There could be few more symbolic illustrations of the FA Cup's power to heal and haunt than the contrasting sights of Djibril Cissé and Marlon Harewood in the aftermath of Saturday's final. The Frenchman, who had spent the last 40 minutes limping ostentatiously in his fluorescent boots, cavorted about the turf as if he had drunk an elixir from the old pot itself. Then, in the bowels of the stadium, he held court at length.
As he spoke Harewood, crocked by a wayward - and unpunished - tackle from Mohammed Sissoko early in extra time, was helped past on crutches. As well as the physical pain he had to endure the mental agonies of his two misses, one which would have put West Ham United 3-1 up early in the second period, and one which could have snatched victory in the final minutes.
He could be forgiven that failure, given he could barely lift his left foot at the time. But that illustration underlines the fine margin between heroes and villains which the Cup highlights.
West Ham were minutes away from a victory which would have resonated throughout England and become as much a part of the East End as jellied eels, the Krays and the Cable Street riots. Jose "Pepe" Reina was on the brink of following fellow goalkeepers Dan Lewis (Arsenal, 1927), Peter Mellor (Fulham, 1975) and Jim Leighton (Manchester United, 1990) into the FA Cup hall of infamy.
"It wasn't the best day for Pepe during the game," said Rafael Benitez, Liverpool's manager, "but we have had 33 clean sheets and Pepe has saved a lot of very important goals. If you want to win trophies, you need players with character. You cannot say, 'I made a mistake', and then spend 20 minutes thinking about it."
Reina, who is short for a modern goalkeeper, dodgy on crosses and as prone to error as his predecessors, Jerzy Dudek and Sandor Westerveld, found redemption with a superlative 118th-minute save from Nigel Reo-Coker and at the 12-yard firing range.
At this he was in his element. Last season the Spaniard saved nine of 11 penalties for the Spanish side Villarreal, reaping the benefit of a childhood spent practising them with his father in the back garden. On Saturday he saved three more out of four.
"It had gone badly," said Reina, "but with that late save I had the confidence for the penalties. It is a lottery on penalties and I am no specialist. I waited with Teddy Sheringhambut guessed for the rest. It could have been a bad end to the season for me but I have been strong all my life and had some hard times. You have good moments and bad ones, but just have to keep going through the bad ones.
"Before the penalties I was talking to my friend in the sky and asking for some help. I think really that I didn't deserve it because my game today wasn't the best. I was rubbish, absolutely rubbish."
The best penalty-saver seen in England since Paul Cooper, of Ipswich, 25 years ago, was helped by Alan Wiley's loss of nerve. Cooper's technique was "kidology", Reina's was encroachment, and the referee should have demanded at least one retake: Reina was so far off his line for Paul Konchesky's penalty it was almost a 50-50 ball.
"I said to the ref, 'He's a lively keeper, keep an eye on him'," said Alan Pardew with resignation. Though drained and dejected, the West Ham manager took defeat with good grace. In 1990, he had been eight minutes from victory as a Crystal Palace player when Mark Hughes equalised for Manchester United to force another 3-3 draw. "It's not much consolation to be involved in another great final," he said. "When I saw the score it did bring back memories. I was only three minutes away this time so I'm getting closer."
While Dean Ashton insisted there could be no positives in defeat, West Ham took more than runners-up medals, pride, and hard cash from Cardiff. Their performance gave succour to Pardew's belief that they can build on this memorable season. "I felt that Ashton, Reo-Coker and the two centre-halves [Anton Ferdinand and Danny Gabbidon] showed the spine of this team is in very, very good health," he said with reason. "We have real quality on the sides as well. If we can regroup, we can compete to a better level next year."
They have the added boost of European involvement, which will help in attracting players with a new goalkeeper and right-back the priorities, plus squad strengthening elsewhere. "It's something we can take into next season. We'll have a go,'' said Pardew. Just as they did on Saturday.
Reina, king of the spot-kicks
* Hamann (scored)
* Zamora (saved) 1-0
* Hyypia (saved) 1-0
* Sheringham (scored) 1-1
* Gerrard (scored) 2-1
* Konchesky (saved) 2-1
* Riise (scored) 3-1
* Ferdinand (saved) 3-1Reuse content