The 2021 FA Cup Final: When The Alarm Clock Went Off
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been sleepwalking, these last few months. The players on the pitches in these empty grounds have started to look like ghosts. They’ve been omnipresent, as the pressures of a distorted calendar and the need for every match to be watched have accelerated the live televised game’s transition from “event TV” into “wallpaper”. It’s become a low drone in the background, emitting occasional high pitched squeals at moments of relative excitement. It’s come to resemble nothing so much as a puppy with every last drop of its cuteness removed.
But this afternoon, I woke up. I think we all woke up, a bit. It’s not that the 2021 FA Cup final was a great match. Vast swathes of it were soporific, two teams padding away at each other as though warming up by sparring in custard. Chelsea dominated possession for most of the first hour, but failed to do much of significance with the ball. Leicester occasionally snarled, but didn’t have enough of the ball to be considered a threat.
When you play the Tuchel way, though, the margins between winning and losing can be thin. After 63 minutes of this turgidity, however, a steamroller ploughed its way through the semolina. Reece James attempted a forward pass which was blocked by Perez, Chelsea claimed with his arm, and Luke Thomas picked up the loose ball, slipping it inside for Youri Tielemans to absolutely belt it past Kepa Arrizabalaga from at least thirty yards out.
At the 1966 World Cup, England faltered through the first game and a bit of their group stage. In their opening match against Uruguay they stumbled their way to a goalless draw, and after half an hour of their second match against Mexico, things weren’t going much better. At that precise moment, Bobby Charlton whacked in a goal from thirty yards out, kick-starting the run that resulted in their winning that tournament. This was that goal. Youri Tielemans Bobby Charltoned it.
It’s Roy of the Rovers. It’s Paul Gascoigne for Spurs against Arsenal at Wembley. It’s a Stuart Pearce free-kick. This was a goal hand made in Leicestershire, wherein rests the exact geographic centre of England, delivered via Flanders, Brussels, and Monaco. It a was goal worthy of winning any cup final “or even the Grand National” (hats off to anyone who gets that reference – you’re showing your age), even for those amongst us who might ordinarily fancy ourselves to be culturally a cut above our turnip-boiling Anglo Saxon genes. It’s deeply embedded, this shit.
And in that moment, something else became more apparent than it had all afternoon. The hum of crowd noise inside the ground was real. Being only a quarter full by necessity, the match hadn’t looked spectacular prior to kick off, and there was little to stimulate the supporters during the match (although hearing Abide With Me, a song written by a priest who was dying of tuberculosis, seemed more poignant than ever after the year we’ve had). Tielemans’ goal, of course, changed that. It sounded like an alarm clock going off.
With increased volumed comes increased tension. This match means something. It’s not a practice match any more. it’s not just some other match played on the same day as three Premier League matches. This is the final of the oldest goddam football competition on this goddam planet and that in and of itself means something, whether critics like it or not. You try interrupting the players to field their opinions on the subject during the last twenty minutes and see what reception you get.
With twelve minutes to play came another moment that seemed to reflect another moment that is lodged deep into the subconscience of English football, featuring N’Golo Kante as Jairzinho, Ben Chilwell as Pele, and Kasper Schmeichel as Gordon Banks, with Schemichel’s acrobatic dive to his right pushing Chele’s falling header away from goal. Then, with a couple of minutes to play, came further obduracy from Schmeichel, diving across his goal to palm away a fierce and, or so it seemed, inevitably goal-bound shot from Mason Mount.
And as though this wasn’t enough to moisten our brows, with eight minutes to play the game took another sudden (and frankly unexpected) turn for the sentimental when the 37 year old Wes Morgan, captain of Leicester’s 2016 Premier League championship team, came on as a substitute, but barely a couple of minutes after Schemichel’s second feat of heroics, a dramatic sting sounded. The ball was back inside the Leicester City penalty area from Chilwell, the ricocheting off Calgar Soyuncu and bouncing over the line off… Wes Morgan.
Leicester City’s entire history must have flashed before their eyes. Gary Lineker, Keith Weller’s tights. A young Peter Shilton, before he turned into, well, Peter Shilton. That giant balloon they used to have over the pitch there in the winter to try and keep snow and frost off but which actually ended up making the pitch look like the surface of Venus. The miracle of 2016. But as holders of the record for having lost the most FA Cup finals without having won any, might fate find a way of conspiring against them with the cup so close to their grasp? Not this time, and it turned out to be that VAR had come to their rescue. Chilwell, whose pass had set it all up, had strayed a couple of nanometers beyond the beady eye of the robo-ref. Offside. Goal disallowed. An even greater, more bellicose roar greeted this than had greeted the goal.
We’re all hypocrites, when it comes to VAR.
Since the beginning of this century, Leicester City have won the League Cup. They entered into administration. They moved into a new stadium. They were the champions of the second tier. They were relegated back from the Premier League into the Championship. They were relegated again, from the Championship into League One. They were promoted back as League One champions. They were on the receiving end of that late, late drama with Watford. They were promoted into the Premier League as champions the following season. They won the Premier League. They played Champions League football. They lost their owner and chairman, one of the good guys, in a helicopter crash.
And now they’ve won the FA Cup, and we might pause to reflect that, at the end of a period that has been pock-marked by an attempt to power, land, and money grab both the domestic game and the European game, through Project Big Picture and the European Super League, it is perhaps appropriate that one of those self-appointed six should have had their noses bloodied by the club that proved, five years ago, that the very jeopardy that those big clubs are seeking to eliminate from the game are what actually makes it breathe. And wouldn’t it be enjoyable if more than one of those six missed out on Champions League football while Leicester took their place in it, too? We shall see, on that.
It’ll be a disappointment for Chelsea supporters, of course, but they’ve still got a Champions League final to look forward to. Following on from last week’s loss against Arsenal, though, this feels like a bad time of the season to be stumbling. But it’s nothing personal. It’s one of the small costs of becoming a superclub, of all those trophies (and those yet to come), that you’re always there to be shot at, and they may yet end this season dancing around a quarter-full stadium in Istanbul, or Porto, or Villa Park, or The Moon, one of them with the lid of the European Cup on his head. Today, though, was not to be that day. Today belonged to Leicester City, to a win for all narrative, and to all of us, for awakening from our hibernation.