THE clock in the Millennium Stadium is ticking into the 89th minute. Liverpool and Arsenal’s players, shattered by their exertions in the searing Welsh heat, are preparing themselves for an additional half-hour. A few of them look like they won’t last it.
Suddenly, the ball is at Patrik Berger’s feet, just outside his own penalty area. Allowing the ball to run across his body, the Czech midfielder, on the field for just 10 minutes, looks up and fires the most perfectly-weighted pass you could wish for, over Lee Dixon and into the path of the one man who still has the legs to chase it – Michael Owen.
The rest, as they say, is history. Owen’s finish, his second of the afternoon, would clinch Liverpool’s first FA Cup in nine-years, the second leg of what would prove to be a momentous, and as yet unequalled, treble of cup successes for Gerard Houllier’s side. After a decade of underachievement in the 90s, Liverpool were back in the silverware habit.
Berger may not necessarily have been a key figure in those 2001 triumphs, but his contribution that day will never be forgotten.
“Has it really been ten years?” he laughs. “Where does the time go?!”
No longer involved in football, having retired in 2007, Berger, who made 196 appearances during his stint on Merseyside, says he is no longer in contact with Houllier, but wishes him well in his latest health battle, and says the Frenchman should be remembered alongside the very best at Anfield.
He recalls his own time at the club with equal fondness.
“Of course I wish Gerard well,” says Berger. “He was a great guy for me, and a great manager for Liverpool. Nobody should ever forget what he did for the club.
“When I look back on my seven years at Liverpool, it was undoubtedly the peak of my career as a footballer.
“My time at Anfield was the best I had, both football-wise and life-wise, and I am so happy to have been able to call myself a Liverpool player.
“That treble season was just unbelievable, we played so many games and won every cup we entered, that was an incredible achievement. Probably the best of my career.”
Now, eight years after his departure from Anfield, he is heading back to Merseyside. Berger, alongside a host of other former stars, will be part of the Reds’ squad at the Selco Mersey Masters, which hits the ECHO Arena next weekend.
“I am looking forward to it very much,” he says. “It will be fantastic for me to be back playing on Merseyside, and wearing the red shirt again.
“The fans were always great with me, they gave me great support and encouragement, and it will be fantastic to play in front of them once more.”
Berger reveals that, after leaving for Portsmouth in 2003, he would regularly return to Anfield to watch his former club in Champions League action.
And in February, he was an intrigued spectator as Kenny Dalglish - his former next-door neighbour - took the Reds to the Czech Republic for a Europa League clash with Sparta Prague, his hometown club, and the club with which he began and finished his playing career.
“Before that game, I went to the team hotel and met Kenny and Sammy Lee and Carra,” he smiles. “It was great to see them, even if the game wasn’t the greatest!”
And Berger has no doubt that Dalglish is the man to take Liverpool forwards.
“Kenny was my neighbour up in Southport,” he laughs. “He was not there a lot, but when he was he was a good neighbour! It is just great to see him in charge at Liverpool.
“Since he has took over he has done an unbelievable job, and there is no doubt that he is absolutely the right guy to get them right back to the very top of the game again.”
It is clear that Berger still thinks of Liverpool as ‘his’ team. He admits, for example, that seeing Manchester United clinch their 19th league title recently was “difficult”, but says that if Dalglish can add some quality to his squad, he can help restore the Reds to that most famous of perches.
“It will take time to get back there,” he says. “In my opinion they still need a few more quality players before they can think about challenging the likes of Manchester United.
“But they have a great manager in charge, and they have the base of a very good squad there, so with a couple of good signings they can really look to go places.
“It has been frustrating. Two or three years ago they had a fantastic squad with great players, and they were challenging for everything.
“But if you let players of quality leave, and don’t replace them, then you will drop, and that is what happened. Other teams have strengthened, whilst Liverpool did not, but they have a chance to address that now.
“They have a great manager, and they have the base of a very good squad there, so with a couple of good signings they can really look to go places.
“They signed two quality players in January, in Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll, so if Kenny is handed the cash I am sure he will be able to add a few more and make the squad even stronger.” For Berger himself, the future is rather less clear. He admits he is in no rush to follow his close friend - and current neighbour - Vladimir Smicer into coaching, but surely the passion for football still burns within?
“I am just trying to enjoy my life for the moment,” he insists. “I want to be there for the kids, and to play a bit of golf and some Sunday league football.
“I don’t know what will happen in the future, but for now I have no plans to get involved in management or coaching. Vladimir does, of course, but in my case I like my hair the colour it is!“ I have only a few grey hairs, and I would like to keep it that way!”