The FA Cup Final: Living Down To Expectations
With two teams who gave every impression of wanting to be just about anywhere else on planet earth than on the pitch at Wembley playing an actual football match, Wembley still only looking barely half-full fifteen minutes before kick-off and again within around thirty seconds of the full-time whistle. This had the feel of being a match that no-one really wanted. The supporters looked as though they’d rather have been thirty miles away in Windsor, cheering on the royal nuptuals. The players as though they might have been flown back from the beach at gunpoint on promise that they would be safely reunited with their Caribbean Kiss cocktails and loungers, so long as they got through the afternoon without damaging themselves or each other.
When these two clubs last met in the FA Cup final, it was 2007 and the air was full of excitement at two of the grand names of English football competing for the world’s oldest football competition at a shiny new stadium that had only been opened a few weeks earlier. They went on to thoroughly stink the place, with only an extra-time goal from Didier Drogba separating us from the goalless draw followed by penalty shootout combination that the “occasion” truly deserved. Before the match, the BBC interviewed Drogba, and the former Chelsea striker waxed lyrical about the occasion and the goal with an enthusiasm that hadn’t felt particularly prevalent amongst any of the players during that particular match.
As the band struck up “Abide With Me”, now in its ninety-first year as the traditional FA Cup final hymn, the Wembley stands themselves were still half-empty and those performing were pushed together into a narrow strip in the middle of the pitch alongside huge flags reminding us of the identity of the two teams concerned. As the teams took to the pitch, flames shot high into the air. It was the closest that we would come to fireworks all afternoon, as the two teams sluggishly hauled themselves around the Wembley pitch. The moment that decided the match arrived midway through the first half, when Phil Jones went maximum Phil Jones on a perky Eden Hazard – one of the few players from other side who played as though he wanted to win – as the forward thrusted forward into the Manchester United penalty area. The tackle was as badly timed as it was ill thought out. Hazard’s penalty kick sent David de Gea the wrong way. It had “only goal of the game” written all over it.
None of this is to say that Manchester United didn’t apply a little pressure of their own, especially in the second half. The problem wasn’t so much a lack of ambition as a lack of application. Alexis Sánchez had a close range chance disallowed by a linesman’s flag. There were half-chances to which the Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois reacted with confidence and assuredness. But ultimately it was difficult to come away from this match with much of a feeling winning it was even close to the top of the list of Jose Mourinho’s priorities for the day. Chelsea were deserved winners and might have extended their lead had Victor Moses’ flick against Ashley Young’s arm have resulted in a second penalty kick. Ultimately, though, the best team won, but this wasn’t really saying much.
The quality of the match is the resposibility of the teams concerned, but the Football Association hardly helps itself in the debasing of the world’s oldest football competition. Moving the semi-finals to Wembley as part of the Club Wembley season tickets that helped to fund the contruction of the stadium in the first place turned out to be a huge mistake. Playing the semi-finals there taken a degree of sheen from the final of the competition that was warned about at the time. But the truth of the matter is that those long-term season tickets form a contract from which the FA cannot readily extricate themselves, even if they were particularly inclined to move them away, which few believe they are anyway.
And then there’s the kick-off time. The stated reason for the move from a three o’clock kick-off was to align more closely with twenty-first century viewing habit, but does this really make that much of a difference to the number of people viewing at home? And even if it doesn, having a later kick-off time is difficult for away supporters – matches finishing before the departure time of the last train of the day to many northern cities has been largely ignored by the FA and again gives the whole fixture the feeling of having been cheapened. Perhaps we’re raging against the dying of the light, here, but change is not always necessary. The Champions League has nestled very comfortably into its new home on Saturday evenings, the jewel in the crown of European club football occupying the jewel in the crown of the television scheduling slots. But what does this make the FA Cup, at a quarter past five on a Saturday afternoon? The 321? The Metal Mickey? The… Pointless?
It seems strange that there should a football competition which seems to become less enjoyable as it progresses. Without wishing to get too “real football” about this, the early stages of the competition do at least feature players and supporters who want to win, a feature which becomes less commonplace as things progess. This year, there was, well, something at stake. Neither had won any silverware so far this season. For Manchester United, an improvement to second place in the Premier League table had been tempered by finishing so far behind Manchester City, while a tepid campaign in the Champions League had hardly inspired much feeling of those great European nights returning to Old Trafford.
Chelsea, meanwhile, had staged a dismal defence of their Premier League title, failing to qualify for the Champions League while rumours perpetually circulated concerning the future of manager Antonio Conte, a man who only a few months earlier had seemed so at ease in guiding them to the title at a canter. But on the day, it was they who had something approaching a plan. For Manchester United, though, there remain questions. Paul Pogba is capable of sprinkling stardust, but if the bar set by Manchester City is where it is, he cannot afford the off days of the type that he had yesterday, where he was as ungainly as he was apathetic. Elsewhere, Alexis Sanchez continues to look half the player that he was at Arsenal, Phil Jones’ picture now adorns the Wikipedia entry for the phrase “great big lummox”, and Jose Mourinho remains at least a couple of steps off delivering what is required, in this day and age, to be a superclub. This was a thoroughly deflationary way to end a season, both for Manchester United and the watching television audience.