James Lawton: Gerrard the force of nature raises England's hopes from the ridiculous to the sublime

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The potency of Steven Gerrard was so irresistible it challenged even the better judgement that England in the World Cup have been saddled beyond hope by the bizarre thought processes and indecisive leadership of Sven Goran Eriksson.

The promise of Alan Pardew's vision of how a club like West Ham United should be represented on, what we now know, can still be one of the most rousing days of the season spoke of a new and thrilling current in the national game.

These elements alone were enough to give some credence to arguments that this might have been the best Cup final of them all. History, of course, still has some mighty counter-claims, not least in the beauty of the 4-2 victory of Sir Matt Busby's first great Manchester United team over Blackpool in 1948 and then, five years later, the ultimately romantic triumph of one of the defeated of 1948, the 38-year-old Stanley Matthews, over Bolton Wanderers.

Sometimes history, even though it will always punish those who choose to forget it, has to be put on hold. Sometimes the moment is enough if it is filled with sufficient talent and competitive character. It was in Istanbul last spring when Liverpool won the Champions' League title and their first trophy under Rafa Benitez after going three goals down. It was at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday when West Ham, playing with intelligently marshalled pace and ambition, swept into a two-goal lead.

On both occasions the catalyst of Liverpool redemption was Gerrard. However, in Cardiff it was fair to say that in all his spectacular and quite frequently enigmatic career his power to take over a game, to shape it utterly to both his will and his capacity to erupt unanswerably, had never been so profound.

In any contemplation of a World Cup that has perhaps never been so open once you look beyond the glow of Ronaldinho, Gerrard surely ignited some flames of English hope. He is not Ronaldinho or Thierry Henry, perhaps not even the stricken Wayne Rooney, in the welling of football genius, but in the majesty of his performance against West Ham, in the authority of his ball-striking and the sublime accomplishment of his raking pass to the feet of Djibril Cissé for Liverpool's first goal, you had to go back to the prime of Sir Bobby Charlton for such impact from an English midfielder on a big stage.

His second equaliser was not so much a moment of consummate execution, more a force of nature, something that recalled the extraordinary shot of Charlton against Mexico which pushed back the England horizons so dramatically in the group stage of the 1966 World Cup.

Charlton's goal said that anything was possible. Who knows, given a willingness by Eriksson to release Gerrard into a specifically attacking role from a forward position in a well-upholstered and balanced starting midfield of five - the others being David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick and Joe Cole - such a notion might be engendered in the latest England team. The idea shouldn't be revolutionary, but then you have to remember that two years ago, on the eve of the European Championship in Portugal, England were still heatedly debating the value or otherwise of a diamond system that would force the admirable Paul Scholes out of international football.

It is natural to run ahead of ourselves. This Cup final, as Wednesday's Champions' League final in Paris is to Arsenal, was of vast importance to both Liverpool and West Ham, but inevitably the World Cup is already drawing like a magnet. The great tournament every four years requires a football nation to take a piercing look at itself, and right up until the kick-off on Saturday in England this was scarcely an uplifting chore.

So what had changed when Stevie G reached out his arms to the heavens? Something - or nothing, maybe. Eriksson's squad still looks like the product of dementia in its disposition of forward resources. Liverpool still need to augment the talent of Gerrard in at least four positions if they are truly to challenge Chelsea for the title next season. West Ham must also upgrade their level of talent if they are to turn potential into achievement.

But beyond such cautions, there was indeed something. There was a game to thrill all the football senses. There was a young team in their first season in the top flight prepared to play their own game against the formidably organised Liverpool, and doing it so well they surely would have won but for the regained nerve of Jose Reina and the perfect, soaring expression of Gerrard's huge and specific talent.

The result was an over-riding sense that in two seasons of Benitez, and the two most significant knock- out trophies, Liverpool have acquired a genuine depth of purpose and competitiveness. Sure, stockpiling at Stamford Bridge is reaching monopolistic proportions with the acquisition of Michael Ballack and the pursuit of Andrei Shevchenko, but, come what may in the colours of Roman Abramovich, there is no doubt that Benitez's men have established themselves as a nagging presence, acquiring authentic "form".

West Ham displayed the potential of intelligent, brave, fresh leadership. They established the value of daring to compete rather than merely survive. They played with nerve and width and never allowed Liverpool a second to luxuriate in any idea of their own superiority. When it was over you could not have asked for much more of a wider spread of achievement in a single domestic game, a fact which was best symbolised by Reina's extraordinary resurrection in the penalty shoot-out and the late, brilliant save which flicked the ball against a post.

Then, of course, there was the ultimate gift, the latest, and most persuasive evidence that, in Gerrard, England retain the capacity to strike down any opponent. It is not a matter of certainty, of course - few things in the game are - but, in such precarious times for England, on Saturday it surely became an article of faith. At the very least, Steve Gerrard promised a little piece of football heaven.

The last word in excitement: Three FA Cup finals to rival Gerrard's masterpiece

* 1953: Blackpool 4, Bolton Wanderers 3

The "Matthews" final was so named because it earned Sir Stanley (right) his first FA Cup winner's medal at the age of 38, but it could equally be described as Stan Mortensen's game. The England centre-forward scored a hat-trick, the last man to do so in the final, as Blackpool, who went 1-0 down to a Nat Lofthouse goal after 75 seconds, and 3-1 down after 55 minutes, rallied to win 4-3 with two goals in the last three minutes. Matthews played his part by tormenting the Wanderers left-back Ralph Banks, who was suffering from cramp, before setting up Bill Perry's winner with a perfect cross.

* 1966: Everton 3, Sheffield Wednesday 2

Everton manager Harry Catterick sprang a shock when he named Mike Trebilcock (right), a little-known Cornishman with only eight appearances, as centre-forward in place of the England international Fred Pickering. It seemed to be an error as Wednesday, seeking their first Cup triumph since 1935, led 2-0 after 57 minutes with goals from Jim McCalliog and David Ford. Then Trebilcock struck twice in five minutes. With extra time looming, Gerry Young, on the halfway line, made the mistake which would always haunt him as he allowed a hopeful clearance to roll under his foot. Derek Temple ran on to the loose ball and secured the Cup for Everton.

* 1987: Coventry City 3, Tottenham Hotspur 2

Tottenham, who had played flowing football all season under David Pleat, were overwhelming favourites. That verdict seemed justified when Clive Allen scored his 49th goal of the season after only two minutes. Dave Bennett soon levelled but Spurs went ahead again when Brian Kilcline deflected a Gary Mabbutt cross into his own net. Spurs had 11 internationals in their 13, to Coventry's three, including Ossie Ardiles, Glenn Hoddle and Ray Clemence, but they could not prevent Keith Houchen levelling with a spectacular diving header. In extra time Lloyd McGrath's cross was deflected into the net off Mabbutt to win Coventry their first major honour.

Final stats: Worst start since '59

* Liverpool won despite making the worst start since Luton conceded twice to Nottingham Forest in the first 14 minutes in 1959. Forest's first goal came from Roy Dwight, Elton John's uncle. Dwight then broke his right leg, but 10-man Forest held on to win 2-1.

* Jamie Carragher's own goal was the first since Forest's Des Walker against Tottenham in 1991.

* The last team to lose a 2-0 lead were Arsenal in 1979, but they still beat Manchester United 3-2.

* The last team to win from 2-0 behind was Everton against Sheffield Wednesday in 1966.

* Steven Gerrard is the first player to score three times in a final since Stan Mortensen in 1953, but his shoot-out goal does not count towards a hat-trick.

* Teddy Sheringham became, at 40 years and 41 days, the third oldest player in the final since 1946.