Captain wants to lift cup for Liverpool at Wembley to help forget his own-goal in 2005 Cardiff final that was 'one of my worst days'
Steven Gerrard switches to auto-pilot when asked to revisit the 2005 final. "As I've said many times, it was the best night of …" Awkwardly, he has to be cut off. It is that year's Carling Cup final on the agenda. "Oh that," he says, and there is an interminable silence as he trawls through the buried file of the memory bank. "Nightmare."
It was not just logic-defying comebacks and Champions League glory for the Liverpool captain in 2005. Before the header past Dida at the Ataturk Stadium there was a head rub from José Mourinho at the Millennium, where the then Chelsea manager gave Gerrard a consoling pat following Liverpool's 3-2 defeat in their last Carling Cup final appearance.
The gesture enraged Liverpool supporters almost as much as the finger to the lips from Mourinho that greeted Chelsea's equaliser that Cardiff day. It had, to the Liverpool midfielder's despair, arrived unwittingly from his head with Rafael Benítez's team 11 minutes from victory. Given the renewed interest from Stamford Bridge in signing Gerrard at the time, conspiracy theorists had a field day.
Even now the recollections have to be coaxed from the 31-year-old. "It was a nightmare. An own-goal. I felt suicidal. It was bad, one of the worst days I have had, especially against Chelsea. I was linked with them for a while before that cup final. Then to go and score an own-goal – there were Liverpool fans who probably thought I meant it at the time because I was linked with them – and to get the defeat was a nightmare for me and the team."
And they say the Carling Cup does not matter – "they" being those not in the final.
That Carling Cup final defeat was one of eight visits Liverpool made to Cardiff in the six years Wembley was under construction and one of only two defeats suffered during the cups' residency in Wales. It was a fertile period Liverpool have not recaptured since, although a regret for Gerrard is that Sunday's final against Cardiff City will be his debut at the national stadium for his boyhood club and a first opportunity to lift a trophy at Wembley as captain.
"The first time I went as a fan we got beaten by Man U and Cantona scored, 1-0 , so that was not good," says Gerrard, who may be back at Wembley next week as England captain for the friendly against Holland.
"The good memories were from watching the club in finals on TV but as a Liverpool fan going down, only bad ones. I was thinking whether I would get to play at Wembley with Liverpool when I was at Cardiff for cup finals. I was slightly gutted, if you like, that they were not at Wembley because when you're growing up you want to walk up those steps and lift the cup above your head in front of everyone. So this final is going to be a bit extra special because it's back at Wembley."
It matters more to Gerrard that Liverpool are back in a final, not where it is staged. They were almost routine for the midfielder between 2001 and 2007 yet there have been moments in the past five years, particularly when the club was tearing itself apart under the ruinous ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, that he feared the grand occasion had passed him by forever.
He admits: "There were days when you wondered, will I ever get to a major cup final or will I experience more success as a Liverpool player? But you always have to believe and have confidence that things will turn around if you keep working hard and doing the right things. That's what we have all done. We have stuck together. I think the experience and hurt from the lows helps you to get to places like this final.
"I wouldn't say it feels like two different clubs now but the atmosphere is completely different. Going back to the time under George and Tom, you'd suffer a defeat at Anfield and then go out to do the warm down and there would be thousands still in the stands, singing and shouting to get the owners out. Not good. Then to beat Manchester City, who were clear favourites to knock us out over two legs [in the semi-final], and it's completely different atmospheres and experiences. For the better. A lot better."
A change in ownership helped restore financial stability and a sense of direction at Liverpool but it was the change in the manager's chair last January that, as far as Gerrard is concerned, has dragged the club from woe to Wembley.
"I think it is down to the Kenny factor," the captain explains. "This time last year the season was over and there was doom and gloom around the place. Kenny coming in gave everyone a big lift and slowly brought belief and confidence back. I was delighted he got the job. Kenny's a hero of mine and even more for my dad, because he was around when he played. He is a lot closer to the players, he's a very good man manager.
"I don't think there's a problem with managers who are distant. I have worked with managers who handle players differently. With Kenny it's like he still thinks he's a player, still trying to get a game on the training ground, still laughing and joking with the players.
"But from a serious point of view he's very loyal and honest with the players and that's all you can ask for. As a player you want to deliver something back for him, which we have done by getting to the Carling Cup final. We want to do the same in the FA Cup and it would be nice to get to May with two trophies in the bag and a top-four finish. That would be a dream season for us in Kenny's first full year."
Liverpool have won the League Cup a record seven times and always when it has been sponsored by a drinks manufacturer – the Milk Marketing Board (1981-84), Coca-Cola (1995) and Worthington (2001 and 2003). As with the Worthington Cup win over Birmingham City in 2001, Gerrard believes victory over Cardiff, another Championship club, "can be a catalyst for this team".
He explains: "The feeling is quite similar to 2001. Before we won the [cup] treble we were improving slowly with new players settling in well and I think that is happening here.
"But I also think we are a bit further away than that team, and it's a lot more difficult now to win the league than it was back in 2001. Then there were probably three major forces in the league and there are five or six now. We are still a little bit off that but winning the cup competitions gives you the belief and confidence. Back in 2001 there was not really a Chelsea or a City about, so it's a lot more difficult now."
Wembley is a reward on a personal level too, with Gerrard having missed much of 2011 through a series of serious and dispiriting injuries. "Last year was the toughest of my career so far and I worked so hard to get back for days like this so all that hard work is paying off."
Sunday also brings him face-to-face for the first time in his professional career with his cousin Anthony Gerrard, the Cardiff defender. The pair are close. Up to a point. "He's playing in his first major final," says the Liverpool captain with a hint of pride, "but I'm hoping to send him home like I felt in 2005."