coulson, Togwell.
Booked: Liverpool Alonso; Barnsley Van Homoet.
Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire).
Man of the match: Steele.
Shock treatment Three FA Cup humiliations for Liverpool
* 1959 Third round
Worcester City 2 Liverpool 1
This was pre-Shankly, and Liverpool were in the Second Division, but they were expected to have little trouble against a Southern League side. Enter the "Thompson Plan", a scheme to upset the visitors on an icy St George's Lane pitch devised by Worcester's manager, Bill Thompson. Liverpool slipped out of the Cup.
* 1983 Fifth round
Liverpool 1 Brighton & Hove Albion 2
Jimmy Melia (he of the white shoes) was born two miles from Anfield and played for Liverpool for 12 years, but he masterminded this win over a team who were halfway through a hat-trick of League titles and who would also win the League Cup that season. A former Liverpool player, Jimmy Case, got Albion's winner.
* 1988 Final
Liverpool 0 Wimbledon 1
The aristocrats versus the artisans. Liverpool were champions, Wimbledon had been in the Football League for only 11 seasons. It was a victory for the lower classes then, as Dave Beasant saved a penalty from John Aldridge and Lawrie Sanchez got the winner in one of the greatest Wembley upsets.Reuse content