Monday, May 15, 2006

Is It a Bird? Is It A Plane? No, It's Stevie G!

Great yarn, shame about the ending. Saturday's F.A. Cup final was a thrilling rollercoaster ride alright, to borrow the phrase beloved of lowbrow movie reviewers, but the climax could have been handled in any number of superior ways.

Here's the pitch: Marlon Harewood, crippled and possibly gangrenous, swings his only remaining limb at a loose ball at the far post; it slices into the top corner and victory is West Ham's! In the victorious dressing room a telegram arrives from Sven Goran Eriksson, announcing that Harewood has been drafted in as a last minute England squad member for the World Cup, cut to credits with S Club 7's Reach for the Stars.

No? Ok, how about: West Ham get a free kick with minutes to go, just outside the box. Teddy Sheringham, wily old Teddy, shoos away the whippersnappers around him - "back off Reo-Coker, I knew your Dad when he was REO Speedwagon" - and bends the free kick into the top corner winning the cup with the last kick of his career. In the victorious dressing room a telegram arrives from Sven Goran Eriksson, announcing that Sheringham has been drafted in as a last minute England squad member for the World Cup. Everyone turns to Teddy, but he's gone, no-one knows where. "Who was that man?" says Alan Pardew, as Teddy's Theme , a new composition by John Barry, swells in the background.

But what's this? A penalty shoot-out? And Liverpool win? But they're not even the underdogs! Hmmm, this isn't going to play well in the sticks....

Still when it comes to all-action superheroes, the feats of Liverpool's seemingly bionic captain, Steven Gerrard, are beginning to shame the Splat! and Blam! of Marvel Comics. Just as Sven's decoy manouevre in plucking Theo Walcott from the Arsenal reserves and thrusting him in front of the poking and prodding of a bemused media succeeded in putting the minutiae of Wayne Rooney's recovery off the agenda for a few days, so Gerrard's commando performance will have given the English public that tingly feeling that everything will be all right, as long as 'he' is around.

Like any good superhero, his people feel safer when he's near.

Perhaps it is because of the prolonged will-he-won't-he-oh-please-just-make-your-mind-up transfer sagas of recent summers, or perhaps it is because he plays the game at times with a sort of surly cheerlessness rather than with grim snarl, but for some reason Gerrard has not yet been garlanded with the sort of warrior-legend epithets which Roy Keane attracted following, for example, his 1999 Champions League semi-final performance in Turin.

Gerrard, by now, has produced countless such displays for Liverpool; matches in which he dragged his team to results with galloping drive and contempt for whatever hopeless predicament they find themselves in. Last season's late winner against Olympiakos in the Champions League group stages which qualified Liverpool for the knockout stage was a taster, but paled in comparison to his improbable propulsion of a ragged Liverpool to ultimate glory in the final in Istanbul, when his headed goal and penalty-winning run breathed life into the European Cup's most astonishing story.

Saturday was even more eye-rubbingly heroic, even if the prize was not as treasured. The sight of Liverpool's players, including their captain himself, hobbling lamely with cramp as West Ham's gutsy and fearless display appeared to have secured their fourth F.A. Cup, provided Gerrard with the sort of against-all-odds set-up he appears to glory in defying. Gerrard had already created Liverpool's first and rasped in their first equaliser. Cue a thirty yard volley in the 91st minute that even seemed to have that elliptic trajectory beloved of Roy of the Rovers comic artists.

Fast forward through a tense extra-time and penalty shoot-out, and the hero of the hour gets to lift the cup he did so much to win.

Maybe this story had a fitting ending after all.


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