LONDON – They did everything except muzzle Steven Gerrard. AFC Wimbledon brought us a nice line in nostalgia in the way they set about trying to dismantle their opponents. They had posters outside advertising tickets against Carlisle, Accrington Stanley and Newport County, yet Liverpool were given a genuine fright by a club with a player in attack known as â€œBeastâ€ and a queue of officials getting their pre-match grub in the greasy spoon, Fat Boyâ€™s, just round the corner.
Adebayo Akinfenwaâ€™s goal left Liverpool looking wobbly enough at half-time to leave the distinct sense they might be ripe for an upset. Yet ultimately this was a night when Gerrard reminded everyone how much Liverpool will miss him when he leaves for the United States at the end of the season. His first goal was an example of his courage and leadership qualities. The second, direct from a free-kick, was a moment of high skill and Liverpool needed his brilliance bearing in mind the prodigious efforts of the team that is 12th in the old fourth division.
Gerrard played as though acutely aware that his 35th birthday falls on the same day, 30 May, as the final and that it would be the best send-off possible; a Hollywood ending, you might say. Others might have been distracted by all the publicity that had engulfed him over the last week. Gerrard simply got on with doing what he does best and, in this instance, it involved getting Liverpool out of a potential hole bearing in mind the way Akinfenwaâ€™s goal had encouraged Wimbledonâ€™s fans to believe they might pull off a result even more remarkable than what happened at Wembley in 1988.
How do we describe Akinfenwa? Well, for starters, a question-and-answer session in the programme told us in great detail about his favourite Nandoâ€™s meal â€“ â€œquarter chicken (medium), five wings (medium), chips and corn on the cobâ€ â€“ and that if he had not been a footballer he would have found work as a security guard. Wimbledonâ€™s scorer is the closest there is in football to a human Hummer and what a moment, after 36 minutes, when he launched his formidable 16-stone frame at the ball to prod it over the goal-line.
Akinfenwa would also have been most peopleâ€™s best bet to flatten a couple of opposition defenders. Yet this Wimbledon team is not like the old one and football has moved on since the days when players could get away with tackles like the one Vinnie Jones inflicted on Steve McMahon, by way of introduction, in the final 27 years ago.
Neal Ardleyâ€™s team were always going to need some refinement if they were going to threaten a side from three divisions higher and at one point Akinfenwa could be seen taking out two Liverpool players with a drag-back in the centre-circle. What the home side could not do was subdue Gerrard or remove that remarkable streak of competitive courage from Liverpoolâ€™s captain. â€œWe got outdone by a world-class player in the end,â€Ardley said.
Jonesâ€™s FA Cup medal could be seen in a glass cabinet in the main entrance and the guests of honour included old heroes such as Dave Beasant and Lawrie Sanchez. Yet Wimbledonâ€™s players looked determined to create their own history. At half-time, with the score 1-1, the television pictures showed Ardleyâ€™s team-talk and the remarkable part was how calm everyone looked. They looked like a group who believed they could do it.
Gerrard had other ideas and, by the end, his influence could easily have extended to more goals. Ardley revealed afterwards he had shown his goalkeeper, James Shea, video footage of how Gerrard tends to curl free-kicks into the top corner. Wimbledonâ€™s No 1 was fully prepared but Gerrard still managed to get the ball over the defensive wall and into the net. â€œHeâ€™s Steven Gerrard,â€ Shea said later. â€œThatâ€™s what he does.â€
Early on, Wimbledonâ€™s players had seemed too respectful of their opponents, not pressing quickly enough and letting Liverpool control the midfield and show their superiority on the ball. Gerrardâ€™s first goal, on 12 minutes, was a case in point, Liverpoolâ€™s captain playing the ball out to Javier Manquillo and continuing his run into the penalty area. As the cross came in, Gerrard was the most determined player in the box to reach it first. There were two League Two centre-halves in close proximity but only Gerrard went for the ball with real conviction, scoring with a brave, stooping header.
Briefly, Wimbledon looked rattled. Yet when they did shake their heads clear it was a wonderful response to produce a flurry of concerted attacking around the half-hour mark. When teams play Liverpool these days they know they are vulnerable in the air and, once again, the awkward truth for Brendan Rodgers was that Simon Mignolet was sporadically a danger to his own team.
In fairness to the Liverpool goalkeeper, he did make a splendid reflex save from Sean Rigg, the home sideâ€™s most dangerous player, during that burst of concerted pressure. Yet when Mignolet missed the trajectory of George Francombâ€™s corner it led to the equaliser. Mamadou Sakho was caught by surprise and when the ball ricocheted off the Liverpool defender and against the crossbar Akinfenwa was steaming in to bundle in the rebound. Liverpool were looking vulnerable but Gerrard soothed their nerves and, on the counterattack, they probably should have added more goals in the final exchanges. – The Guardian