Byline: Mike McCarthy
CHRIS KIRKLAND had three good reasons to celebrate on Tuesday night.
His first cup final, referee Alan Wiley's compassion - some might say weakness - and his father Eddie's 50th birthday.
You might have expected the first two to take precedence. After all, the young goalkeeper's arrival at Anfield coincided with a barren year for Liverpool.
And there can be little doubt it was only Wiley's soft heart which saved Kirkland from being sent off, first for handball and then for attempting to barge the beleaguered official halfway up the Kop during last week's Worthington semi against Sheffield United.
But when his father wasn't expected to live much beyond his 40th year and is still around a decade later, Kirkland's first priority was definitely a big family birthday bash.
"I owe my dad so much, it's impossible to put into words," he admitted. "He's one of the major reasons why I'm where I am today - to have him in the stands is just fantastic.
"Ten years ago he had testicular cancer but was mis-diagnosed for 18 months and by the time they discovered the true extent of the disease, he had a tumour the size of a football in his stomach.
"He had an operation but they gave him just 24 hours to live.
"When he made it through the night, they looked at him again and said the most they'd thought he'd live was three weeks.
"I didn't know this, though. I remember one night asking mum whether dad was going to die and she just said: 'No, of course not. Everything's going to be fine.' I found out a few years later that was the day they didn't think he'd make it through the night. Mum was just protecting me.
"It's incredible to think he fought through it and a year after getting the all-clear, he ran the London Marathon. When he crossed the finishing line after all he'd been through, it was one of the best days of my life.
"Just recently, he's been given a totally clean bill of health which means that he doesn't have to have any more check-ups. What an inspiration that is.
"I remember he used to come and watch me when he could hardly move but he'd still be at every game for me.
"That's why I can never thank him enough. Every time I see him in the stands when I run out at Anfield it's a great feeling."
Unbeknown to him, it was Eddie who sowed the seeds of his son's Liverpool dream as they shivered outside a cafe in his Leicestershire home town, waiting for a lift north.
Kirkland recalled: "I used to come up with my dad to stand on the Kop every other Saturday.
"We were the only people from Hinkley who came up. We'd stand outside a cafe on Saturday morning waiting for the fans' bus to come by.
"My dad's always been a mad keen Leicester fan, but since I was about four it's always been Liverpool for me. In fact, my dad's still got a picture in his wallet of me at that age in a Liverpool kit.
"I saw the red shirts when I was a kid and fell in love with them. They were all legends - Bruce Grobbelaar, John Barnes, Ian Rush, John Aldridge, Ronnie Whelan . …