If there’s one thing that social media and association football have in common it’s schadenfreude, so it came as little surprise to see Twitter glow white hot when the full-time whistle blew at Wembley yesterday afternoon. Not only had another of the Big Red Clubs been knocked out of the FA Cup, but the Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard would not, after all, become the first player to lead his team out for the Football Association’s showpiece event whilst wearing a party hat before presenting the opposing captain with a slice of cake and a party bag.
Indeed, such was the merriment at it all that even Tim Sherwood, not usually a man who gets a particularly long shrift from those amongst us who perform our punditry from the comfort of our armchairs, was given praise for the way in which he set up his Aston Villa team to overcome a Liverpool team that has been stuttering of late. Sherwood rode his luck, of course. Either of Gerrard’s header that was cleared from the goal line by Kieran Richardson, or Mario Ballotelli’s goal which was incorrectly called as offside, might on any other day have forced the match to an extra thirty minutes, but in the end even the Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, not normally a man to stay quiet on the subject of injustices on the pitch, had to concede after the match that his team had been out-thought and outplayed.
This evening, however, we should perhaps all be sparing a thought for the fourth estate. The Great British media had, since the Third Round of the competition in January, been keeping everything crossed that Liverpool would reach the final and that “Stevie G” – who it’s difficult to imagine as anybody other than the Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard in a white faux fur coat and sunglasses in the shape of dollar signs – would get to play his final match on the last day of the season at Wembley, a narrative so convenient that it might have been churned out by a computer called Storybot 2000, scoring the winning goal and lifting the FA Cup, before riding off into the sunset having exchanged his party hat for one of the ten gallon variety.
None of this is Gerrard’s fault, of course. Indeed, who amongst us wouldn’t enjoy having their birthday off work, especially when that birthday is on a Saturday and you’ve spent most of the last twenty years working every Saturday without an option to take that particular day of the week off? The gnashing and wailing that emanated from some corners of the media, however, was a somewhat different matter. BT Sport covered the match in a manner which suggested that, had Liverpool won, their coverage of the final itself might have fallen halfway between the media coverage of the Queen Mother’s hundredth birthday and that of her funeral. But how much of all of this is down to the player himself? The answer to this question is probably that it’s unquantifiable, but it doesn’t really feel as if it’s all come from the Gerrard and his entourage, rather that the very concept of The Steven Gerrard Cup Final was a media creation, mostly.
The idea of an FA Cup final being a vehicle for one player is hardly a new concept, of course. As long ago as 1953, the end of season jamboree was trailed as The Matthews Final on account of the Blackpool winger Stanley Matthews – whose career, as with so many other players, was completely disrupted by the outbreak of war in 1939 – not having won a medal in that particular competition. At thirty-eight years old, Matthews got his medal, although it may have been understandable had Stan Mortensen, who scored a hat-trick in that match, or Joe Perry, whose goal two minutes into stoppage time won the match for Blackpool, felt just a little put out at the fact that their contributions to that match have been a little overlooked over the years, all things considered.
Perhaps, though, the spotlight has been pointing in the wrong direction over the last few days or so, and with yesterday’s defeat it seems likely that the heat under manager Brendan Rodgers will now be turned up a little. Liverpool have ground out results against the more mediocre opposition that they’ve faced of late, but in the matches that have mattered recently, they’ve come up wanting. Beating Manchester City at Anfield at the start of March could have been the launchpad for a serious bid at nicking the fourth Champions League place but, whilst this remains a possibility, the chances of this being successful would have been so much greater had the team not capitulated against both Manchester United and Arsenal since then, and the nature of the team’s defeat at Wembley yesterday was so toothless that it doesn’t seem unreasonable to wonder aloud whether Rodgers is capable of taking the team any further than he has done already, and with Jurgen Klopp available from the end of this season (amongst, most likely, a number of others,) the possibility of the directors of the club concluding that Rodgers has had long enough to get the club back into the Champions League surely cannot be completely discounted.
Aston Villa, meanwhile, roll on to their first FA Cup final in fifteen years on something of a roll. The club is not quite yet free from the fear of relegation – four points above the bottom three can hardly be considered “safe” with six matches of the season left to play – but they have beaten Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in successive matches, and were impressive in scoring four goals without reply at Sunderland last month. If Aston Villa are finally undergoing the revival that never materialised under previous manager Paul Lambert, it’s coming in fits and starts, but after several seasons of torpor it seems unlikely that Villa supporters would have turned down Premier League survival and having a go at beating Arsenal in the FA Cup final at the end of next month had they been asked upon Tim Sherwood’s appointment as the club’s new manager. The jury remains out on Sherwood as a manager – he needs a full season including both transfer windows in order to fully prove himself – but he’s showing signs of life, at least.
The media hasn’t got the FA Cup Final that it wanted in 2015, then, but this in itself is no bad thing. Aston Villa and Arsenal are two of the great institutions of English football, yet they have never previously met in the FA Cup Final itself. This match could be trailed as a celebration of the history of the English game, an opportunity to showcase so much of what makes the game so special to so many people in this country. At the time of writing, the kick-off time for this match has not been confirmed, but it’s expected to be at either 5pm or 5.15 pm. Oh, and if last year’s final is anything to go by, they’ll be playing it using a pink ball. Ah, the tradition and the romance of the FA Cup.
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