Steven Gerrard will begin his farewell tour of English football on Monday when Liverpool visit fourth-tier AFC Wimbledon for an FA Cup third-round tie rich in historical significance.
Recalling as it does the 1988 final, when the original Wimbledon stunned league champions Liverpool 1-0, the match was a captivating fixture even before Gerrard’s announcement on Friday that he will leave Anfield at the end of the season.
The FA Cup gave Gerrard one of his greatest triumphs when, in 2006, he inspired Liverpool to victory on penalties over West Ham United with a brace that included a sensational 35-yard equaliser in stoppage time.
Gerrard also lifted the trophy in 2001, when Liverpool came from behind to beat Arsenal 2-1, and victory in May’s final would go some way towards healing the pain of last season’s spectacular collapse in the Premier League title race.
Gerrard will turn 35 on the day of the final and his midfield colleague Jordan Henderson believes lifting the FA Cup would be the perfect way for the club’s inspirational captain to sign off.
“That’d be nice for him, because he deserves something like that for how good he’s been over so many years for Liverpool,” Henderson told the BBC.
“Hopefully we can go on to win the cup. That’s the aim, that’s what we hope to achieve, and it would be brilliant for us as a team and for him personally to get something in his last year.”
Gerrard has been used sparingly by manager Brendan Rodgers over the opening months of the campaign and may start on the bench at Wimbledon’s 4,800-capacity Kingsmeadow stadium in southwest London.
A place in the League Cup final is closer for Liverpool, who are scheduled to face Chelsea in a two-legged semi-final later this month, but Gerrard will not want a shock FA Cup exit to tarnish his swansong.
– ‘Crazy Gang’ –
And when it comes to FA Cup upsets, there is almost nothing to rival Liverpool’s loss to unfashionable Wimbledon on a sun-drenched Wembley afternoon 27 years ago.
Having romped to the league title by nine points, a Liverpool team containing club greats such as Alan Hansen and John Barnes were bidding to complete a league and FA Cup Double for an unprecedented second time.
Wimbledon, who had been playing in England’s fourth division just five years previously, were expected to provide cannon fodder, with the British press predicting one of the most one-sided FA Cup finals ever.
But after Lawrie Sanchez broke the deadlock with a 37th-minute header, Dave Beasant became the first goalkeeper to save an FA Cup final penalty when he thwarted John Aldridge, and Wimbledon claimed a place in history.
Wimbledon’s team that day contained future Chelsea captain Dennis Wise and future Hollywood film star Vinnie Jones, while their ‘Crazy Gang’ approach was encapsulated by bruising centre-forward John Fashanu.
The team disintegrated over the years that followed and the club effectively disappeared in 2004 when it moved 56 miles (90 kilometres) north to Milton Keynes and was rebranded as Milton Keynes Dons.
The move, caused by the club’s inability to find a new stadium in the local area, left fans devastated, but they reacted by forming a new club, AFC Wimbledon, in 2002.
The new team, playing in Wimbledon’s traditional colours of royal blue with yellow trim, began life in English football’s ninth tier, but after five promotions in eight years, they returned to the Football League in 2011.
Asked what Liverpool’s visit represented for the club, AFC Wimbledon chief executive Erik Samuelson, who was present at Wembley in 1988, told Britain’s Press Association: “Dreams.”
He added: “That’s what it is all about. It is a chance to dream about what might happen and fond imaginings of the end result.
“I want people to come away thinking this is a decent club, they know how to do things properly and they’re respectful, but they gave them a hard time on the pitch.”