In an age in which football has become almost wearily predictable in many respects, this year’s FA Cup has been a breath of fresh air. Whether we’re talking about Havant & Waterlooville’s demolition of Swansea City and their subsequent day out at Anfield, Barnsley’s extraordinary performances against Liverpool and Chelsea and Portsmouth’s tin at Old Trafford have been just some of the highlights of a remarkable year’s cup football, which culminates tomorrow at Wembley with the unexpected sight of Cardiff City taking on Portsmouth.
A quick scout around this morning’s main sport websites gives away the rank hypocrisy of the British sports press, who are quick to laud the underdogs when they knock the big clubs out (presumably because it’s what people want to read) but then ignore the main event, presumably because there aren’t enough “stars” involved. You’ be forgiven for thinking that there is no FA Cup Final this year if you read The Guardian’s Sport Blog (though their football site does make a bit more of an effort). The Independent makes a better effort, but the wooden spoon goes to The Times, whose Ten Reasons To Be Fearful is largely insulting and, notably, takes clear precedence over the Ten Reasons To Be Cheerful article that it was a counter to. Why, one wonders, would The Times feel the need to run an article countering an article saying that, you know, having two teams that aren’t Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal in the FA Cup Final might just make a nice change? I look forward to their Ten Reasons Why An All-English Champions League Final Is Bad For European Football.
Of course, if tomorrow’s match turns out to be a disappointing spectacle (as any football match has the potential to be), numerous commentators will crawl out of the woodwork telling us that Cardiff and Portsmouth being there in the first place is A Bad Thing For Football – something which I don’t particularly remember being bestowed upon Chelsea and Manchester United after they served up the worst FA Cup Final in living memory last year. There will also doubtless be opinions served up that the FA Cup is an irrelevance in the twenty-first century, with statistics comparing the television viewing figures between it and the Champion League Final as evidence, as if the number of people sat on their sofas watching it is the only thing that matters. This year, the FA Cup Final isn’t really about you and I, sitting at home on our sofas, drinking beer from a can and occasionally scratching our backsides. More than any other Cup Final in recent years, this year’s is about the people that are there in the day, and I would wager that they couldn’t care less whether two million or two hundred million people are watching at home.
This year’s FA Cup Final is a celebration, all too rare these days, of the diversity of English football. It is living proof of the biggest strength that our domestic game has – the ability to throw up a match between two totally unexpected teams in completely unexpected circumstances. Like most of the rest of us, I had lost the faith that this could ever happen again, and it may never happen again after this year. Just think, though, how terrible tomorrow would have been had it been Chelsea against Manchester United again, with half of the key players being rested ahead of Wednesday night’s trip to Moscow. To add to the retro feeling in the build-up to tomorrow, Cardiff City have even released a borderline terrible Cup Final single, which has unexpectedly broken into the top twenty. I mean, “I’m sure we will prevail, give the cup to Steve McPhail”. It’s small pleasures like this that are, I’m convinced, the key to a long and happy life.