Nothing’s ever like it used to be, and I’m at the age where mostly it was better back then, especially if ‘back then’ is being measured in decades and I was considerably younger and fitter. Especially fitter.
Sadly, FA Cup Final Day is one such thing. I mean, it used to be sacrosanct. Seriously. Cup Final Day was Cup Final Day and nothing stood in its way. No-one would have dreamed of organising a major event for the same day (I’m looking at you, Windsors, or rather I’m not looking at you because I am not interested). It was the showpiece day, the only Football game to be televised all year, and on both channels too – I go back to the days when BBC1 was BBC, full stop – and the entire day’s coverage was devoted to Cup Final preparations. From about 9.30am. On each channel.
Nowadays, we’re lucky it gets televised at all, and the days of that immovable 3.00pm kick-off are as dead as the Twin Towers Wembley. 5.30pm on a Saturday afternoon is complete crap. But that’s an argument that has been lost: I work with a guy in his twenties, football fan, rugby player, cricket lover,total enthusiast, and he has said, openly, that he doesn’t care about the FA Cup, that it doesn’t mean a thing to him.
He’s the future, I’m the past.
Several things are depressing my eagerness for the game today: the excessive wait for the bloody thing to even get started, hanging around to avoid that wedding, Jose Mourinho, the prospect of the actual game being as shitty to watch as the one in 2007 even if we win, Jose Mourinho.
Then again, if we win this, we go level with Arsenal again, 13 wins. Only one other team that has once held the record for FA Cup wins has come back to draw level after losing that record, and that was Blackburn Rovers, who never held that record exclusively but only shared it (albeit for decades). No team has done that twice. No team that has once held the record for FA Cup wins has come back to regain that record. Let’s see if United can do it first.
There’s already something special about this game, as this is only the second time the same two teams have contested the Final three times: Arsenal and Newcastle United are the only others.
This in Manchester United’s twentieth Cup Final. All bar two of these have taken place in my life-time, and it will be the fifteenth I have watched, either on TV or at the old Wembley. Wem-ber-ley, Wem-ber-ley, We’re the famous Man United and we’re going to Wem-ber-ley. Recollections in brief:
1976: disappointment as a semi-neutral, more concerned with Droylsden than any other team.
1977: elation. You can’t not get excited about beating Liverpool, especially when you’re busting up their Treble.
1979: my first as a fully-fledged, albeit Armchair Red. The ignorant call it a classic but it was a dull, one-sided affair for 85 minutes and only that last five, from United’s consolation goal, through Sammy Mac’s equaliser to the kicker of Sunderland’s winning goal, was memorable. I nearly broke the TV switch turning it off.
1983: watching the Final at poor dear Rose’s, a terrible ordeal, watching the Replay at home and bursting with glee. Stevie Foster, what a difference you have made!
1985: sitting on the floor, my back against the armchair, and nearly hitting the roof when Norman Whiteside scored that incredible goal!
1990: watching the Final at my girlfriend’s, seeing her daughter – who I’d taken to her first United game only four months earlier – silently crying when we were 3-2 down, and squeezing her shoulder in sympathy, just before Sparky scored the equaliser, watching the Replay at home and wanting to kick Jimmy Hill’s head in for the way he tried to make United share the blame for Palace’s fouling tactics.
1994: watching in Wembley itself, not having to hear John Motson’s commentary, forgetting we’d won the Double until we were 3-0 up because this – THIS! – was the Cup Final and I WAS THERE!
1995: feeling bloody miserable, but at least I wasn’t there.
1996: in Wembley again, the Double Double, the guy who scored that hat-trick against Droylsden and Eric’s goal, the net bulging suddenly when I hadn’t seen the ball move!
1999: perfect sunshine, the diamond mowing, sitting with Shirley and Lynette, right behind the line of Teddie’s goal, the Third Double, and the middle leg of the Treble, the middle of that incredible eleven days.
2004: at home, en famille, Ronnie and Rudy, not the same from Cardiff.
2005: the horror of being the first Cup Final to be settled on a penalty shoot-out, and no, it wouldn’t have been any better if we’d won it, but after battering them for 120 minutes, argh!
2007: the first Final at New Wembley, shite game, the Fourth Double denied: I have witnesses to the fact that after eighty minutes I said that if the FA had any guts, they’d walk onto the pitch, confiscate the ball and abandon the Cup, unawarded, on the grounds that neither team deserved to win it.
2016: a 5.30pm kick-off is shite, Pardew’s stupid dance, extra-time again, that unexpected winner and the whole thing marred by the announcement, before we even went up for the Cup, that Mourinho was taking over: I wanted van Gaal gone, but he deserved to at least have this moment of glory before they shat on him.
2018: memories yet to be made.
I hope that, by 5.30pm, I can summon at least some of the proper enthusiasm, but the way Mourinho has got the team playing leaves me bored and depressed. I know that my usual statement on occasions like this is, “Sod enjoying the game, I wanna enjoy the result!”, but for a very long time under Fergie, you were pretty much guaranteed both. Today, the chances are… debatable, at best.
I’m at the end of this series now, right up to the modern day, Cup Final Day 2016. At the time I’m starting this piece, we don’t yet know the Finalists: indeed, as I write, it was only yesterday that Manchester United even confirmed the semi-final line-up, beating West Ham United in a replay that took place exactly one calendar month after their original draw. This is the longest delay, excluding weather-related postponements, between tie and replay in the Cup’s long and no longer august history, and it is yet another symbol of its unimportance in this degenerate age.
United’s victory means that they are the only one of the ‘Big Four’ or ‘Five’, however it is to be defined, in the semi-finals. They face Everton, twice opponents in the Final. If United win, they have a shot at their first Cup Final win at the New Wembley, and at regaining a share in the FA Cup record, equalling Arsenal’s newly-set record of twelve wins.
The other semi-final will produce a record of some sort: whichever of Watford and Crystal Palace reaches Wembley, then they will produce either the forty-fourth Cup-Winner, or else the fourth team to have appeared in two or more Finals without winning the trophy.
Having opened the doors to sponsorship with the power company, E.ON, the Cup allied itself in 2012 with Budweiser. A beer company. An American beer company. Their name still came after ‘the FA Cup’, making it easier for purists like myself to shut our eyes and ears to it.
There was another record number of entrants, 763, and Manchester United exercised revenge for their semi-final defeat last year, by defeating holders Manchester City 3-2 on their own ground in the Third Round, though they were knocked out in the Fourth by eventual Finalists Liverpool.
As we’ve seen, the Cup has suffered tragedies off the pitch, at Bolton and Hillsborough, but in the Sixth Round, this season came perilously close to the most personal of tragedies, when Bolton Wanderers’ Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch at Tottenham Hotspur, having suffered cardiac arrest. Thankfully, the provision of medical support at grounds had only lately been enhanced, following an incident when Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech sustained a fractured skull. Muamba’s life was saved, though he could never play again. The tie, 1-1 at that point, was abandoned. Spurs won the rematch, but were defeated in the semi-final by Chelsea.
It was Chelsea’s fourth Final in six years, and their fourth win, beating Liverpool 2-1 with the aid of a winning goal by Didier Drogba, setting a new record by scoring in his fourth Final, more than any other player (though not equalling Ian Rush’s record of five Cup Final goals). And they went on to claim a Double, winning the European Champions League Final, the first London team to win that trophy, and the last English winners to date.
Sadly, the Cup was yet again degraded. The Final was once more scheduled for a day with a full Premier League programme, with yet more fixtures scheduled for the following week. This time, the decision was taken to provide a four week gap between the end of the domestic season and the 2012 European Championships.
This time, however, the Premier League fixtures were not moved around. They took precedence. It was the Cup Final that had to shift, to an unprecedented and utterly dismaying 5.15pm kick-off.
It was a disgraceful decision, ending 140 years of tradition that previously had only been disturbed by war. It showed blatant disregard for the Liverpool fans, who would be leaving Wembley and North London no earlier than 7.15pm, having to make their way home to the north west.
But the fans were of no importance. Television had made that plain from the very beginning of the Premier League: Sky selected Southampton vs Manchester United for their first Monday Night Match, leaving the visitors to start heading home at 10.00pm from the South Coast. The FA had sold out yet again. There would be no need the following year for the Cup Final to be played alongside a League programme. Indeed, it would be restored to the ‘showpiece’ position, but television, having noted the audience figures for 2012, insisted on the early evening kick-off. It suited them better, it made them more money. It stank on ice, but who gave a shit?
The following year there was a more orthodox controversy in the Second Round when Bradford City, after drawing at home to Brentford, were disqualified for playing an ineligible player, Curtis Good, whose registration had not gone through by the deadline hour. Playing an ineligible player is an absolute rule, as Droylsden found to their cost in 2008. Suddenly, it wasn’t: Bradford appealed and were reinstated, their punishment reduced to a financial penalty: one rule for some, eh? Natural justice saw to it that Brentford comfortably won the replay that should not have been permitted.
The same round also saw the draw pair M. K. Dons with AFC Wimbledon, the first meeting of the two clubs with an unwanted relationship. This caused great concern for Wimbledon, with talk of withdrawing from the fixture rather than extend recognition to the team many still called Franchise United. The game did go ahead, covered live on TV due to the rivalry between the clubs, with M.K. Dons, the higher situated team, winning 2-1.
Luton Town, once Finalists, once of the old First Division, got through to the Fifth Round before being eliminated, a more impressive feat for a club who had slipped into the Football Conference.
The semi-finals paired the Cup’s last two winners, with the unfancied Millwall and Wigan Athletic – one of the second tier, the other in grave danger of returning to that level – in the other tie. It was the two north-western clubs who prevailed, making Wigan the latest First-Time Finalists. Their prospects were rated no higher than those of Sunderland in 1973 and Wimbledon in 1988 – a good omen – or Sunderland in 1992 or Millwall in 2004, making history a very mixed blessing.
A long way back in this series, I teased the fact that the 1959 and 1960 Finals were linked by a bizarre kind of coincidence. The first half of this paid off twenty-five years later: Roy Dwight, scorer for Nottingham Forest in 1959, was carried off with a broken leg. His nephew Reg, better known as Elton John, was chairman of Watford when they were beaten as First-Time Finalists in 1984.
Dave Whelan, Blackburn Rovers defender, who suffered the same fate in 1960, had to wait over half a century, but this time it was he in person who came to Wembley as chairman of a First-Time Finalist.
And unlike the Dwights, the tale ended with unexpected but delightful glory. The game had reached injury time scoreless, and Manchester City had been reduced to ten men, Pablo Zabaleta having collected a second yellow card to become the third player to be sent off in a Final. Wigan sent a corner in from the left and their substitute, Ben Watson, who had been out of action for six months with a broken leg, sent a header over City keeper Joe Hart to win Wigan the Cup.
Wigan Athletic became the forty-third, and most recent club to win the FA Cup. Having been founded only in 1932, they also became the ‘youngest’ club ever to win the Cup. Their victory was marred, to some extent, when defeat in their final League match saw them undergo relegation from the Premier League, emulating the fates of Leicester City (1969), Brighton (1983) and Middlesbrough (1997), though unlike their predecessors, Wigan actually won the Cup!
City’s defeat came as a shock, though perhaps not to the same extent of those of Leeds and Liverpool, as the Manchester club were relative newcomers to prominence. It was also the last match in charge for their manager, Roberto Mancini, in succession to Bill Shankley (1974) and Tommy Docherty (1977), though it was an open secret throughout football that irrespective of the Cup result, Mancini was to be replaced.
Improbable as Wigan’s feat was, they came within a penalty shoot-out of back-to-back Finals, this time as a second tier club. Their conquerors were Arsenal, whose victory set-up a near-identical Final to that of the previous year: a well-established, leading club facing off against First-Time Finalists, this time in the shape of Hull City, the fifty-sixth and most recent team to reach the Cup Final. What’s more, Wigan beat Manchester City again, at their own ground, in the Sixth Round.
The Cup did enjoy another first in its earliest stages, with the first appearance of a club from the Isle of Guernsey, prosaically called Guernsey FC, though their landmark appearance only lasted as far as the Second Qualifying Round.
Hull’s opponents in their semi-final were third tier Sheffield United and both semi-finals had their kick-offs held back by seven minutes, in commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster.
The Final, once again, endured an evening kick-off, although this was slightly alleviated by being brought forward to 5.00pm. And for the first time since 2010 it returned to its rightful place as the last match of the domestic season. For an astonishing seventeen minutes, a repeat of Wigan’s bombshell looked to be on, as Hull took a two goal lead eight minutes after kick-off (and very nearly added a third!).
But Arsenal pulled back a goal comfortably early and went on to defeat Hull 3-2, in injury-time. It was their eleventh Cup win, drawing level with Manchester United as record-holders. They were also the first team to be presented with the fifth FA Cup. Once again, identical to the third Cup, this version is heavier yet than the fourth, and meant to be more durable in an era when the Cup itself spends as much time on the road and travelling to different events than it does in the hands of its current holders.
Arsenal also concluded an unusual Cup Double when their Ladies team won the Women’s FA Cup Final, a fortnight after this victory.
As Arsenal had already qualified for the Champions League by virtue of their League position, Hull City took the Europa League slot available to the FA Cup. They are the last team to do so to date: changes to UEFA rulings now bar the Cup runners-up from qualifying for Europe in that role.
Last year saw a host of minor issues. Rights to terrestrial coverage returned to the BBC once more, though this made no difference to the kick-off time of the Final, which went further back yet, to 5.30pm. However, the BBC did revive the old-time tradition of an entire day’s programming based on and around the Final, starting at 9.00am.
To rub further salt in Droylsden’s wounds, a second League club fielded an ineligible player, in the Second Round, but instead of being expelled, were simply ordered to replay the tie. The discrepancy was further emphasised by Chesterfield being the beneficiaries: they beat M.K. Dons 1-0 in both versions of the game.
In the same round, a new record was set for a penalty shoot-out, with thirty-two kicks needed to separate Worcester City and Scunthorpe United, the latter winning 14-13.
Arsenal, having knocked out Manchester United away in the quarter finals struggled to overcome second-tier Reading in the semi-final, needing an extra-time goal deriving from a goalkeeper’s mistake to return to Wembley, where their opponents were Aston Villa, the former record holders, in only their second Final since establishing that record fifty-eight years previously.
Though Villa had performed prodigies to defeat Liverpool in the semi-final, Arsenal’s Final was as easy as the 4-0 scoreline suggests. It was only a surprise that Villa held out until the 40th minute before conceding the first, and once Arsenal scored their third, confirming victory beyond any shadow of a doubt, I switched the game off, missing the injury-time fourth goal, that equalled Manchester United’s twice-held record victory margin in a Wembley Final.
Arsenal’s win did however send them clear of United as record Cup winners, and Cup Finalists, with a twelfth win from a nineteenth Final. Their win was blighted during their victory parade when midfielder Jack Wilshere made an obscene reference to rivals Tottenham Hotspur (not a first offence) bringing down a misconduct charge on his head.
The current season has progressed (at the time of writing this section) to semi-final weekend: in six hours from this moment, Everton play Manchester United in the first such match, at the New Wembley.
There have been no especially memorable stories to date in the competition. FC United of Manchester reached the First Round for only the second time, in only their tenth year of existence, but were comfortably beaten at home by, ironically for my personal history, by Chesterfield. It has not been a season for non-Leaguers: only Enleigh featured in the Third Round.
Nor has it been a competition with any great giant-killing feats, the closest to that being Watford’s Sixth Round defeat of holders Arsenal at their home in the Sixth Round, putting paid to the serious talk at Arsenal of winning a third Cup Final in succession.
But the Sixth Round also threw up another example of the Cup’s decline, with the month-long delay between the drawn Manchester United vs West Ham United tie and its replay. The delay was due to the inability to find a suitable date. In addition to the Police stipulations about providing security, there was the UEFA demand that televised matches should not clash with rounds of European competition.
In the end, the date did clash with the Champions League, the best the FA could do being to order the tie to be played at 7.00pm, heedless of the convenience of the fans, because that way only the second half would overlap.
In addition to the various possibilities I’ve outlined above, there is a double possibility of a repeat Final stemming from this weekend’s results. A Manchester United victory this evening could set up a repeat of the 1990 Final if Crystal Palace overcome Watford, whereas if the results both go the other way, we’re looking at a repeat of the 1984 Final.
And if the first option should come off, then there’s the possibility of a United win not merely pulling them level again with Arsenal as record holders, but also of Crystal Palace duplicating the unique achievement of Queen’s Park, of failing in two Finals – against the same team!
And the outcome was a repeat of 1990, Manchester United vs Crystal Palace. In addition to the possibilities I’ve set out above, this will be the third time United have played a repeat Final, more than any other club, and given the club’s current struggle to regain their domestic fortunes after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, there’s an echo to this year’s Final.
Not only would a United victory see them equal the record number of Cup wins, exactly as it did in 1990, but a United victory over Palace was the first trophy of the Ferguson era, and a repeat performance would be the first trophy of the post-Ferguson era.
A lot rests on this year’s Final – for both teams. Remember too that Palace Manager Alan Pardew is also deeply connected to the first meeting, having played for Crystal Palace in both Final and Replay.
The Final will be played on 21 May 2016, and will be the 135th Final in the Cup’s 145th year.
And with extra-time required, a sending-off and having to come from behind with ten men, Manchester United beat Crystal Palace for the second time to regain a share in the Cup Final record, immediately equalling Arsenal’s new record set last year. Only Blackburn Rover of the previous record holders and sharers have returned from being overtaken.
Palace are now the fourth team to have played in more than a single Final without winning the trophy, fifty-five years since the last team to fall into that category, Leicester City.
And Chris Smalling became the fourth player to be sent off in a Final, and Manchester United became the only team to have experienced two such red cards.
(all Finals played at the New Wembley Stadium)
2011/12 Chelsea 2 Liverpool 1
2012/13 Wigan Athletic 1 Manchester City 0
2013/14 Arsenal 3 Hull City 2 (aet)
2014/15 Arsenal 4 Aston Villa 0
2015/16 Manchester United 2 Crystal Palace 1 (aet)
Only half a decade has passed. Nine clubs have appeared in the five Finals to date, and there have been four different Winners, Arsenal being the only team to reach and win two Finals. In doing so, they set a new record, although Manchester United recovered immediately to regain a share in that record). There have already been two First-Tine Finalists, and one First-Time Winners. Wigan Athletic also became the only team to win the Cup and be relegated in the same season. The last Final to date is a repeat, with Manchester United prevailing again. The Cup’s future lies ahead. In light of the last two decades, it is hard to imagine it ever recovering the pin-sharp brightness of previous decades. A personal hope: after their remarkable first League success, I would love to see Leicester City finally win the Cup, and eradicate its most painful record.
Finally, we reach the last complete decade of the FA Cup’s history, taking it to the competition’s 140thAnniversary and its 130th Final. It was a decade of decay and degradation, as the elements that made the Cup special were stripped away. For many years, the League Cup had been the tournament that teams failed to take seriously, playing reserves and juniors without thought of progressing, and saving their strongest sides for the League. In this decade, the same approach began to take over the Cup.
Once, a Cup run was a wonderful distraction from a dismal relegation struggle. Now, with the monetary perils of relegation grown life-threatening, a Cup run was the last thing a manager wanted if he had his eye set on keeping his job. And, with the ‘Big Four’ having more or less cornered the Final, what price the unforgettable run of glory?
In 2002, in the fourth London Derby Final, Arsenal emulated Manchester United by completing a Third Double. The Double was once so rare that, in the first 114 years of the Cup, it had only been achieved five times: indeed, until 1961 it had long been thought impossible given the longer League programmes of the Twentieth Century. But a further five Doubles had been completed in only nine years, and they had been shared by only two teams. Many thought that the Double had been devalued, and it’s hard not to think that they’re right, but what it was was another demonstration of the way Football itself was coming under the domination of a handful of teams, made rich by television money and establishing an informal, yet unbreakable hierarchy under which all trophies were slowly becoming the exclusive province of a tiny number of Clubs. After all, Arsenal’s Double was their second in five years, which meant they’d beaten Manchester United to the Premier League title. But United had already won seven of the ten Premierships played.
But winning the Cup was traditionally the completion of the Double. The ever-increasing improvements in ground maintenance had all but done away with match day postponements through water-logged and frozen pitches, and television’s influence on the fixture list had long since prompted a strict adherence to ending the League programme(s) the weekend before Cup Final day.
Not this year. For a second successive season, a final round of Premier League games was scheduled for after the Cup Final. Arsenal still had to play Manchester United, needing a win to secure the League, and they achieved that at Old Trafford. Sky’s pet competition was now the great wrap-up to a football year.
Terrestrial coverage of the Final reverted to the BBC after three years of ITV.
And Arsenal were back at Cardiff twelve months later to win the Cup again. It was their third successive Final appearance, and they became the only club to reach a hat trick of Finals twice, having already achieved this between 1978 and 1980. Their opponents were Southampton, appearing in their first Final for twenty-seven years but unable to duplicate their success as a Second Division club. Both clubs defeated second-tier opposition in the semi-finals.
This was the first Final to be played indoors: due to rain, the retractable roof of the Millennium Stadium was closed. The artificiality of the proceedings, which meant that the game was played wholly under artificial light (on a Saturday afternoon!), removing the spectacle yet further from football as we know it, increasingly attempting to pursue a sterile, plastic perfection.
It was the first time since Tottenham Hotspur in 1982 that the holders retained the Cup the following season, and only the tenth such instance in the Cup’s history.
Arsenal’s successive wins had put them only one behind Manchester United, but the Reds made their first Final appearance at the Milliennium Stadium in 2004, extending their Cup record to eleven wins by defeating First-Time Finalists, Millwall 3-0. Millwall were the first team outside the top tier since Sunderland in 1992 to reach the Final, ironically beating the Wearsiders – also of Division One – in the semi-final, but dreams of glory were easily dispelled. Millwall player-manager Dennis Wise suffered at United’s hands for a second time, having been captain of the Chelsea side beaten by United in the Final ten years previously. United became the first and only team to be awarded, and score penalties in three different Finals (which will not surprise those who feel that United have had an exceptional favourable deal with referees for far too long). All three penalties have been scored by non-British players, Ruud van Nistlerooy making it two Dutchmen and a Frenchman.
Millwall substitute Curtis Weston set a record as the youngest player ever in a Cup Final when he came on in the 89th minute. At 17 years 119 days, he broke the record set in 1879 by James Prinsep of Clapham Rovers by 126 days.
Millwall’s appearance made them the fifty-fourth team to reach the Cup Final and the ninth team to have lost on their only appearance. Bizarrely, they were the fourth such to suffer this fate against Manchester United, joining Bristol City (1909), Brighton (1983) and Crystal Palace (1990).
To receive and parade the Cup, the Manchester United team all donned shirts bearing the name and squad number of promising midfielder Jimmy Davies, who had died in a car accident in the opening month of the season.
From the moment that Cup Final replays were abolished in 1999, all true Cup fans and purists feared that the day would come when the Cup would be decided by the lottery of a penalty shoot-out. And six years after that fateful decision, it duly occurred. The 2005 Final, between Manchester United, the holders and record-holders, and Arsenal, in their fourth Final in five years, and second in the record tables, ended goalless at the Millennium Stadium, and Arsenal lifted the Cup when United’s Paul Scholes saw his penalty saved.
I hated it. Not the losing: I have witnesses to prove that, as extra-time wore down, I was openly willing for Arsenal to score, if that was what it took to avoid that indignity. A penalty shoot-out is a horrible way to end any game, but especially to win a trophy, and even more so this trophy, the original, the very first, the Cup of Cups. Once again, the Cup was diminished, because its defenders were not prepared to defend it.
The game itself, between two such well-matched team, was astonishingly one-sided, with United battering Arsenal for 120 minutes but only putting the ball in the net once, from an offside position. This was the first, and thankfully only time since 1912 that the Final had ended goalless, and it also featured only the second sending off in the Final, when Arsenal’s Jose Antonio Reyes received a second yellow card in the last second of extra-time.
Again and again, we see the Cup’s penchant for ironic reverses: only two players have been sent off in Finals, one for Manchester United, the other, exactly twenty years later, against Manchester United.
But it had been done: penalties had been needed. The Cup had been spoiled yet further, and twelve months later, it happened all over again.
The 2006 Final was the sixth to be played in Cardiff. Originally, the deal had been for three years, and then five, but uncertainty as to whether New Wembley would be ready in time for a slightly earlier than usual Final forced the Cup’s exile to endure another season.
En route to Cardiff, there were a few surprises. For a second successive season, Manchester United were held to a goalless draw in the Third Round against lowly opposition, this time Football Conference side Burton Albion. But their hopes of a third successive Final appearance were dashed by defeat in the Fifth Round to Liverpool, the latter’s first Cup win over United in the 85 years since their first such meeting.
With England having qualified for the 2006 World Cup in Germany – the tournament that Manchester United’s defection in 2000 was supposed to secure – the FA acceded to manager Sven-Goran Eriksen’s request to bring forward the Final date by moving the Sixth Round into mid-week. It was another rare instance of an all top-tier quarter-final stage, and Liverpool’s 7-0 win away to Birmingham City was one of the biggest victory margins ever at this stage.
Liverpool’s opponents in Cardiff were West Ham United, playing their first Final in twenty-six years, an event sadly recalled by the death of then manager John Lyall, six days before the semi-final.
The Final was one of the most thrilling games in modern times, with unfancied West Ham taking a two-goal lead, and regaining it after Liverpool fought back to equalise. They were clinging on into added time when Liverpool captain Steve Gerrard hit a screaming shot from thirty-five yards to secure extra-time. When that ended without further score, a second successive penalty shoot-out was required. This time, the full allocation of penalties was not needed and Liverpool won 3-1.
By 2007, the New Wembley was open and available for Cup Finals and Internationals. It had taken twice as long as anticipated to build, and cost several billions more than budgeted. The FA were now concerned about getting in money to service their debts. After years of reluctant resistance, the FA wore paper-thin and accepted sponsorship for the Cup.
At first, it was genteel, and shame-faced: The FA Cup, sponsored by E.ON. But everybody knew it was only a matter of time before the World’s oldest trophy would be purloined to shill for an advertiser too stupid to understand that they were contributing to destroying the worth of the trophy they sought to get a hit off.
There was a throwback to ancient times in the Second Round, when Bury beat Chester City, only to be expelled for fielding an ineligible player, but the remainder of the competition proceeded without notable incident and the Final paired Premier League Champions Manchester United, playing their third Final in four years, with the League Cup Winners, Chelsea. United were bidding to extend their Cup-winning record, and to secure an unprecedented Fourth Double, whilst Chelsea were looking to become only the third club to do the domestic Cup Double.
To celebrate the opening of the new Stadium, above which the famous, elegant and iconic Twin Towers had been replaced by an illuminated, angled arch, a parade was held before the game, featuring one player from every Empire Stadium Final between 1959 and 2000.
In the event, after the extravaganza of 2006, the Final was a crashing bore. Both teams played in a cagey manner, but the New Wembley turf was a major factor, being heavy and lifeless, and cutting up quickly. In the end, Chelsea became the first Cup-Winners at the New Wembley, as they had been the last Winners at the Old Wembley, again winning 1-0, with a Didier Drogba goal four minutes from the end of extra-time, and preventing the monstrous indignity of the third consecutive penalty shoot-out.
It was by far and away the worst Cup Final I have ever watched, and I again have witnesses to confirm that after 80 minutes, I said that if the FA had any guts, they would walk onto the field, confiscate the ball and call off the Final, on the grounds that neither team deserved to win it, playing like this.
For the last seventeen seasons, every Cup Final had featured one of the ‘Big Four’ clubs. For none of them to even feature in the semi-finals (only Manchester United and Chelsea even reached the Sixth Round) marked the 2007/08 Cup out as something different and therefore, for a season at least, special. This was a year in which its traditional role as the great leveller was back in force.
Leeds United, once giants of the game, had slipped into the third tier for the first time ever: they played in the First Round at Hereford, and lost their home replay. Both Havant & Waterlooville and Chasetown played in the Third Round for the first time ever. Chasetown are the lowest tier club ever to reach this stage, then playing in the Midland Alliance, a feeder League to the Southern League, at the ninth tier. The club enjoyed its record gate but were beaten at home by the eventual Finalists, Cardiff City, who, in a wonderful gesture, invited the Staffordshire club to play the first official game at their new stadium, in the following July.
Havant went one better. Also drawn against Welsh opposition in Swansea City, they reached the Fourth Round with a splendid 4-2 replay victory, though they then lost 5-2 at Liverpool.
On a more prosaic level, Manchester United were drawn against Aston Villa in the Third Round for the second successive season and the fourth time in seven seasons.
But the quarter-finals produced a round of shocks, without a replay being required, producing a semi-final line-up consisting of only one Premier League club, and three second tier teams. For a moment, it looked like the unthinkable – an all second tier Final – might be on, but Portsmouth, who had beaten Manchester United, put out West Bromwich Albion and Cardiff City defeated Barnsley, who had put out Chelsea (and Liverpool before them).
Having rejoiced in the unpredictability of this season’s competition, the Press reversed itself and started spreading doom and gloom about the prospects of a Final without a Big Four club to ‘guarantee’ quality (did they even watch the 2007 Final?). Both Finalists had won the Cup once before, Portsmouth in 1939, who had held it for the longest period ever, and Cardiff in 1927, the only time the Cup had left England.
It was, of course, an irony that they should reach the Final again, only two years after it had left their city.
In order to service their debts, the FA decided as of this season to move all semi-finals to Wembley, permanently. It was particularly inappropriate in this of all seasons, with the frisson the fans experienced at a return after so long an absence being dissipated in advance, but what cared the FA for their prize? In the end, status told, with Portsmouth scoring the only goal and qualifying for European competition for the first time ever.
Not that it did them much good. The Club suffered crippling financial problems within a year, went into administration twice, and slid down the Leagues to the fourth tier within five seasons. They are now debt-free, and the largest Club in England to be owned by their fans through a Supporters Trust.
Cardiff are, to date, the last second tier team to reach the Cup Final. And, despite the Press carping about an unappealing Final, Portsmouth vs Cardiff holds the record for the highest attendance in a New Wembley Cup Final.
It was back to business in 2008/09, however. The Cup began with its highest ever number of participants, 762 clubs entering, although one club folded before the competition started, making the actual intake 761. Remember that in 1871/72, only fifteen teams thought to enter this new Cup?
The First Round featured some notable non-League successes, with Curzon Ashton beating Exeter City, four levels above them, whilst Blyth Spartans, Droylsden and Histon overcame clubs two levels higher.
In the Second Round, Droylsden were drawn away to Chesterfield, resulting in the first tie since the introduction of penalty shoot-outs to go to more than two games. The original tie was abandoned at half-time, with Droylsden 1-0 up, due to fog, and when re-played resulted in a 2-2 draw. The replay was abandoned due to floodlight failure with twenty minutes remaining and Chesterfield 2-0 up, and when this game was re-played, Droylsden won 2-1, to reach the Third Round for the first time ever.
The club were then expelled for fielding an ineligible player in their eventual win. The player – who had scored both Droylsden goals – was suspended thanks to a yellow card received in the first, fog-abandoned game, and the club had designated the match from which he was to be suspended the day before the floodlight-abandoned game. In the rush to rearrange the tie again, no-one noticed that the suspension now fell on that additional match.
Histon and Blyth won their Second Round ties, the former beating Leeds United, but were knocked out in the Third Round.
Television rights to FA Cup coverage had once again returned to ITV, whilst the short-lived Setanta outbid Sky for the satellite coverage, but the terrestrial broadcaster was involved in controversy during live coverage of the Fourth Round replay of Everton v Liverpool, cutting to commercials before the final whistle and missing the game’s only goal.
Unlike the previous season, the semi-finals featured three of the ‘Big Four’, with Chelsea beating Arsenal and Manchester United knocked out on penalties after a goalless draw with Everton. It was United’s first defeat in the semi-final since 1970, bringing to an end a run of thirteen semi-final successes.
The Final began with a shock, as Louis Saha beat Roberto di Matteo’s Wembley record, scoring the fastest Cup Final goal after only twenty-five seconds (so fast, I missed it, turning the TV on fractionally late). It also beat the all-time record, set by Bob Chatt, for Aston Villa in 1895, which had taken thirty seconds. It was of no avail: this was the business as usual year and Chelsea recovered to win 2-1.
This was the first year in which the current arrangement whereby teams can name seven substitutes, though still only introduce three, featured in the Cup Final.
For a second successive season, 762 teams entered the FA Cup, and for a second successive season, one folded before playing, although as they were not due to enter the Cup until the First Qualifying Round, this resulted in their opponents being awarded a walkover.
In the Third Round, Manchester United were knocked out at home by Leeds United, still of the third tier. It was their first Third Round defeat since the upset at Bournemouth twenty-six years earlier, in 1984, as holders, and their first Cup defeat by lower opposition since that same game.
With Liverpool also defeated at that stage, and Arsenal following suit in the Fourth Round, only holders Chelsea remained of the ‘Big Four’. They would go all the way to Wembley, facing the 2008 Winners, Portsmouth.
The club’s fortunes were radically different. Chelsea had secured the Premier League and became the seventh Team to complete the Double, as well as becoming only the fifth club to win successive Cup Finals. Portsmouth, in administration, were already relegated, having incurred a nine point penalty deduction. They were the first first tier team to enter administration, and given that almost every Premier League club operated at a loss, there were fears of a domino effect that never, thankfully, materialised.
The Final was significant for the first, and only to date, in which both teams were awarded penalties, and the first in which two penalties were not scored. Kevin-Prince Boateng’s shot, to give Portsmouth the lead, was saved, but Frank Lampard’s late effort, to increase Chelsea’s lead, missed the target, the first Final penalty to do so since Charlie Wallace for Aston Villa in 1913. Like Wallace, Lampard’s team won 1-0, thanks to a goal by Didier Drogba.
Drogba became only the second player, after Ian Rush, to score in three different Finals. Chelsea defender Ashley Cole also set a personal record by winning his sixth Winners Medal. No other player has won the Cup as often.
Structural changes to the UEFA Cup saw it adopt a group format similar to that of the Champions League with effect from the 2010/11 season. Chelsea’s League Title meant that they qualified for the Champions League, but Portsmouth’s financial status saw them denied a licence to compete in Europe and they were thus denied a Europa League place based on their status as runners-up.
As the last completed decade of the FA Cup’s history came to an end, there were the first signs that the so-called ‘Big Four’ might have to be redefined as a ‘Big Five’. For the second time in four years, none of them reached the Final, Manchester United losing in the semi-final again. But oil money was transforming, had transformed their neighbours, Manchester City, who inflicted that defeat on United, and who were clearly going to be a much greater force in football than they had ever before been in their often-chequered history.
There was a slight drop in entrants for this latest season, to 759, though 806 clubs in all applied for entry. FC United of Manchester, the Club formed by Manchester United supporters grown frustrated with the ever-increasing corporatisation of football, and spurred on by United’s takeover by American businessmen, reached the First Round for the first time in only their sixth season of existence, beating League opposition in Rochdale in a live televised match. They would then draw League One leaders Brighton away in the Second Round, with the Seasiders requiring a late equaliser to avoid being knocked out, before comprehensively winning the replay, 4-0.
Droylsden, in the Second Round for only the third time in their history, led Leyton Orient 2-0 away with only twenty minutes of their replay left, but crumbled as Orient first forced extra-time, then added six more goals to finished 8-2 winners.
Crawley Town of the Conference reached the Fifth Round before losing to Manchester United at Old Trafford, by 1-0. They were the first non-League club to reach this stage since Blyth Spartans in 1994.
The semi-finals were an all-Premier League affair, with the Manchester Derby out-glamourising the tie between Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City. The latter’s comprehensive 5-0 win saw them reach their first Cup Final, the first First-Time Finalist since Millwall in 2004. A single goal by Yaya Toure took City to their first Final in twenty years, and the same player scored the only goal of the Final, to bring the club to its first Cup Win since 1969, ending an overall trophy drought that had lasted thirty-five years (as celebrated visually at Old Trafford).
Stoke, as runners-up, became the first English team to qualify for the Europa League via the FA Cup.
But it was not the game but its scheduling that marked another step along the long road of decline. For once, the situation was forced upon the FA rather than of their increasingly spineless, money-fixated making. The 2011 European Champions League Final was set to take place at Wembley on 28 May (where Manchester United would, for the second time in three years, be beaten by Barcelona). UEFA rules insist that no games should take place for fourteen days before the Final, forcing the Cup Final to be played on the weekend of the penultimate round of Premier League games.
This time, the programme was not suspended or re-scheduled, as it is for England Internationals. The League programme went ahead on the same day as the Final. Coincidentally, Manchester City and Stoke would have played each other in the League that day, leaving only nine matches to distract from the Final. Four were played at 12.45 on Cup Final day, the other five on Sunday at 4.00pm.
Even then, Manchester United’s lunch-time win to secure their third successive League title (the second time they had achieved this) overshadowed the Cup Final, and particularly their neighbours’ success, which should have been allowed to stand alone and celebrated without distraction.
One hundred and forty years had passed. What had once been the great glory of English football had become something to be pushed around, got out of the way any old how. Increasingly, teams were seeing the Cup as an unwanted distraction from the day to day business of League positions, where money could be made. It had always been a distraction, but it had been a wonderful one, filled with a magic of its own, a dream of glory. Now, it didn’t make anybody any money. It never did, that was it’s whole point, but now clubs sent out weakened sides, squad players and youth teamers, paying lip service to glory and thinking more of the grind.
And there was more disservice to come.
(all Finals played at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff up to and including 2006, and the New Wembley Stadium thereafter)
2001/02 Arsenal 2 Chelsea 0
2002/03 Arsenal 1 Southampton 0
2003/04 Manchester United 3 Millwall 0
2004/05 Arsenal 0 Manchester United 0 (aet)
(Arsenal win 5-4 on penalties)
2005/06 Liverpool 3 West Ham United 3 (aet)
(Liverpool win 3-1 on penalties)
2006/07 Chelsea 1 Manchester United 0 (aet)
2007/08 Portsmouth 1 Cardiff City 0
2008/09 Chelsea 2 Everton 1
2009/10 Chelsea 1 Portsmouth 0
2010/11 Manchester City 1 Stoke City 0
The fourth decade of the FA Cup’s second century featured twelve clubs, and six winners. Arsenal, with three, were the most successful team, and there were two wins for Chelsea, with both teams winning back to back Finals. Manchester United and Chelsea also reached three Finals, with Chelsea losing one of theirs and United the decade’s biggest losers, with two defeats. Two Finals were, shamefully, decided by penalties. Portsmouth were the surprise winners of the decade whilst Stoke closed out this era as the only First-Time Finalists. United’s 2007 defeat kept them from securing their Fourth Double, whilst their conquerors, Chelsea, went on to record their own Double, the seventh club to do so and the eleventh overall, three years later.
Well, something’s going to change after this year’s FA Cup Final on May 21. A new Cup record will be established.
This is guaranteed by the pairing of Watford and Crystal Palace in the first semi-final drawn yesterday. Neither team has won the Cup to date: both have appeared in and lost a single Final, Watford in 1984 to Everton, Palace in 1990, after a replay, to Manchester United, who may yet be meeting on the other semi.
So that’s two possible repeat Finals in prospect, but the one certainty is that one of the Cup Finalists will be going for their first ever win.
So, if the Winner comes from that half of the draw, we have a new Winner, the 44th such in Cup history. But, if not, then there will, for the first time since 1961, be a new addition to the short list of clubs who have had multiple appearances in the Final without ever winning the Cup.
Defeat in the Final for either Palace or Watford will bring them level with two-time losers Queen’s Park and Birmingham City, although they’ll still be behind the unwilling champs in that score, Leicester City.
Though they’re hoping not to care this season, for obvious reasons.
The above title is a sub-heading on the Guardian web-site for this afternoon’s League Cup Final between the Scousers and the Bitters, a game I will not be watching because, you know, one of them has to win.
But as for where it will be won and lost, the answer’s obvious: at Wembley.
They’re not playing the bloody thing in Scunthorpe, you know.