Well, I did try. I sat through the BBC’s three hour long warm up, wallowing in their own particular nostalgia and trying to ignore their almost desperate attempts to tell us that this might be a great match. I enjoyed, for reasons that are almost beyond me, the FA bringing out a player from each final from 1957 to 2000 and, by the time they kicked off, I had almost forgotten everything that I had spent the last couple of weeks fearing would happen in this match.
I lasted twelve minutes before I fell asleep on the sofa. I woke up at half-time to find that I had missed practically nothing whatsoever, and made an executive decision that blew twenty-seven years of my own tradition out of the water. I was jettisoning the FA Cup Final. For the first time since I first watched it in 1980, I switched it off and went and did something else, instead. I caught the “highlights”, such as they were, in a pub at about seven o’clock, and that was that.
Watching the extended highlights this morning, it felt as if Manchester United and Chelsea had entered into a pact to disgrace the FA Cup Final as much as they could. It was the final match of the season for both of them, but neither side could be bothered to show any attacking guile whatsoever. So-called “star” players, such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, who (as if you should need any reminding) earn many times in one week what most of us earn in a year simply failed to turn up and play. Don’t give me any of that crap about their astronomical wages being justified due to “market forces”. More or less every player on that pitch should be writing a cheque to anybody that had to sit through that match for wasting two and a half hours of their lives.
Following on from the debacle that was the European Cup semi-final between Chelsea and Liverpool, this was further proof that the Premiership is simply not, as the marketing men would want you to believe, “The Greatest League In The World”. If I was a foreign viewer tuning into yesterday’s match, I’d be tearing down my posters and burning my scarf, and promising myself never to be taken in by such a scam again. The casual observer would merely be sitting at home wondering how the hell it has come to pass that people will pay more than anywhere else in the entire world for such a shoddy product. Once you stripped away the hype, the glitz and the fireworks, you were basically left with a match that was (and this is being as generous as I can be) the footballing equivalent of a snooker match.
Small wonder, then, that crowds are growing and growing further down the football food chain, and there was a demonstration of what a cup final should be like on display this afternoon, when Exeter City took on Morecambe in the Nationwide Conference play-off final, also at Wembley. The stakes for these two clubs, playing at the lowest level of English professional football, was fifty times higher that it had been for Chelsea and Manchester United the day before, but they played out a match that had a bit of everything, and the contrast between this match and the stalemate that been played there the day before was striking. Exeter started strongly, taking the lead through Lee Phillips’ header, but Morecambe are to be praised for the way that they came back, even recovering from a missed penalty in the first half to level things up through Gary Thompson, before they won the match with seven minutes to play with a superbly taken goal from Danny Carlton. In the dying seconds, it all got a bit much for Exeter’s Matt Gill, who was sent off for head-butting Morecambe’s Craig Stanley. Morecambe have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, and deserve our congratulations for taking their place in the League. Exeter will start next season amongst the favourites to win the dubiously-renamed “Blue Square Premier”.
So, onwards and upwards, then. It’s the European Cup Final in Wednesday, of course (I may even put up a live commentary on it for those of you that are interested in such things), and then everything winds up next weekend with the Football League play-offs at Wembley, culminating in the one hundred billion pound match between Derby County and West Bromwich Albion a week tomorrow. I will personally guarantee that all four of these matches will be better than yesterday’s FA Cup Final. Manchester United and Chelsea should both be feeling ashamed of themselves today.