When Manchester United visited Anfield in February 2006 for the 5th Round of the FA Cup, the home fans were a bit pessimistic about the team’s prospects of going further. Their reasons were pretty obvious and no less conclusive. The 12 January 1921 had been the last time that the neighbours had gone home beaten down the M62 after a cup game on the banks of the Mersey. Over 80 years ago. So no hope. Fate was decided. Out of the competition at the first hurdle against their greatest rivals and just another statistic to add. Or maybe not.
The few fans who had not lost interest in their team’s development when the chips were down after the treble of 2001, second place in 2002 and the League Cup of 2003, were conscious of the fact that right next to Stanley Park, where the people were having a pint in the Sandon or the Albert, things were changing. After a difficult start, apart from the unforgettable night of magic in Istanbul, a certain Rafa Benitez seemed to have found the key. And with the questionable signing of Peter Crouch for £7 million. The previously powerful reds were beginning to regain their power and were putting together a run of 10 wins in a row: between 29 October 2005 and 2 February 2006, West Ham, Aston Villa, Portsmouth, Manchester City, Sunderland, Wigan, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Everton and West Bromwich Albion had all fallen one after the other. It is not surprising that, come May, they would muster their highest points total (82) since the formation of the Premier League, a total, incidentally, that they would not take long to beat. Neither is it surprising that the fans who had not become cynical were convinced that this would be the time and that those who had given up fighting to win the oldest trophy in the world would not be the players, who would be urged on by the ‘Kop’, because a long time had passed since the last time it had happened.
I remember it was a sunny morning, the opposition were playing in blue and started with Rooney, Ronaldo and Van Nistelrooy. And I can also remember that it was the aforementioned Crouch who scored the winner with a header just creeping over Van Der Sar’s goal line at the opposite end to the Kop. But what isn’t so clear to me is where all those who had predicted a bleak future went to. Maybe they began to believe in what Rafa was building. Or maybe they just did what referees do when they’re wrong, because it’s not easy to admit mistakes. Whatever happened to them, what is certain is that, having gone through to the 6th Round of the competition, 12 January 1921 was now as far away as the calendar proves. And that was a much longer period of time than the short one to their being proclaimed champions in the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff which happened just a few months later. But that deserves its own chapter in history.