Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool team had an unforgettable 2001. Though not enough to match Manchester United and Arsenal at the top of the Premier League table, The Reds became cup conquerors, collecting five trophies during the calendar year.
Liverpool became the first English team to achieve a quintuple of silverware success in the same year, with the club’s cup-winning feats led by the precocious goalscoring gifts of Michael Owen.
Houllier’s side had been built around Owen, a centre-forward who, before his teens had concluded, was already in possession of two Premier League Golden Boots and the scorer of one of England’s most iconic World Cup goals.
Owen’s career, in its infancy, was packed full of highs, and the 2000/01 season might be the acme of Owen. For proof of this, there is no better argument than the afternoon of May 12th 2001, in Cardiff. The season’s FA Cup final was the first held in the Welsh capital, as Wembley underwent reconstruction. On a sun-soaked afternoon, Owen’s electricity turned English football’s headline game on its head.
For much of the game, Liverpool had rode their luck.
Stephane Henchoz’s handball on the goal line went unpunished, as the Swiss centre-back’s arm kept out Thierry Henry’s goal-bound effort. The referee, unsighted, waved away Arsenal’s protests. Henchoz’s defensive partner, Sami Hyypia, then twice made goal-line clearances to keep Arsenal out, as the North Londoners upped the ante.
Emile Heskey’s header offered response and forced a strong save from David Seaman at the other end, but Arsenal were the team in control in Cardiff.
Arsenal, a swashbuckling side featuring Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira, were emerging as one of the finest outfits seen anywhere in Europe. Full of class and chemistry, Arsene Wenger’s side were dominant, and knocking on the door.
As the sun beamed down at the Millennium Stadium, Liverpool, late on, looked to have wilted under the pressure. A poor clearance from Sander Westerveld began a passage of play that ended with Freddie Ljungberg rounding the goalkeeper to fire the North Londoners ahead.
With less than 20 minutes to go, the cup appeared capital-bound.
Owen, however, believed a chance would come.
“I remember going into the game and I was in a rich vein of form at that time, I was scoring quite a lot of goals. It’s very rarely been a game in my life where I’ve not had a chance,” Owen told The Football Faithful, in an event hosted by BoyleSports.
“I just remember the game, they were certainly the best team. We didn’t have a chance all game with about 85 minutes gone.
“When you’re confident, and when you’ve been in a good run of form, you just believe. You just know that something’s going to happen, you will have a chance. And I did, I just thought there’s never been a game where I’ve not had at least half a chance. You will get one, just be ready.”
A late set piece provided Liverpool with an opportunity. Gary McAllister’s delivery was headed only into the air, with Markus Babbel beating Tony Adams to the second ball. The knockdown fell invitingly for Owen, who lashed in an acrobatic equaliser.
“When the ball flew over my head, I just thought ‘I’ve got to spin, I’ve got to turn, I’ve got to get in a position where I think this ball will drop’. The ball was a little bit floaty from McAllister, so I just turned and found the place I thought it was most likely to drop. I managed to keep it down and struck it beautifully into the bottom corner.
“I’ll never forget the feeling, jogging back to the halfway line knowing they’ve thrown everything at you. It’s almost like George Foreman against Muhammad Ali in The Rumble in the Jungle. He (Foreman) just threw everything at him for round after round and he (Ali) never threw a punch. Then all of a sudden, in the blink of an eye…
“I just remember jogging past their players, looking up at the scoreboard, looking at the time. Basically thinking, have I got time to score another? I genuinely, it sounds arrogant, but I genuinely knew that I was going to score again and thought that we were going to win it.
“Momentum’s a huge thing and when you throw everything at somebody and you’re still not winning at the end of it, it doesn’t half tire you more. We had a new lease of life and I just hoped that I’d get another chance, and I did a few seconds later…”
Arsenal’s grip on the trophy sufficiently loosened, moments later it was torn away. Patrik Berger’s long pass appeared more in hope than genuine expectation, but Owen’s explosivity meant even those passes could turn into chances.
The veteran defensive duo of Lee Dixon and Tony Adams could do little to stop Liverpool’s irresistible force, who darted past Dixon and escaped Adams’ attention. The creaking legs of the pair, each a season from retirement, were no match for the whirling footspeed of Liverpool’s number ten.
A one-sided footrace ended with Owen firing in from a narrow-angle, a match-winning moment to establish his place in FA Cup folklore.
— Emirates FA Cup (@EmiratesFACup) May 12, 2020
It was an archetypal, exceptional, Owen goal. The 21-year-old’s searing pace and ruthless precision had won the FA Cup for Liverpool, his winner coming two minutes from time.
“I think so, yeah,” Owen said on whether his winner would be the goal he’d choose to score again.
“For the feeling. You’ve got to put it into context. Young kids reading this would be like the FA Cup final? But the FA Cup final, for me, growing up was the biggest game in the world.
“I was mesmerised by it, the cameras on the coaches as you’re going up Wembley way. It was a day out for everyone. We used to have a barbecue in our back garden or whatever. It just felt like the FA Cup final day was always sunny… the national anthem, everything about it.
“If you had said to me you could do one thing in your life, it would have been scoring the winner in the FA Cup final. That’s the best feeling I’ve ever had on a football pitch.”
Owen had spent much of the final on the periphery but came alive late on with a devastating double to cement his place in Liverpool legend and in FA Cup final folklore. A lifeless Liverpool performance had been transformed by the singularity of Owen’s talent, keeping the club’s treble dream alive.
A golden performance, in a golden shirt, to win the cup in Cardiff.
See more – Iconic Performances: Michael Owen in Munich