Feast of Steven: no holding the man for all summer

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The Independent Online

The announcement had just been made. Four minutes of added time. The ball dropped to Steven Gerrard. He was more than 30 yards out. The Liverpool captain swung his boot. His shot arrowed past Shaka Hislop and into the net to take the most pulsating of FA Cup finals into extra time.

On the touchline the West Ham manager, Alan Pardew, turned his back, a smile on his face, shaking his head. It was an expression that said "what can you do?" What, indeed, could West Ham do? Later he revealed what he had been thinking at that moment. "It almost felt like we'd lost," Pardew said.

Less than 40 minutes later, after extra time and penalties, West Ham had indeed been beaten. The Cup was in Gerrard's hands. When he contrived that remarkable comeback in Istanbul last year he took the European Cup to bed with him. Last night another trophy probably nestled on his pillow.

He had every right to cherish it. Without him Liverpool would have lost. He wrestled victory through sheer desire, strength of personality and skill. Not even cramp, gripping his legs late on, could stop him. He was actually limping as he scored his second goal. The manager, Rafael Benitez, dropped the trophy lid after the presentation and it was Gerrard who collected it. After all he had spent all afternoon picking up the pieces against a vibrant West Ham side led by a wonderful display from their captain, Nigel Reo-Coker.

Pardew had talked about Gerrard's threat. Take the midfielder out of Liverpool and put him in his team, he said, and West Ham would be favourites. Gerrard made that big a difference. There was no joy for Pardew in knowing that his analysis had been all too accurate. But even he could not predict quite what a remarkable performance Gerrard would produce.

It was the most emphatic of confirmations that here is a genuine big-game player. A man for the occasion. Astonishingly, Gerrard has scored five goals in his last five finals. His sense of drama is amazing. For Sven Goran Eriksson, watching in the stands, it was proof that Gerrard can fill the void left by Wayne Rooney. How England need him. How, yesterday, Liverpool needed him.

They were two goals down when he seized control. First he took a quick free-kick which Peter Crouch sidefooted in. Offside. No matter. He then flighted a wonderful ball into the path of Djibril Cissé and the striker volleyed it beyond Hislop. Suddenly, Liverpool were rampant. And Gerrard was everywhere. He was playing on the right - but that was only a starting point. He was everywhere, bursting to meet the strikers. He wanted to win the game. If he had to do it on his own then so be it.

As half-time approached, the ball was breaking towards Gerrard on the area's edge. He shaped to shoot. West Ham needed something and they got it from Reo-Coker. He beat Gerrard to the ball, coolly ran with it out of defence and gave a simple pass. West Ham, exuberant yet inexperienced, had to reach the interval retaining their lead if they were not going to be swamped and Reo-Coker, just 22 today, gave them that belief. His remarkable performances earned him a place on Eriksson's stand-by list for Germany and praise from Gerrard who called his season's contribution "outstanding". But it was from his tackle on John Arne Riise, deemed a foul, that Liverpool drew level. Reo-Coker was incensed. He smelt the danger. From the free-kick the ball was knocked down to Gerrard who volleyed high into the goal.

Even then West Ham regained the lead and Reo-Coker steadied the ship once more, winning possession, ferrying the ball forward, calming nerves, directing play. Until Gerrard intervened with that 90th-minute goal.

Still Gerrard powered on. He - like Reo-Coker - was running on empty but he was able to dispatch his penalty which, crucially, meant West Ham could not afford to miss again. But they did. The Cup was Gerrard's and despite the heroic efforts of Pardew, of Reo-Coker, of West Ham, no one could deny Liverpool's heartbeat.

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