It is not the European Cup, it is not the FA Cup, and it is a long way from the Premier League, but after almost six years without the kind of trophy-winning moment that used to be a regular event at their club, this will do for now for Liverpool. And who would have thought at the start of the day it would take this much effort for Steven Gerrard to finally get his hands on the Carling Cup?
Winning the first trophy of Kenny Dalglish's second coming, against a team sixth in the Championship, was never supposed to be as complicated as this. One envisaged a couple of goals for Liverpool and a smooth, controlled performance as befitting the one leading Premier League team that has really taken this competition seriously this season. Instead, by 6.45pm yesterday, Liverpool still did not have their hands on the trophy.
First, they gave the lead away to Cardiff on 20 minutes and spent the next 40 minutes chasing it. They scored the equaliser, then took the lead in extra time through substitute Dirk Kuyt and then, when the Football League were tying the red and white ribbons to the trophy, Ben Turner, a 23-year-old centre-half from Coventry, bundled an equaliser over the line and the lottery of penalties were upon Dalglish.
It was already a remarkable afternoon's football at Wembley by the time Steven Gerrard and then Charlie Adam missed the first two penalties and there were heads in hands all around the end bedecked in red. It was at that moment you wondered whether Dalglish's team had actually lost their nerve.
What decided it in the end? Probably the factor that one had previously expected to make the difference in the original 90 minutes: Liverpool's superior class finally told. Kuyt, Stewart Downing and Glen Johnson all scored their penalties while only two of Malky Mackay's players were successful from the spot, culminating in the decisive miss from substitute Anthony Gerrard.
What a dreadful moment for the cousin of Steven, the boy in his famous relative's shadow who was rejected by Everton and having fought his way back up the divisions did not make the Cardiff team yesterday. It is a cruel game sometimes. As the Liverpool players sprinted towards Pepe Reina to celebrate, Steven stopped briefly to attempt a consolation with his cousin but, really, what could he say?
It had been a monumental effort by Mackay's team who battled hard to make up for the deficit in talent. For Liverpool, the satisfaction was in the outcome, not the game. It is not the way they would have wanted to win it but neither was this a terrible performance. In many ways it was indicative of their season: patchy, but with the capacity for moments of surprising quality. Liverpool made the job that much harder when they conceded on 19 minutes. It came from the right side where Kevin McNaughton played the ball across the face of the area to Kenny Miller. He was afforded the time to slip the ball through the Liverpool defence where Joe Mason could comfortably stroke the ball in.
From the moment of Mason's goal until the 83rd minute of the game, the Championship team scarcely had a sight of Liverpool's goal. The barrage was relentless, peaking either side of the break until at last they scored on the hour mark. In the end it felt like sheer force of will that saw the ball over the line. From Downing's corner Andy Carroll won a header which Luis Suarez turned on to the post. When it rebounded back to Martin Skrtel he afforded himself a touch before scoring.
In the intervening period it had been frantic for Cardiff as they sought to protect their unexpected lead. At times it was a job to keep track of all the chances created by Liverpool. There was a notable tackle by the Cardiff captain Mark Hudson, who scooped the ball away from Carroll. Jordan Henderson failed to make contact with a Downing cross that Gerrard also miscued.
Andrew Taylor got in the way of Gerrard's shot just before half-time. Suarez jumped on a mistake by Hudson and had a shot pushed away by Tom Heaton. You get the picture. By the time Skrtel scored, Liverpool had two reasonable penalty appeals for handball rejected.
The pursuit of an equaliser appeared to take its toll physically and, having scored, Liverpool never quite recaptured the intensity until they raised their game in extra time. In fact, towards the end of normal time, Cardiff came back into the match.
With seven minutes left, the Cardiff centre-half Turner came in at the back post and only narrowly headed the ball wide. With two minutes left, Cowie slipped in Miller in the right channel and with a clear sight of goal he missed the target.
In extra time, Liverpool were better. Carroll, who had toiled hard in attack, came off for Kuyt. He struck a shot that looked to be going wide, the ball was returned straight to him by a poor clearance from Anthony Gerrard and Kuyt hit it first time inside the near post.
That really should have been it but Cardiff proved to be determined. They raised themselves for one last assault on the Liverpool goal and may even have surprised themselves to claim an equaliser with two minutes of the 120 to play remaining.
How did it happen? In the course of two successive corners, Kuyt first cleared off the line from substitute Filip Kiss and then, when the second corner came over, the Dutchman could not stay on his feet long enough to stop Turner from forcing the ball over the line from close range. Suddenly, Dalglish was choosing his penalty takers.
What drama followed. Heaton made a brilliant save from Gerrard, Adam missed and in between Miller struck a post for Cardiff. Not until Cowie hit the fourth penalty did anyone score. From then on Liverpool scored all three and only Peter Whittingham did so for Cardiff. Dalglish looked delighted but even he must have wondered why his team made it so hard for themselves.
Man for man marking
Tom Heaton: Unable to do much with either goal. Fine save in shoot-out. 7/10
Kevin McNaughton: Got forward to create opener but struggled defensively. 6
Mark Hudson: Tested by movement of Suarez but kept doggedly to task. 7
Ben Turner: Hands full but defended resolutely and in right place for equaliser. 7
Andrew Taylor: Not penalised for handball but aided Cardiff resistance. 6
Don Cowie: Looked to support strikers but spent more time facing own goal. 6
Peter Whittingham: Not able to get forward as usual but helped out at the back. 6
Aron Gunnarsson: Left watching at times but broke up Liverpool attacks. 5
Joe Mason: Had Bluebirds in early dream-land with calm finish underneath Reina. 7
Kenny Miller: Fine ball through to Mason for goal but missed again in shoot-out. 6
Rudy Gestede: Claimed penalty but went down too easily. Often isolated. 5
Best off the bench: Filip Kiss Brought on in extra time to help stem the Red tide. 5
Pepe Reina: Left disappointed with both goals but safe handling otherwise. 6
Glen Johnson: Surged forward and unlucky to see early shot cannon back off bar. 7
Martin Skrtel: Played Mason onside for opener before making amends. 6
Daniel Agger: Headed straight at Heaton just before the interval. 6
Jose Enrique: Followed Johnson in providing support down the flanks. 6
Steven Gerrard: Captain was driving force behind Liverpool's comeback. 7
Charlie Adam: Began well before tiring. Went close from distance. Skied penalty. 6
Jordan Henderson: Ineffective showing and contributed little. Booked. 5
Luis Suarez: Always looked dangerous but shirked responsibilities in shoot-out. 7
Stewart Downing: More productive than of late and produced from the wing. 8
Andy Carroll: Tried and toiled but again struggled to make impact. 5
Best off the bench: Dirk Kuyt Surged past tired defence to score Reds' second. 7
Substitutes: Cardiff City Kiss (Mason, 91), Gerrard (Hudson, 99), Blake (McNaughton, 106). Liverpool Bellamy (Henderson, 58), Carragher (Agger, 86), Kuyt (Carroll, 103).
Booked: Cardiff Kiss, Turner. Liverpool Henderson.
Man of the match Downing.
Match rating 7/10.
Possession: Cardiff 47% Liverpool 53%.
Attempts on target: Cardiff 7 Liverpool 19.
Referee M Clattenburg (Co Durham). Attendance 89,044.Reuse content