Some seasons can be really weird for a variety of reasons. We noted last week how 1997/98 was one such season due to its inconsistency and mix of transfers. 2003/04 is also one of those seasons. After an uncertain summer, a mixed bag of transfers and the equally uncertain end to the season, it will soon become clear why this season falls into the weird category.
After finishing 5th in 2002/03 after a poor league campaign, Gerard Houllier was allowed to keep his job. However, it was by the skin of his teeth and on the premise that change would be afoot in the playing squad. A number of players were allowed to leave for free. Pegguy Arphexad was off to Coventry City, Bernard Diomede to Saint Etienne and Patrik Berger to Portsmouth were the players who found clubs following the end of their contracts. Vegard Heggem was left without a club though. As for arrivals, well they were practically done before the end of the previous campaign. Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Anthony Le Tallec had signed in January 2002 but had stayed at Le Havre for an extra 18 months, until they turned 18. Now they were able to finally come to Anfield. Steve Finnan was also signed towards the end of May. He joined from Fulham for £3.5 million. We also made a free transfer of our own, bringing in Algerian centre-half Carl Medjani from Saint Etienne. But the most noteworthy transfer of our pre-season came in the form of the most sought after player in the Premier League at that point.
Harry Kewell had been lighting up the Premier League since 1997. The Australian winger was always seen as a quality player everyone would’ve loved, but everyone knew was out of their reach. That was until Leeds United were plunged into financial crisis. Seeing Leeds going dramatically backwards, Kewell announced his intention to leave the club at the end of 2002/03. A host of clubs across Europe challenged for his signature. Having the pick of the continent’s best, he told the world of his desire to join his boyhood club – Liverpool. So we won the race for his signature to the tune of a bargain £4.5 million. Not many people could believe Liverpool’s luck. At the time, it seemed the signing that Houllier had needed to win back the fans.
2003/04 started the way 2002/03 ended though, despite the optimism of Kewell’s arrival. Cash-flush Chelsea were the first visitors to Anfield and were able to show off their newly assembled squad of superstars. Juan Sebastien Veron put them 1-0 up in the first-half. Michael Owen equalised from the penalty spot in the second half after having to retake his saved pen. Not long afterwards though Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink won the game for Chelsea. The next two games finished 0-0, away at Aston Villa and at home to Tottenham Hotspur. The final game before the international break though saw us claim our first win of the season and what a sweet win it was. Harry Kewell put Michael Owen through and the little forward did what he does best to put Liverpool 1-0 up. Midway through the second half, Milan Baros dispossessed Joseph Yobo, setting up Owen again to douLiverpool’s lead. Not long after, a long ball was played to Owen, who took it past Steve Simonsen, who had come haring out of his area. Owens cross was headed away by Steve Watson but only as far as Harry Kewell, who half-volleyed superbly into the back of the Park End net at Goodison Park and seal a 3-0 win. Five points from a possible twelve wasn’t ideal, but August ended positively thanks to the emphatic derby win.
After the international break, September would start with a 3-1 win over Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park but that game was marred by an injury to Jamie Carragher. The full-back would break his leg in a challenge with Lucas Neill and not play again that season. Newly promoted Leicester City were next up and were soundly beaten 2-0 at Anfield. We would then begin our UEFA Cup campaign with a 1-1 draw in Slovenia against Olympija Ljubljana. We were then disappointingly beaten at the Valley by Charlton thanks to a now infamous hat-trick by Kevin Lisbie. This was followed by a second defeat in a row, this time at home to Arsenal. Robert Pires scoring the pick of the goals as they went back to North London 2-1 winners. That midweek, Olympija were put to the sword and soundly beaten 3-0, which sealed our passage into the next round of the UEFA Cup. It was around this time that the club took a step which would ultimately shape our future. Gerard Houllier replaced Sami Hyypia as club captain in favour of local lad, Steven Gerrard. The class of Hyypia in the aftermath of the decision, carrying on with his job without fuss and supporting Gerrard unconditionally, spoke volumes of the man and earned him eternal respect from everyone involved with the club. As for Gerrard, well that is a story I shouldn’t need to tell you about. October continued with a 1-0 defeat away at Portsmouth. Patrik Berger came back to haunt us with a typically astute finish to seal the points. We would then beat Leeds 3-1 at Anfield before seeing out the month by knocking Blackburn out of the Carling Cup with a thrilling 4-3 win at Ewood Park.
At the beginning of November, we travelled to West London to play Fulham at Loftus Road. We walked away from Fulham’s temporary home with a 2-1 win and all 3 points thanks to goals from Danny Murphy and Emile Heskey. We then went to Bucharest to play Steaua and walked away with a 1-1 draw thanks to Djimi Traore’s only goal for the club. This would be succeeded by a 2-1 home defeat by Manchester United at Anfield, after Ryan Giggs scored two quick goals midway through the second half. After drawing 0-0 at the Riverside with Middlesbrough, we beat Steaua Bucharest at Anfield to secure our place in the next round of the UEFA Cup. November ended with a 3-1 home win against Birmingham City.
December started in disappointing fashion when were knocked out of the Carling Cup by Bolton Wanderers 3-2 at Anfield. Youri Djorkaeff’s 90th-minute penalty saw that season’s beaten finalists into the quarter-finals. This was followed by a 1-1 draw away at Newcastle United. The following week, we were beaten at home 2-1 by Southampton. Boxing Day saw us avenge our Carling Cup exit by beating Bolton 3-1 at Anfield. We would see out 2003 by drawing with Manchester City at the City of Manchester Stadium. Nicolas Anelka’s penalty put the home side 1-0 up in the first half. Vladimir Smicer would equalise in the 66th minute and Didi Hamann’s spectacular strike looked to have won the game in the 80th minute, but Robbie Fowler salvaged a point for City in the 90th minute.
2004 would start well, with the Reds only losing once in January. Yeovil were beaten at Huish Park to seal our progression into the 4th round of the F.A Cup. Chelsea were then beaten at Stamford Bridge. Emile Heskey whipped a lovely ball right onto the left foot of Bruno Cheyrou to score only his second goal for the club, although El Hadji Diouf was sent off for an off the ball incident with Adrian Mutu. It appeared Diouf’s studs had got caught in Mutu’s studs and the pair tripped over. However, the ref thought the Senegalese winger at kicked out at the Romanian and sent Diouf off for violent conduct. Jerzy Dudek also got injured in the game and was forced to be replaced by Patrice Luzi. With Dudek and Kirkland both injured, Luzi would also get injured in training and would miss a month. Liverpool were plunged into a goalkeeping crisis and had to delve into the January transfer market for the first time. Paul Jones was signed on a month’s loan from Southampton. He made his debut in the 1-0 home win against Aston Villa and played in the 2-1 defeat against Spurs at White Hart Lane the week after. Against Wolves that midweek, Bruno Cheyrou put Liverpool ahead but Kenny Miller equalised in the last minute to earn the home side a point. We then beat Newcastle 2-1 at Anfield thanks once again to Bruno Cheyrou. The Frenchman scored both goals to cancel out Laurent Robert’s stunner to send us into the 5th round of the F.A Cup. The month would end with a 0-0 draw in the Merseyside Derby at Anfield.
At the beginning of February, we travelled to Bolton and earned a point in a 2-2 draw. Manchester City were the next visitors to Anfield and were duly dispatched of 2-1. Portsmouth made their first trip to Anfield for the F.A Cup 5th round. Michael Owen put Liverpool ahead but Matty Taylor equalised to force a replay. In the replay a week later, Michael Owen was made to rue a missed penalty when Richard Hughes won the tie and knocked us out the cup. The UEFA Cup resumed in the next game and we beat Levski Sofia 2-0 to put us in a good position going into the second leg in Bulgaria in March. We would see out February by drawing 2-2 with Leeds at Elland Road.
We start March by beating Levski 4-2 in Sofia and make sure we would go through to the next round of the UEFA Cup. Our next game would be the first leg of the UEFA Cup quarter-final at Anfield against Marseille. Milan Baros put Liverpool 1-0 up in the 55th minute but Didier Drogba would begin his terrorising of the Reds before coming to England by equalising with 12 minutes left. In the return leg a few weeks later, Heskey would give Liverpool a vital away goal but Drogba would equalise again, this time from the penalty spot. Abdoulaye Meite would score what would be the winner in the 55th minute to knock Liverpool out. In between the two UEFA Cup games, we would beat Southampton 2-0 at St Mary’s, Portsmouth 3-0 at Anfield and Wolves 1-0, also at Anfield. We finished March with a goalless draw the Walkers Stadium against Leicester City.
April would begin with a 4-0 demolition of Blackburn at Anfield. Liverpool then travelled to Highbury to play league leaders Arsenal. The North Londoners were closing in on a historic title win and were looking to go the whole season unbeaten. Liverpool actually went in at half time 2-1 up through goals from Sami Hyypia and Michael Owen. But after the break, Arsenal showed everyone why they were going down as one of the great Premier League team. Thierry Henry single-handedly tore through Liverpool, adding a hat-trick to Robert Pires’ goal as Arsenal ran out 4-2 winners. The disappointment from this loss must have been hanging around the squad going into the Charlton game at Anfield as the away side inflicted probably our most annoying result of the season on us. Shaun Bartlett scored the only goal as Charlton walked away with the points. But this was followed by one of our results of the season. We went to Old Trafford as underdogs. Manchester United needed a win to keep up with runaway leaders Arsenal but Danny Murphy’s penalty ensured we took all 3 points back to Anfield and that we ended April on a high.
Going into May, Champions League qualification was in our hands, all we had to do was keep winning. Another Danny Murphy penalty and an Emile Heskey goal were enough to beat Middlesbrough at Anfield, meaning we would qualify for the 2004/05 Champions League as long as we beat Birmingham the following week and Newcastle didn’t match our result. We went to St. Andrews and did exactly what we needed to, beating them 3-0. Newcastle went to Southampton on Monday night and could only draw 3-3. With qualification sealed, we could go into the final game of the season at home to the Magpies in a relaxed mood. Shola Ameobi put the visitors ahead but Michael Owen would score what would be his final goal for the club to grab a point.
Finishing the season 4th would usually be more than acceptable to Liverpool fans, especially in this modern era. However, on the back of a season where we had won trebles and finished runners-up in the league, it wasn’t enough to save Gerard Houllier’s job. The Frenchman was sacked and eventually replaced by Rafa Benitez. Houllier had not changed the squad much since the treble season. Players like Gerrard, Murphy, and Carragher were still there and doing well. But he was badly let down by his transfer policy. Signings like El Hadji Diouf, Bruno Cheyrou, and Salif Diao had clearly not cut the mustard. These were the players Houllier had signed as alternatives to players like Nicolas Anelka, Damien Duff, and Lee Bowyer and they had turned out to be massive flops.
The whole season had felt like the axe was hanging over Houllier. 2002/03 was a massive blow to his Liverpool career. The fans were not restless and the board had grown tired of him wasting money. His 2003/04 signings, primarily Kewell and Finnan, had been relatively successful, but Sinama-Pongolle, Le Tallec, and Medjani had again failed to live up to expectations. The board had lost trust in the manager. The following season would bring in a manager of pedigree and discipline. Rafa Benitez’s tactics were not always entertaining but were effective on the whole. Change was afoot, and for the better.