For those of us that consider the Premier League to be little more of a diversion than any of football’s other myriad of competitions, it had been easy to switch off over the last few days and pretend that this wasn’t happening. The full extent of the debasement of the FA Cup by the Premier League and Sky Sports probably didn’t hit home until about twenty minutes before kick off at Wembley yesterday. Lunchtime kick-offs, we might have thought would mean that there would be more than enough room to accomodate both in one day, but there wasn’t. Although the match didn’t kick off until three o’clock, the FA Cup final kicks off a full half hour earlier. How many people, for example, missed the singing of “Abide With Me” because Sky’s reporters were still interviewing Rio Ferdinand on the pitch a Ewood Park?
Not, of course, that we should expect any more or any less from the Premier League or, indeed, the Football Association. In the midst of the caterwauling on the subject of FIFA corruption over the last few days, that the Premier League had hinged its support for England’s World Cup bid on the FA supporting their wretched Game 39 proposals while Scudamore was telling the press that “There has never been an issue with the Premier League and supporting the bid” seems to have been overlooked by a press more interested in telling us details of what we already know – that FIFA is a bit dodgy, which is something akin to shooting fish in a barrel. Whether the FA, who were so supine in rolling over for FIFA that they were allowing their bellies to be tickled by an Executive Committee that was effectively laughing behind its back, deserves any better in its current form is also a question that is not a straightforward to answer.
Yet the FA Cup, after one hundred and thirty-nine years, can still stand on its own two feet. Yesterday’s final was immeasurably enriched by being host to two sets of supporters that actually wanted to win the competition, for once. Manchester City and Stoke City hadn’t won a major trophy between them for three and a half decades. Manchester City have had to endure the constant derision of their local rivals for much of this time and, while they continue on their lavishly-funded journey towards becoming one of Europe’s super-clubs, the actual lifting of silverware is an important stepping stone in this process. Stoke City, meanwhile, had a solitary League Cup to show for one hundred and forty-eight years of endeavour and, while their name is riven into the history of the English game, an FA Cup win would allow this club to write a new chapter in its own autobiography.
All of this meant that Wembley was a cacophonous riot of colour and noise yesterday afternoon. European qualification matters had already been settled for both clubs, meaning that the more ethereal and abstract, the glory of winning the cup, could take the centre-stage for once and, while there may be cause to feel slightly queasy at the sight of miltarism poking its head around the door of this particular showpiece, the sheer, over-powering pomp and circumstance of the event itself is difficult not be taken in by. The Champions League final, at the altar of which the FA Cup’s dignity has been lain this season, is unlikely to look like more of a spectacle than this match did in the build up to the kick-off.
Once the referee’s whistle blew, however, the more prosaic issues of the haves and have-nots of modern football started to become apparent and, whilst Stoke City had chances, the best of which saw Joe Hart charge down a shot from Kenwyne Jones, and a couple of sustained periods of pressure that might have seen them nick a goal at each end of the second half, Manchester City were fluid, well-organised and positive in their outlook. Mario Balotelli, the Premier League’s equivalent of a pressure cooker, flitted around the middle third of a pitch, seemingly carried along by the sheer force of his own presence. His part in the goal itself, a tidy exchange of passes with David Silva and a scuffed shot that was deflected to Yaya Toure was, perhaps, inevitable. Toure, who had already done much to enshrine himself into Manchester City’s pantheon of legend with the winning goal in the semi-final against Manchester United, threaded his low, powerful shot as if through the eye of a needle.
Stoke City, however, pushed and pulled in the closing stages of the match. They had at times looked uncharacteristically timid prior to the goal and Manchester City’s excellently-marshalled defence dealt consistently superbly with the Premier League’s equivalent of an aerial bombing raid, the Rory Delap throw-in. In the closing stages of the match, they threw everything forward in the desperate search for an equalising goal, including goalkeeper Thomas Sorenson (who had a particularly excellent game at his own end of the pitch) for corners in stoppage time. Manchester City, after all, wouldn’t be Manchester City if they didn’t make their supporters sweat a little before finally getting their hands on a trophy after three and a half decades.
That Carlos Tevez should have lifted the trophy was, perhaps, a fitting end to the day. It seems likely that he will leave Manchester City during the summer, but his role in the revitalisation in the club has been immense and it felt right that, should this be a sign-off for Tevez before departing for pastures new, the final iconic image of him in a sky blue shirt should be of him closing a lengthy chapter in the history of the club and turning the page for a new one. It remains appropriate to have reservations concerning the clubs petro-dollar funded largesse, but this was a day for supporters of a club that has put them through the mill frequently over the last few years. At the other end of Wembley, meanwhile, the supporters of Stoke City did their club proud by staying behind after the match to receive their team. Their club has achieved so much over the last couple of years and received little praise for it. Their players, however, can surely only be thrilled at such commitment and support.
For all the disruption and attempts at debasement, then, the FA Cup soldiers on. If the contempt of the Premier League – the organisation – for it can be seen from yesterday’s fixture list and questions arise over whether even the FA itself can be entrusted with its future, perhaps it is down to the supporters to pick up this gauntlet. The supporters of both Manchester City and Stoke City did this in style yesterday, breathing a little life into a competition that has been knocked from all sides over the last few years. The 2011 FA Cup final was not a remarkable match, but it was an intriguing one, and Manchester City deserved their win. Stoke, meanwhile, can take considerable pride in what they have achieved this season and, having had a taste of the drama and occasion of the day itself, may now dreaming of building upon their achievements of this season over the next twelve months. Yesterday was a day for dreaming, of the past and of the future, and this FA Cup final was a reminder of the spell that the world’s oldest football competition is still able to cast over our game.
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