The old truism of only getting what you pay in life often applies in football.
Liverpool’s modern history is littered with examples where, for a variety of reasons, the club has taken the cheaper option and been left to repent at leisure.
But there have been occasions when minimum outlay has brought maximum reward and this week marks the anniversary of when one of the finest examples of that first found the net for the Reds.
A few eyebrows were raised in the summer of 2000 when manager Gerard Houllier decided to bring 35-year-old Gary McAllister to Anfield from Coventry City on a free transfer.
The Scottish midfielder had long been admired across the British game for his energetic box-to-box drive, perceptive passing and eye for goal.
He had caused the Reds problems in the past, scoring a trademark free kick to help Leicester City become the first team to beat Kenny Dalglish’s Double winners in August 1986 not long after his move down south from Ian St John’s alma mater Motherwell and thumping home an even better volley six years at Elland Road shortly after helping inspire Leeds United become the final First Division champions before the advent of the Premier League.
McAllister’s expert set-piece delivery had also provided both corners which bamboozled the hapless David James in the April 1997 home defeat to Coventry seared painfully into the memories of those Reds who remember Roy Evans’ talented but brittle team passing up the opportunity to lead the Premier League table with just six games left in a two-horse title race in which they contrived to ultimately finish fourth.
Just under three years later, I can remember trooping out of Anfield after a frustrating goalless draw against Aston Villa, which in itself provided a sad portent of how another promising Liverpool season would fizzle out, and finding my mood slightly lifted by the news Everton had beaten the same night thanks to a last minute goal by the veteran Scottish midfielder.
We laughed of course at the thought of the old enemy getting done by an admired but surely now past his best veteran and I remember thinking when McAllister arrived at Anfield a few months later if he could bag us a goal against the Blues he would be worth it just for that.
Little did we know at that point of course just how inexorably he would go on to write his name into Merseyside derby folklore.
It was easy to see the rationale of Houllier’s decision to bring him in, his renowned professionalism and experience being the perfect example for the crop of young players like Gerrard, Owen, Carragher, Heskey and Murphy who the Frenchman was building his Anfield revolution around.
Even McAllister himself though was shocked though at being given this opportunity for an Indian summer to his career, as he told the ECHO at the time: “This is fairytale stuff for someone at my stage of life.
“It did surprise me when Liverpool came in for me. The club have got three cup competitions next season plus a tough Premiership campaign.
“The average age of their side last season was under 25, and that’s very young indeed for a top-flight club. The manager explained that there was a need for some experience around the squad, an old head in the side.
“I’ve just had my best ever scoring tally in the Premiership with 13 last season, and I’m feeling as fit as ever. It’s too early to say just how many games I will play, maybe people will be surprised.”
No-one was shocked when he impressed and scored as Anfield got a first look at him in a rain-soaked home friendly against Italians Parma the week before the season began but after being benched for opening day win over Bradford City, he was sent off 39 minutes into his full debut at Arsenal two days later and didn’t appear again for nearly two months until he started the 4-0 win over Derby County at Pride Park.
With Houllier aware of the need to utilise his squad as the demands of the cup competitions began to take hold with the Liverpool making progress through the autumn in both the League and UEFA Cups, McAllister started the next five Premier League games – but remained on the bench for the cup ones.
It was in the fourth of these that he scored his first competitive goal for the Reds, slamming home the opener against his former club Coventry on 12th November as the Sky Blues were beaten 4-1 at Anfield but defeat the following weekend at White Hart Lane saw him lose his place in the side.
Houllier it seemed was acutely aware of the need to manage minutes for his squad to build the endurance they would need in a season which ultimately stretched to 63 matches in all competitions and McAllister was then in and out the side until the run-in, bar a run of six successive starts in late January and February which saw him win the penalty that secured a vital point at Sunderland and help the Reds to the two-legged UEFA Cup triumph over Serie A champions-to-be AS Roma which really served notice that this was a Liverpool team going places.
He had not started a league game for nearly a month by the time the match which would go on to define his Anfield career came about.
Good Friday had applied for McAllister’s old club Leeds rather than the Reds as the main rivals for the coveted third spot which would guarantee Champions League qualification won 2-1 at Anfield to open up a six point lead.
Liverpool had two games in hand but an increasingly packed fixture list with a two-legged UEFA Cup semi-final against Barcelona looming along with rearranged league games and an FA Cup final against Arsenal looked ominous.
It meant that the Reds crossed Stanley Park for an Easter Monday teatime Merseyside derby knowing they had precious little margin for error and of course that there would be no opponents who’d take greater delight in harming the Reds’ hopes further than the Toffees, who were themselves not entirely free of the spectre of relegation.
Steven Gerrard’s red card against Leeds three days earlier had added to the anxiety over the Reds hopes but did at least offer Houllier the chance to get his experienced Scottish midfield maestro back into the side and his old head proved invaluable in one of the most dramatic and eventful derby encounters witnessed before or since unfolded.
It was a game which frankly had everything in front of a well-oiled and at times fractious Goodison full house: goals, misses, tackles, penalties which should have been given that weren’t and two which shouldn’t have been but were, along with 12 (TWELVE) yellow cards – two of them to Liverpool midfielder Igor Biscan – handed out by referee Jeff Winter, who gave the impression he was on commission for every time he got himself into the centre of the action.
When David Unsworth thundered home a second equaliser for the home side from the penalty spot with seven minutes left, it seemed Liverpool’s ten men would do well to hang on for a point which would have put Leeds in control of the battle for third spot but that was not reckoning for McAllister and his date with destiny.
Minutes from time, his pin-point set piece delivery almost created a winner for Sami Hyypia whose header was denied by Everton keeper Paul Gerrard at full stretch.
The game was heading into its fourth minute of stoppage time when French full back Gregory Vignal charged forward to win a free kick not far into the Blues half, on almost the exact the same spot McAllister had floated the ball in for Hyypia just a few minutes earlier.
The canny Scot stole a few extra yards and, with the whole ground and particularly the Blues defence and goalkeeper expecting a similarly lofted effort into the box towards the amassed big men, McAllister instead whipped a low, bouncing effort towards Gerrard’s near post which skipped off the turf and accelerated into the net from fully 44 yards.
The corner of the Bullens Road stand where the visiting fans were amassed exploded with disbelief and delight (as did pockets of Reds all over the ground) as McAllister charged towards the dug-outs followed by his ecstatic team-mates where Gerard Houllier’s eyes looked like they were about to pop out of his head, such was his joy and relief at what he had just witnessed.
It was arguably the seminal moment of what would become an unforgettable season and breathed new life and belief into a campaign which looked like it might be running out of steam at its most critical stage.
Three days later, McAllister kept his nerve from the penalty spot as the Reds won their knife-edge UEFA Cup semi final second leg against Barcelona to secure the club’s first European final in 16 years as the Scot embarked on a run which would become immortalised in a song which is still belted out with gusto by those fans able to remember all its component parts.
As well as loving ‘his baldy head’, McAllister ensured that as well as his derby goal and Barca pen, Kopites would have to learn verses relating to his ‘Spurs penno’ and free kicks against Bradford and Coventry as a reinvigorated Liverpool surged towards the season’s conclusion.
Liverpool would win nine and draw one of their final ten games following the defeat to Leeds, clinching Champions League qualification with a win at Charlton on the final day after winning the FA and UEFA Cups.
McAllister left his mark on both finals, coming off the bench at Cardiff to float in the free kick which led to Michael Owen’s 83rd minute equaliser and then starting the UEFA Cup final in Dortmund against Alaves, assisting Markus Babbel’s minute opener and Robbie Fowler’s second half strike as well as slamming home a 41st minute penalty himself and swinging in the 117th minute free kick which brought Delphi Geli’s golden own goal that secured the trophy.
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The Scot would feature in 49 of Liverpool’s 63 games that season and, even if his influence wasn’t quite as prominent the following campaign when he was involved in 38 matches, he still played an important and calming role particularly behind the scenes when the Reds were rocked by Gerard Houllier’s life-threatening heart problem as Liverpool finished a creditable second behind Double winners Arsenal and reached the Champions League quarter-finals.
He returned to Coventry at the end of his two year contract in the summer of 2002 with the thanks and admiration of all Anfield – which resounded to ironic cries of ‘What a waste of money’ as he bade forewell following his final game against Ipswich – for his unforgettable contribution to a memorable period in the club’s history and one which had coincided with a traumatic time in his own personal life.
His wife Denise was diagnosed with cancer just a month after he arrived at Anfield and refused chemotherapy fearing it would harm their unborn son at the time. Though she did initially recover, with her husband donating his man of the match prize money from the 2001 UEFA Cup final to cancer charities, it sadly did return causing Gary to step down from his role at the time of Coventry’s player-manager and she died in March 2006.
Comparisons are inevitable in football and James Milner’s contribution in winning the Champions League and helping end the club’s thirty-year wait for a league title since his arrival from Manchester City on a free transfer in the summer 2015 mean there is a strong case to say he is now Liverpool’s greatest ever free transfer.
What is not in dispute though is that Gary Mac won hearts and minds and a place in club folklore through the memorable example he set on and off the pitch during his two years at Merseyside and for that Liverpudlians will always love his baldy head.