Seasons like this do not come along often. Nobody could see this coming. Silverware is the end game for every player, manager and fan. When you’re growing up you don’t dream of fourth place finishes. You can’t put a league runners up spot in a trophy cabinet. There are no open top bus parades for qualifying for the Champions League and avoiding the qualifying stage. Cup finals get the blood flowing. The rush of coming so close to defeat followed by the euphoria of being crowned the best in a certain competition is like a high no drug in the world can offer, only bettered by actually being there and witnessing it in person. To have that three times though…
Gerard Houllier’s first pre-season in sole charge of the club started with the transfer of Bernard Diomede from Saint Ettiene for £3 million. Diomede was ultimately a flop at Anfield but it was exciting to have signed a World Cup winner in July of 2000. Pegguy Arphexad joined on a free from Leicester City, as did Markus Babbel from Bayern Munich in another exciting summer move. After a much-publicised transfer saga due to Liverpool’s apparent tapping up, Christian Ziege finally joined from Middlesbrough for £5.5 million. Another controversial move was sealed when Nick Barmby made the short journey across Stanley Park from Everton for £6 million to round off our pre-season business. Liverpool did sell quite a few players but most were during the season, in the days before transfer windows. Stig Inge Bjornbye was able to join Blackburn Rovers for £300,000 as they aimed to avoid a third season in Division One. Phil Babb was practically given to Sporting Lisbon as a gift. Dominic Matteo was sold to cash flush Leeds United for £4.75 million and David Thompson’s long association with Liverpool came to an end as he joined Coventry City for £2.75 million.
Liverpool started the season as they had finished the previous one, except this time we were at home to Bradford City. Emile Heskey scored a solitary goal to win the game. Our first away game of the season came two days after at Highbury. Goals from Thierry Henry and the debuting Lauren were enough to give Arsenal all three points on a miserable night for Gerard Houllier in North London. Then came one of the games of the season. Despite being 3-0 up, Liverpool let their lead slip and conceded a ninetieth-minute equaliser at the Dell as Southampton battled back to draw 3-3. Liverpool went into the international break on the back of a shaky start to their season and 4 points to show for it.
Coming back from international duty, Michael Owen – fresh from scoring a hat-trick in Munich in England’s historic 5-1 routing of Germany – scored another hat-trick this time against Aston Villa in a 3-1 win at Anfield. Dietmar Hamann would score two identical, yet equally brilliant, volleys in a 3-2 win over newly promoted Manchester City at Anfield. The following Thursday, we played our first European game of the season against Rapid Bucharest in Romania. We took a 1-0 lead back to Anfield a couple of weeks later – where we drew 0-0 – thanks to a vital away goal from Nick Barmby. In the days when the UEFA Cup was a knockout competition, Barmby’s first goal for the club ultimately sealed our progression to the next round. Back in the league, Steven Gerrard scored early on at Upton Park but Paolo Di Canio scored a penalty in the second half to steal a point for West Ham. Before ending the month with the aforementioned draw against Rapid, we drew with Sunderland 1-1 at Anfield. Kevin Phillips’ stunning opener was cancelled out by Michael Owen.
October would start with a humbling 3-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea, compounded by a calamitous own goal by Sander Westerveld, in what was probably our worst performance of the season. That defeat was made up for a week later at Pride Park. An Emile Heskey hat-trick and a wonderful team goal spectacularly finished from 25 yards by Patrik Berger sealed a 4-0 win. Heskey continued his scoring streak by putting away his old side, Leicester, on the Saturday after, and Slovan Liberec in the UEFA Cup the following Thursday both at Anfied. October would end with the first Merseyside derby of the season at Anfield. Walter Smith brought his side to Anfield in financial dire straits, as was signified by the reluctant sale of Barmby. Their performance did nothing to ease the mood of Everton fans. Goals from Barmby, Heskey and Berger rendered Kevin Campbell’s solitary reply for the Blues a consolation and secured the points for Liverpool.
November was a busy month for Liverpool and began with a Worthington Cup tie at Anfield against Chelsea. Danny Murphy put Liverpool ahead but Gianfranco Zola equalised not long after. The game would go to extra-time but Robbie Fowler would come on to win it in the 114th minute to send Liverpool through. We then visited David O’Leary’s Leeds United at Elland Road. After being 3-1 ahead, Mark Viduka rounded off a remarkable performance to drag Leeds back into the game and win it in the 75th minute to seal a 4-3 victory. What followed was the return leg of the UEFA Cup tie with Slovan Liberec in the Czech Republic which we won 3-2 to make sure we went through to the next round. Coventry would then visit Anfield and would be dispatched of 4-1. Gary McAllister scored his first goal against his former club, as did David Thompson for Coventry. But a brace from Heskey and one from Gerrard were enough to defeat Coventry in the end. A week later we travelled to White Hart Lane to face Tottenham Hotspur. Robbie Fowler gave us the lead, but Tim Sherwood equalised and Les Ferdinand won the game for Spurs in a disappointing display down south. Before being beaten 2-1 by Newcastle United at St. James’ Park, we made the long trip to Greece to face Olympiacos in the UEFA Cup. Steven Gerrard and Nick Barmby scored for Liverpool, but two goals from Alexis Alexandris – the second coming in the 90th minute – meant the Greeks came to Anfield with a fighting chance of progression. We saw out November with a remarkable 8-0 win at the Britannia over Stoke City in the Worthington Cup. Goals from Christian Ziege, Markus Babbel, Danny Murphy, Vladimir Smicer, Sami Hyypia and a hat-trick from Robbie Fowler saw us comfortably into the quarter-finals. Leaving the club in November was Rigobert Song, who joined West Ham for £2.5 million.
December was welcomed with a 3-0 home win against Charlton Athletic, which was followed by a disappointing home 1-0 defeat by newly promoted Ipswich Town a week later. The following week we visited Old Trafford in a bid to claim our first three points there in the new millennium. A free kick from Danny Murphy was enough to do just that. In between those two games came the Worthington Cup quarter final tie at home to Fulham. After drawing 0-0 in 90 minutes, the game went to extra time. Goals from Michael Owen, Vladimir Smicer and Nick Barmby ensured it didn’t go to penalties. Our final game before Christmas was at home to Arsenal. Full of confidence, Arsenal came to Anfield and were given the shock of their lives as Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Nick Barmby and Robbie Fowler sealed a 4-0 win for Liverpool. Our final game of the year, however, away to Middlesbrough on Boxing Day, was not as happy an occasion. Christian Karambeu scored the only goal to make sure Liverpool went back to Merseyside empty handed. December would also be a busy month in the transfer market for Liverpool though. Igor Biscan joined the club for £5.5 million from Dinamo Zagreb. Going out of the club was Titi Camara to West Ham for £2.6 million. Also leaving, both for free, were Erik Meijer and Steve Staunton who joined Hamburg and Aston Villa respectively.
Liverpool’s success in the cups meant that January would be another long month. It started with Liverpool’s move for Jari Litmanen, who joined on a free transfer from Barcelona. On New Years’ Day with a 2-1 win at home to Southampton. The following week we played Rotherham United in the F.A Cup 3rd round and beat them 3-0 to send them out. That midweek we travelled to Selhurst Park to play Crystal Palace in the semi final of the Worthington Cup. On a disappointing night, goals from Andrijs Rubins and Clinton Morrison cancelled out Vladimir Smicers goal to give the Division One side an unlikely advantage going into the second leg. After beating Villa 3-0 at Villa Park and drawing 0-0 with Middlesbrough at Anfield, Palace would come to Anfield. Clinton Morrison was in the spotlight after criticising Michael Owen for a couple of missed chances in the first leg. Morrison would be made to eat his words. A brace from Danny Murphy was backed up by goals from Robbie Fowler, Vladimir Smicer and Igor Biscan as Liverpool made their first cup final in 5 years. Before ending January with a 1-1 draw at Maine Road against Manchester City, we travelled again to Elland Road to face Leeds in the fourth round of the F.A Cup. A tight affair looked like it was heading for a replay until Nick Barmby scored in the 88th minute. Emile Heskey scored two minutes later to seal the win and our passage into the 5th round.
Luckily for Liverpool, February would not be a month crammed with as many games. It started with the 3-0 home win against West Ham and the 1-1 draw away to Sunderland, in which Jari Litmanen scored his first Liverpool from the penalty spot. Sandwiching the 4-2 defeat of Manchester City at Anfield in the F.A Cup 5th round, came the UEFA Cup 4th round tie against Roma. Two goals from Michael Owen secured a famous 2-0 victory in Rome. The return leg at Anfield was won by Roma after a fantastic goal by Gianni Guigou, but was marred by controversy when the referee awarded Roma a penalty before changing his mind and giving a corner. Nevertheless, it was a decision that was vital to Liverpool’s season and saw us through to the quarter finals. Our last game in February was the Worthington Cup final against Birmingham City. Robbie Fowler put Liverpool ahead with a stunning 30-yard volley but Darren Purse equalised in the last minute to send the game into extra time. Neither team could find a winner though so the game went to penalties, which Liverpool eventually won. Liverpool had their first trophy of the Gerard Houllier era, which was also their first in 6 years. It wouldn’t be our last trip to Cardiff that season.
March started with two away games. Firstly, we were beaten 2-0 at Filbert Street by Leicester. We followed that with a trip to Portugal to play Porto in the UEFA Cup, which ended goalless. Our next game back on home soil, was a short jaunt across the Mersey to face John Aldridge’s Tranmere Rovers in the F.A Cup. Steve Yates and Wayne Allison scored goals Tranmere fans won’t forget for a long time. But they were cancelled out by Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, Emile Heskey and Robbie Fowler as Liverpool progressed to the semi final as 4-2 winners. When Porto came to Anfield in the return leg of the UEFA Cup quarter final, they did so knowing the tie had become a one-off game. Danny Murphy and Michael Owen scored within four minutes of each other to book Liverpool’s place in the semi finals. Derby County came to Anfield and gained a credible point in a 1-1 draw, before Alex Ferguson (no knighthood at this point for Fergie) brought his Manchester United side to Anfield. An unbelievable 35-yard strike from Steven Gerrard and a typical Robbie Fowler finish saw Liverpool run out comfortable 2-0 winners against the eventual champions.
April would be another prolonged month for Liverpool and would begin with a trip to Barcelona in the UEFA Cup semi final, first leg. Liverpool defended stoically and, despite Philippe Cristanval hitting the post, came through the goalless game unscathed. Our next game would be played at Villa Park, a neutral venue, in the F.A Cup semi final against Wycombe Wanderers. Wycombe played valiantly and scored a late goal from Robbie Ryan to set up a grandstand finish. But Emile Heskey and Robbie Fowler had already done enough damage to secure Liverpools place in the F.A Cup final. Back in the league, we’d suffer our last dropped points before a strong end to the season. First in a 1-1 draw at Portman Road against Ipswich, then in a 2-1 defeat at Anfield to Leeds. We then played two vital games in a week, which started with a short journey to Goodison Park. Emile Heskey put Liverpool ahead and Markus Babbel doubled Liverpool’s lead either side of a missed penalty from Robbie Fowler in front of the Park End. Duncan Ferguson then pulled one back and David Unsworth scored a penalty of his own to equalise. With the last kick of the game, Gary McAllister wrote himself into Liverpool folklore by beating Paul Gerrard from 44 yards to win the game for Liverpool. Three days later, Barcelona visited Anfield for the second leg of the UEFA Cup semi-final. Again, a goalless first leg meant that this game had become a one-off cup tie. A tight game had its deadlock broken on half time when Gary Mc again stepped up, this time from the penalty spot, to send Liverpool into our first European final since 1985. The wily old head brought in for free in the summer was beginning to prove his worth. He would continue his goalscoring exploits in the 3-1 home win against Spurs and the 2-0 defeat of Coventry at Highfield Road, which sent his former club into Division One.
May would begin with a 2-0 away win at Valley Parade against Bradford City, another game in which McAllister would score, and a 3-0 home win against Newcastle in which Michael Owen scored another hat-trick. We then welcomed Chelsea to Anfield knowing a win would seal Champions League qualification for the 2001/02 season. Michael Owen scored twice, a fete equalled on the night by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink as the points were shared in a 2-2 draw. We would have to wait until the final day to see which European competition we’d be playing in next season.
The following week was the first of what Gerard Houllier described as three cup finals. The F.A Cup final at the Millennium Stadium against Arsenal though could not have its significance disputed. Arsenal dominated the game on the whole and could have had a penalty when Stephane Henchoz handballed Thierry Henry’s effort off the line after the Frenchman had rounded Sander Westerveld. But Liverpool couldn’t stop Freddie Ljungberg putting Arsenal ahead in the second half. With time running out, Liverpool got a free kick in the 83rd minute. Gary McAllister swung it in and, after bobbling around a bit, Michael Owen sent a snap volley into David Seamans bottom corner to earn Liverpool an unlikely equaliser. With Arsenal pushing forward, Patrik Berger sent a long ball upfield to Owen 4 minutes later. Owen managed to hold off Tony Adams before scoring and winning the cup for Liverpool. The bench emptied onto the pitch, the fans clambered over seats to be near their hero, and the players clambered over Owen. Liverpool had their first F.A Cup in nine years.
The cup finals came thick and fast, as Liverpool then travelled to Dortmund to play Alaves in the UEFA Cup final. The story of Alaves was sensational in itself. A small team which had come through Spain’s lower divisions was playing its first season in Europe and had blown away the competition. They were now facing one of the biggest clubs in the world – and were freezing in the limelight. Markus Babbel and Steven Gerrard gave Liverpool an early lead before Ivan Alonso pulled one back. But Gary McAllister scored a penalty before half time and Liverpool went in 3-1 up. Shortly after the break, Javi Moreno scored a quick double which brought the game back to 3-3. Robbie Fowler scored 17 minutes from time and the game looked over. But, with a minute left on the clock, former Manchester United forward Jordi Cryuff equalised and sent the game into extra time, in which Liverpool dominated. When it looked as if the Spanish minnows were going to force penalties, Antonio Karmona gave away a free kick 25 yards from goal and was sent off. Now down to nine men after the earlier sending off of Magno Mocelin, Alaves were outnumbered at the back. Gary McAllister swung in a teasing free kick. Delfi Geli arose and flicked the header backwards, past Martin Herrera and into his own net. Delirium again ensued as all in red realised Geli’s own goal was also the golden goal and Liverpool had another trophy in the cabinet. Two down, one to go.
Our season ended at the Valley against Charlton Athletic. A win would mean we would be playing Champions League football for the first time in 16 years. If Leeds could better our result though, then we would end up defending our UEFA Cup crown the following season. The result should never have been in doubt. After a barren first period, the game exploded. Robbie Fowler was first to get his name on the scoresheet and Michael Owen added another after bursting forward on a counter attack. Fowler doubled his tally with a superbly measured overhead kick and Danny Murphy put the game beyond doubt with his left foot 9 minutes from time. 4-0 and the Reds were back in the big time.
This was a season like no other. I’ve been supporting Liverpool for all of my 26 years but this was the season that made me fall in love with them. The memories of Owen, Heskey, Murphy, Fowler and Gerrard are still fresh for me. Houllier’s young, shrewd, mature team swept aside everybody before them. His transfers were measured and probably his best move was for Gary McAllister. Gary Mc brought a leadership and maturity to the side that we didn’t have. He taught this young team how to be a professional footballer without being an overbearing influence in the dressing room. His form on the pitch was emblematic of Liverpool’s throughout the season – we only got better and better.