The singing of the pre-FA Cup final hymn “Abide With Me” was first introduced for the 1927 match in the hope that some communal singing might provide a moment of unity between supporters of different clubs before the upcoming competition. The words to it were first written as a poem by a Scottish hymn-writer, Henry Francis Lyte, as he was dying of tuberculosis in 1847. It is a sombre request for unity with God throughout both life and death. Considering all of the above, we might well wonder whose brilliant idea is was to couple up this emotional and traditional pre-match ritual with the singing quartet Amore, accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Their vocal histrionics, as we have seen elsewhere in recent years, ruined what is one of the most deeply established traditions of the world’s oldest football competition.
Tradition, however, often doesn’t count for much these days. Enough words have been written about the absurdity of kicking off the FA Cup Final at 5.15 in the afternoon for the sole, explicit reason of arousing television company executives to rewrite “War & Peace”, but when the whistle blows and the match actually gets underway, all that matters is the match, rather than the snarky, “I’m too good for this” attitude that seems to infect so much football culture these days. Wigan Athletic reaching the FA Cup final is a great story, the first club to reach the finals of both the FA Trophy and the FA Cup, Premier League also-rans for the last eight years of their existence and still the favourites to join the already doomed Reading and Queens Park Rangers in the Championship next season. They play attractive football, and their manager is one of the nicer guys in the Premier League. Yet much of what we hear of this club is contemptuous.
At the end of a spritely first half at Wembley this afternoon, however, Wigan Athletic’s players could reflect upon a job well done. True enough, their goalkeeper Joel had been forced into a handful of decent saves after his defence had been cut down the middle like a hot knife through butter, but Wigan’s players had given as good as they’d got, created a couple of decent chances and even had half an appeal for a penalty kick turned away. This wasn’t the butchering that we had been led to believe it would be. Manchester City, meanwhile, looked sluggish, as if they really had to do was imprint their gold-plated studs on the lush Wembley pitch and the Cup, a mere consolation after disappointment in the Premier League and Champions League, would be theirs. Rather than merely being a coronation, however, Manchester City were being made to work hard for their silverware.
For the first twenty minutes of the second half, however, it did start to feel as if the dam might be about to break. The introduction of James Milner injected a little more urgency into Manchester City’s movement in attacking positions, whilst the gaps that had been occasionally appearing across the Wigan defensive line had to be snapped shut with haste when they did rear their heads. When they did get forward, however, they posed a very real threat. Callum McManaman, who has been sporadically making the hairs on the arms stand on end throughout the course of the season, twice ran at the Manchester City defence as if the ball was tethered to his foot with string, and twenty minutes into the second half only a last-ditch challenge from Vincent Kompany to block what would otherwise have been one of the great FA Cup goals of the last three decades, whilst with fourteen minutes to play Shaun Maloney’s over-hit free kick dipped unexpectedly and bounced out off the crossbar.
There were five minutes to left to play when the timbre of the game changed decisively. A loose pass from Gael Clichy, one of many this afternoon, exposed Pablo Zabaleta to McManaman’s pace from a through-ball by Kone and Zabaleta hauled McManaman to the ground. It was a second yellow card, and Zabaleta became the third player to be sent off in an FA Cup final. But if that sort of drama wasn’t quite enough to send the blood pressure rising, what was to follow was. As the clock ticked over ninety minutes, McManaman, the man of the match by a country mile, burst down the right hand side again and seemed to be dragged down by Clichy. Referee Andre Marriner didn’t give a penalty, but he did award a corner, which was swung over by Maloney for Ben Watson, who got in front of his marker and looped a head up, over Joe Hart and into the left-hand side of the goal. And in that moment, Wigan Athletic won the FA Cup.
For Manchester City, there are no excuses. There was no bad luck about which they can gripe, and they even had any pressure that they may have otherwise felt deflected away from them by this week’s events at Old Trafford. There has been much talk – yet again – over the last few days that this season may well turn out to be Roberto Mancini’s last season as the manager of the club, and that talk will now intensify with today’s loss. The club’s supporters were singing his name at the start of this afternoon’s match, but whether still will be by the end of the evening is a different matter altogether. If there is a silver lining to this afternoon’s dark cloud, supporters of the club might console themselves with the idea that is the Manchester City of the last three or four years or so had started to stop resembling the club that they’d grown up with, they at least got a little of that feeling back today. It’s not much, but it might be something.
Wigan Athletic’s season isn’t over yet, of course, and there will be those who will argue that the events of today are a trifle in comparison with the job of staying in the Premier League. For the supporters, though, those who may have watched the club make the journey from the Northern Premier League and the dilapidated Springfield Park to the Premier League and The DW Stadium, this is a day that vindicate all of that, a day that they will never forget, no matter what may happen in the future. And from a sporting point of view, they didn’t park the team bus in front of their own goal, defend for their lives and snatch a goal on the break with their only chance of the match. This afternoon, Wigan Athletic at least matched Manchester City and if anything bested them on the pitch. The better team won, and with that result we have all been offered a tiny reminder, and it’s not the first time this season that this has happened, that the grinding realpolitik of “who has the most money?” hasn’t quite demolished everything in its path just yet. And much as spitting venom at the notion of the “Romance of the cup” has become something of a fad of late amongst those for whom a sneer seems to have become a permanent accessory, today was a day for the romantics, for the underdogs, and for the dreamers. More than anything else, though, today belonged to Wigan Athletic.
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