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Gary McAllister is one of those players, that when people talk of them they are remembered fondly – not a bad word to be spoken of them, glowing praise radiates in odes to their past glories.
When people think of the Scottish midfielder what comes to mind firstly? A receding hairline or lack of hair altogether? A midfield maestro who could pick a pass with pin point accuracy? Or a reliable player who elevated every side he played for?
From his early career days for hometown Motherwell, he left for Leicester City where in the then Second Division he drew acclaim before joining Leeds United in 1990. For many, McAllister was a key missing piece of a side that eventually won the First Division title, the last before the dawn of the Premier League and he was the lynchpin of a formidable midfield foursome of himself, Gordon Strachan, David Batty and the late Gary Speed – a best of British midfield.
Following a move to Coventry City where he rekindled a partnership with Strachan, McAllister was nearing the end of his playing days and in July 2000 he signed for Liverpool on a free transfer. To many an observer it was a strange signing. The club were signing an ageing but gifted individual whilst the move was seen as a retirement plan for the Scot, taking the bigger payday to a seat behind younger team-mates on the bench.
Yet the importance and quality of McAllister’s dead-ball expertise came to fruition the longer the season went on, culminating in a triumphant triumvate of trophies for the red side of Merseyside; in a season where they also finished third in the Premier League.
Starting with a League Cup triumph in Cardiff where Liverpool beat Birmingham 5-4 on penalties on 25th February. Birmingham were a Championship side at that time and came so close to causing an upset, yet the lottery of a penalty shoot-out fell in Liverpool’s favour; tellingly McAllister scored the first penalty of the shoot-out, Birmingham missed their first attempt and the momentum never shifted.
From that game, Liverpool only lost two more games all season (a 2-0 defeat at Leicester and a 2-1 defeat at home to Leeds, who finished fourth and were on the crest of a great season themselves); most famously McAllister had the final say in the Merseyside derby on 16th April on Easter weekend at Goodison Park. An always tense match was locked at 2-2 when deep into injury time a free-kick was awarded to Liverpool the ball safely positioned some 40 yards away from goal.
Using his wealth of experience and intelligence, McAllister knowing the pitch was wet from rain took the decision to shoot for goal hoping that a shot on target might induce a goalkeeping error; a long run up was met by a shot on target and the ball found the corner of the net under the despairing arm of Paul Gerrard.
It was the first game, three days after the home defeat to Leeds, and the result galvanised Liverpool to go undefeated in the league for the remaining six games of the season to finish ahead of McAllister’s former employers in the league.
McAllister had become the figurehead of the side surrounded by the burgeoning youth of England’s finest – Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Emile Heskey. McAllister was the focal point of the side becoming as talismanic as Bryan Robson, Ray Wilkins and dare I say, Andres Iniesta. By being able to read the game with a brain, the game can slow down for you and he was able to see passes many simply, would not.
McAllister became the shepherd of the new flock of superstars coercing the best out of this new breed of footballer in the soon to be christened Golden Generation, with Owen himself taking over the mantle from Robbie Fowler. Credit should go to Houllier who was able to fit three midfielders like McAllister, Gerrard and Dietmar Hamann into an XI – Hamann could do the dirty work in front of a defence which allowed Gerrard and McAllister to express themselves fully with probing runs and assists.
McAllister’s calm from the penalty spot was also seen as the responsibility would fall on his shoulders to convert the spot kick – there was never any doubt when he stood from 14 yards ready to give his side the lead.
Liverpool returned to the Millennium Stadium again in May to come from behind to defeat Arsenal with Michael Owen scoring twice in the final 10 minutes; McAllister himself came off the bench to help change the course of the tie. Trophy two had been secured.
A mere four days later, Liverpool headed to Dortmund to face Alaves in the final of the UEFA Cup. McAllister started this game and his influence was unmistakable on the night. At the age of 36, McAllister was Man of the Match, coolly converting a penalty in the 41st minute to give Liverpool a 3-1 half time lead. Despite the grit of Alaves to keep fighting and pulling back the tie, McAllister would have the final say.
With the game heading to a penalty shoot-out and Alaves down to 9 men; G-Mac stood over a free kick from the left wing; his quality of delivery was telling as an inswinging delivery was met by the fateful head of Delfi Geli who cruelly converted into his own net. With this being the dreaded period of Golden Goal, that settled and ended the match in an instant. Liverpool players swallowed up the Scottish veteran and jubilation rained on the field as Liverpool completed the cup treble. The first time ever an English side had won both domestic cup competitions and an European trophy in the same season.
McAllister’s late season form means that it is his exploits that are more fondly remembered than that of the PFA and FWA Player of the Year Teddy Sheringham; many felt that McAllister’s influence and far ranging appeal should have been acknowledged in some respect. However, to many Liverpool fans he is fondly recalled and for two months of 2001, Gary McAllister was perhaps the most important footballer in Europe.
Not bad for someone who was deemed to be too slow for the quickening English Premier League; sometimes every player deserves their moment in the spotlight.