Today we look back at the 2004 Carling Cup semi-final, and that Okocha strike.
Dare I say it, but this series looking back at 20 big moments at our ground is working out in some sort of chronological order. Today we`re looking back at the 2003-04 season. This is where we really established ourselves in the top flight, but as well as a top eight-finish in the Premiership that season, we also made the League Cup final for the second time in our history. Yes, we`re looking back at the first leg of the semi-final against Aston Villa.
Villa weren`t bad this season. David O`Leary, while he had some sort of reputation still intact, had taken over in the summer, and would guide the Midlands club to a top six-finish, before the following two seasons saw stagnation. Anyway, enough about them. This isn`t about them.
On a January Wednesday night, we got off to a perfect start. Jay-Jay Okocha from a free-kick, getting a deflection putting us 1-0 up. He hadn`t scored in the league, but in this match he wasn`t even finished. Seven minutes later, Kevin Nolan managed a run into the box and stabbed home a shot. We weren`t even 10 minutes into a semi-final and we were 2-0 to the good. This couldn`t get better. Or could it?
It could. It did. Only 17 minutes had been played, and we had a third goal. It was spectacular too. What must have been the greatest year of Stelios` life, certainly his football career was given a great start as he manged to beat Thomas Sorensen with an overhead kick, after getting on the end of Kevin Davies` header won from a free kick sent in.
Villa had to do something, and they got a foothold in the game, with a Juan Pablo Angel goal. Whether he meant it or not we don`t know, but a bit of skill from him then a cross or shot, whatever it was it beat Jussi Jaaskelainen. Our clean sheet was spoiled. It got worse in the second half, Darius Vassell`s shot turned in by Angel got the visitors back in the game.
Surely, we wouldn`t blow a 3-0 lead in a semi final? It was a worrying 15 to 20 minutes or so, but Bruno N`Gotty`s header got a fourth for us. Suddenly there was breathing space again.
But all what had gone before was merely a supporting act. Okocha was due off to the African Cup of Nations after this match, and with 10 minutes to go, he came up with no better way of saying, “See you soon.”
There were two men over the free kick. Okocha would always be taking it though. He might have whipped it into the box and someone can get a header on target. No, that would be silly talk. Okocha impossibly bent it on the near side of the two-man wall, and it managed to beat Sorensen as it swerved back in, almost like a cricketer`s reverse swing.
It was one of the best goals ever scored at the Reebok, and it gave us a three goal lead to Villa Park, which proved to be enough?just.