Sunday, May 06, 2012

135 minutes late, tradition still intact

You really didn't want to be around me yesterday. Think of the most excited seven-year-old on Christmas morning, then amplify that level of annoying to the power of ten. Then you'd be getting close to what I was like. Then add in mild traces of hangover, thanks to indulging in White Russians with visiting rock stars at 2.30 in the morning.

I was probably best left alone, but that's pretty much how I should always be on FA Cup Final Saturday. I am just too excited by a spectacle, an event, an amassing of people around the world to watch a football match that will conclude several months of endeavour for both the biggest and the smallest teams in England.

This year, however, some chinless arse chose to move the fixture from its traditional kick-off to 5.15pm. 5.15pm on a Saturday is not a football kick-off time - it's when the news starts, or a Tom & Jerry cartoon, or some ghastly entertainment show with Noel Edmonds. Not the FA Cup Final.

The Cup Final kicks off at 3pm. End of discussion. It doesn't get moved to accommodate a lunchtime kickoff elsewhere, as there shouldn't be any other matches taking place on Cup Final Saturday. Nor should it be taking place at teatime simply to build an audience for Britain's Got Talent, or some other God-awful alleged talent show with a similarly grammatically-challenged name.

The FA Cup Final is more than just a football match. It is THE football match. It's a global event, watched around the world by 60 million people, the climax to the oldest football competition in the world. It is about tradition, which is why yesterday's final between Chelsea and Liverpool was about more than just whether it was a decent 90 minutes of football or not.

To the non-footballist, that might sound absurd, but the reason for my childlike skittishness each year - regardless of whether my team features in it or not - is what the Cup Final represents. Over successive years since I was a child, the Cup Final meant being in front of the TV at noon to watch the build-up - interviews with players present and old, the pundits and the minor celebrities who suddenly come out of the woodwork with a declared interest for one of the finalists or the other. Or Bruce Forsyth, who manages to turn up in any case.

Before the kick-off you have the obligatory live shots of the team buses arriving at Wembley, the players  walking across the Hallowed Turf™in their Cup Final suits, and then, as the teams start their warm-up routines, an hour or so of endless conjecture from anyone with a half-opinon about how the game will go.

Being at the game itself is a different experience altogether. There is nothing - nothing - to compare with hearing 80,000 people at Wembley singing Abide With Me followed by God Save The Queen (the original version, I should add, not the Sex Pistols' cover....) before the match gets underway, and then watching the incongruous sight of the regimental band of the Grenadier Guards criss-crossing the turf at half-time playing Colonel Bogey's March on something similarly rousing.

The "magic of the cup" might be a phrase you'll hear bandied about going back to the very early stages of the competition, when non-league clubs commence their well-intentioned efforts to proceed to later rounds when they might come up against professional league opposition.

And thus, come May, the denouement takes place at Wembley. It's a knockout competition, so the two teams have survived through guile, cunning and little luck along the way. They may not always be the best teams, either, but that doesn't matter, as the football is only just one component of Cup Final Saturday.

This year's Cup Final had an odd component to it, and not just because of the fact someone had tampered with the kick off time. Chelsea's season didn't seem to start until March 4, when Roberto Di Matteo was installed as "interim first team coach" and results, team unity and Fernando Torres' shooting boots all started to go the right way.

Liverpool have had a similarly indifferent season, with an expensive striker (Carroll) proving profligate in front of goal, and manager Kenny Dalglish - the closest thing to a saint, the Dalai Lama and royalty rolled into one person on Merseyside - facing questions from even the most loyal Scousers as to whether he is doing the right thing for the club.

By half-time yesterday, most pundits were commenting that the 131st FA Cup Final was a tepid affair. Ramires' clever goal putting Chelsea ahead at the interval, but that's all. When has this been ever different? It's hard to remember the last FA Cup Final that was an exciting display of football, of intelligent passing and clever build-play, of tactical ingenuity and perfect finishing. Watch any tie in the earlier rounds and you'll see 'win at any cost' being the motto. And that's why the Final itself is so much more the sum of its parts. Tradition, as I've said before, counts aplenty.

That Didier Drogba scored in his fourth FA Cup Final yesterday, that Ashley Cole has now amassed a record seven FA Cup winner's medals, and that Di Matteo became the third Italian manager in a row to win the trophy, on top of the fact he made records as a player (1997 - scoring for Chelsea on just 43 seconds), underlines the romance of the FA Cup and what it means to play or to watch it.

Yesterday's game may not have been perfect, but in many ways it was. Blues versus Reds, two teams who've played each other more than any one else over the last decade, a team that was going nowhere fast now competing for the two biggest club competitions in the game, and the seemingly fairytale of a caretaker manager who keeps pulling off remarkable successes (played 18, won 12, drawn 4, lost 2).

So it was a couple of hours late? The Magic of The Cup still exists. Roll on Munich.

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