Nick Townsend: The heartbeat of Liverpool breaks Hammers' hearts

The force is with 'Stevie G' as captain drags his men back from the brink in another final
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The Independent Football

We had witnessed Gerrard's genius and obdurate refusal to accept defeat which somehow produced an extra half-hour when West Ham already believed they'd done enough. And then the agility of Jose Reina, with three penalty shoot-out saves, after his careless hands had earlier seemingly presented the Cup to the Hammers. Ultimately, Liverpool seized the club's seventh FA Cup. Yet they barely merited so much as a tie in this, the 125th final which was the most compelling since Manchester United's 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace, in 1990. West Ham manager Alan Pardew played in that game. Palace lost in the replay. On this occasion, Pardew had no such luxury.

For a man who has taken his team way beyond what even the most fanatical member of the Hammers faithful could have imagined at the start of the season, kind words will count for precious little.

In some quarters this had been mischievously previewed as a "bye" for Liverpool. The real "final", it was suggested, had taken place at Old Trafford three weeks ago, and Chelsea had been the runners-up. No one could have imagined how erroneous that observation would be.

It was a tribute to Pardew's acumen and his insistence on an attacking policy that, even though Liverpool offered occasional flourishes, as they sought to recover early ground conceded to their opponents, they rarely asserted themselves as the dominating force. Defenders Danny Gabbidon, Lionel Scaloni, Anton Ferdinand and Paul Konchesky saw to that. In midfield, Yossi Benayoun was equal to all but Gerrard.

And that name was the crucial influence in this contest. Liverpool possess a captain, who exemplifies every positive, outstanding quality Liverpool followers demand and managers appreciate. With impeccable timing, as the stadium announcer told us there would be four minutes added time, the England midfielder strode up from 30 yards and condemned West Ham to extra time. Earlier he had scored an equaliser to bring the score to 2-2. But had Liverpool's own attitude been positive enough from the start?

For half an hour, Benitez's men performed with the insouciance of men who could canter at will and raise a gallop when required. It is a dangerous attitude, though you just wonder what the outcome might have been in normal time if Reina hadn't had a stinker and Dean Ashton hadn't played a blinder.

Ashton and Marlon Harewood applied the jemmy on the Liverpool back door, normally so secure, that the formidable rearguard creaked. In midfield, Harry Kewell, who in the semi-final had offered an inspired response to anyone who assumed his best days had passed him by at Leeds, was anonymous; Xabi Alonso, the architect of so much of Liverpool's finest designs, worked with a blunted pencil. The exception to an overall malaise was Gerrard.

Perhaps West Ham's only sin was overlooking the effect he can have. Yet having established, probably to their own astonishment, a two-goal lead, West Ham could dare to dream. And in this of all years, one in which two distinguished patrons of The Academy of football - we speak of an ethos, not bricks and concrete - Ron Greenwood and John Lyall have passed away.

Dreaming was quite possibly what they were doing when Gerrard's long cross spent, seemingly, an eternity in the air before Djibril Cissé volleyed home. Liverpool had been here before, at least metaphorically, a year ago and the relish with which Gerrard smote the equaliser after the interval confirmed his desire was equal to that which provided the stimulus for his team's repair job in Istanbul.

That was surely the catalyst for Liverpool to seize the initiative? It wasn't. Konchesky deceived Reina and suddenly the Hammers were 240 seconds from an unlikely, yet deserved triumph. But "Stevie G" was the saviour once more, and Liverpool's nerve proved more steady at the shoot-out.

Alf Garnett would have been inconsolable; the TV character's beloved Hammers losing in such a manner to a team supported by his son-in-law, the "Lazy Scouse Git". Alf's idol, Booby Moore, had been captain round that time, 1964, when West Ham first lifted this Cup, defeating Preston. Just about everything has changed significantly since.

Today, the Docklands, where Alf fictionally worked, is gentrified and Liverpool is the 2008 City of Culture. But the years haven't diminished the fans' devotion to either of these clubs. Even beforehand, this had a genuine resonance of a Cup final of old about it. Almost sacriligiously, the neck of Aneurin Bevan's statue in Castle Street had been decorated with a Liverpool scarf, though no doubt Cardiff will forgive them such excesses.

Impromptu massed games of football were taking place in the streets outside the stadium. Inside, for once, the two participants offered us a contest worthy of the occasion. Only it wasn't worthy of a loser. And certainly not West Ham.