Manchester United against Everton at Wembley Stadium. We’ve been here before, of course. In 1985, they met in the shadow of the Bradford Fire and, unbeknownst to all there that day, just over a week before the Heysel Stadium disaster in Brussels. It seems scarcely credible today, but Everton were the overwhemling favourites to win that day. They had stormed to their first championship win since 1970 and, three days earlier, had beaten Rapid Vienna 3-1 in the European Cup Winners Cup final in Rotterdam. Victory that day would have won them an unprecedented treble – more in one season than their city rivals of the time had managed at the time – but they were sunk by an extra time goal from Norman Whiteside.
Ten years later they again met in the FA Cup Final, but times had changed. Manchester United had finally ended their drought with the first Premier League title two years earlier, and they had won the double the year before. There were small causes for encouragment for Everton, by the time of the 1995 final. United had stumbled in the Premier League, handing the title to Blackburn Rovers on the last day of the season, whilst Everton had thrashed Spurs 4-1 in the semi-final. On the day of the final United choked and a solitary untidy goal from Paul Rideout was enough to win the match for Everton.
That was then, and this is now. For one thing, this is a semi-final rather than a final. There’s little point in getting overly angry about the FA holding FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley, because it isn’t going to change. The FA needed to find twenty events to be able to sell the corporate tickets upon which the funding to build the stadium was built, and that can’t be undone. Yesterday, Chelsea beat Arsenal here and, for the last twenty-four hours at least, the dread prospect of a Chelsea vs Manchester United FA Cup Final, Champions League Final and Premier League run-in has been rearing its ugly head.
Alex Ferguson, however, has other ideas. Depending on which side of the argument you’re on, the team that he has picked for this match – no Michael Carrick, no Wayne Rooney, no Edwin Van der Saar, no Cristiano Ronaldo – is either a bold attempt to rest his best players for the end of the season or a display of contempt for both the FA Cup and Everton Football Club. The Wembley pitch is also not helping matters. As ITV co-commentator Jim Beglin sagely notes, the ground staff have managed the unique double whammy of a pitch that is both bobbly and soft.
As has been commonplace in recent matches, Manchester United look sluggish. They are playing an unnaturally slow tempo and Everton are controlling the pace of the game and most of the possession. It’s a quiet first half – the nearest we come to a goal (and it isn’t very near) is Joleon Lescott deflecting the ball narrowly wide of the post, whilst Ben Foster has a minor moment when he first miscontrols the ball and then drives his clearance against a spritely Louis Saha – and that it should arrive goalless is no great surprise. As television entertainment, this is curiously appropriate Sunday afternoon viewing. It’s “Antiques Roadshow” or “Last Of The Summer Wine” rather than “The Wire” or “24″.
The second half ticks by without the pace picking up by a great deal. Eight minutes into the second half comes the first shot on target of the match. Tim Cahill’s shot from twenty-five yards is pushed around the post by Foster. Midway through the second half, a moment that could change the game. Phil Jagielka mistimes a tackle on Danny Wellbeck as he closes in on goalkeeper Tim Howard. It should be a penalty but it isn’t, and an incandescent Alex Ferguson spends the next five minutes arguing with the referee. The incident raises the temperature within the stadium, but this doesn’t transfer to the players and the ninety minutes come around surprisingly quickly. Extra time.
Even terrible games usually pick up in extra time. As players start to tire, they start making mistakes and the games tend to open up. It is entirely in keeping with the sluggish nature of proceedings that Dimitar Berbatov, who is starting to resemble a three toed sloth in playing style as well as appearance, is introduced to proceedings. Is this what he was so desperate to get away from White Hart Lane for? Sure, he’s playing at Wembley, but he’s playing in what is nor far short of a Manchester United reserve team, and has scored just eight goals this season. He doesn’t add any to this tally in extra time, which plods along at the pace of a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park. The television audience, the crowd, the players, the match officials and the players have sleepwalked into a penalty shootout.
Tim Cahill steps up first for Everton, and fires high and wide. The worst penalty I’ve seen in a very long time. Alex Ferguson prods Berbatov awake, and he sluggishly walks up to the spot. His shot is saved by Howard. Any thoughts that we might be heading for a goalless penalty shootout are cast aside as Leighton Baines scores, but Rio Ferdinand steps up next and, while his penalty is well placed, it has nowhere near enough power and Howard saves again. From here on, the script is both scrupulously followed and thrown away. According to rational logic, these Premier League footballers should have no difficulty scoting one penalty each, but the watching nation is waiting for Everton’s players to crack under the pressure and allow United back into it. They don’t, though, and Phil Jagielka scores the decisive penalty to send Everton back to Wembley next month for the final and kill off Manchester United’s hopes of winning five trophies this season.
Everton, then, will play Chelsea in the FA Cup Final next month. It’s the second year in a row that the FA CUp Final has been played between two teams that wear blue and, prior to that, the last season that this happened was when Manchester City beat Leicester City in 1969. Birmingham City and Leicester City supporters may note this with interest. Curiously, the most entertaining team of the moment have now been involved in the two worst matches played at the new Wembley Stadium – this match and the 2007 FA Cup Final. They may yet go on to win to win the Premier League and the Champions League and, if they do, today will be largely forgotten. Their continuing sluggishness, however, would seem to indicate that their domination of the rest of the season remains far from clear cut.