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After months of anticipation, untold hours of planning and with a raucous crowd waiting with bated breath as they wave flags high in the air, there’s only one occasion on everyone’s minds this Saturday.
I am talking about the FA Cup Final, of course. Did you really think I meant something else?
Many claim that the FA Cup has lost some of its lustre in recent years. With the vast sums of money being pumped into the game, they argue that the cup means less than it used to.
In some ways, it’s hard to disagree. Many of the ‘bigger’ clubs use it to give fringe or squad players a taste of first team action, and even some of the smaller clubs, either ones fighting to avoid relegation from the Premier League or those tussling for promotion to the top flight, tend to give their reserves a run out to avoid what they perceive as a distraction from a cup run.
From a fan’s point of view, however, I’m not buying any of that. Whilst certainly some members of a club’s hierarchy may view the tournament as an inconvenience, the supporters certainly don’t. It’s still the most prestigious domestic cup competition in the world.
Do Wigan Athletic’s wish they’d put out a reserve team against Man City in the Fifth Round, knowing they’d probably get hammered and it might impact their League One promotion push? Of course they don’t. They secured a famous victory and the win actually spurred them on to win promotion themselves a few months later.
In fact, Wigan themselves won the 2013 FA Cup final, and in doing so became the first team to win the Cup and succumb to relegation in the same season. Some detractors argue that the run to the final and balancing the thin squad with the heavy demand of a Premier League season is ultimately what cost them.
Having spoken to numerous Wigan fans since, and offered them the choice of swapping the cup win for their spot back in the Premier League, not one took it. How can you cherish the memories of scrapping to barely survive, year after year, as opposed to that fabulous day at Wembley and a piece of history that can never be taken away?
This Saturday’s showpiece between Manchester United and Chelsea admittedly might not have been the highlight of the season Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte were expecting when they launched their Premier League and Champions League campaigns, but it’s the hand they’ve been dealt.
Nevertheless, it’s still a prestigious trophy and the last chance for either club to win a piece of silverware this season. United have improved from last season’s sixth place and a League Cup success, whereas Chelsea have slipped from champions to fifth and need the trophy to claw back some pride.
As a United fan, the FA Cup has provided me with some of my favourite memories. In fact, the first football match I remember was the 1996 FA Cup final when Eric Cantona’s half-volley found its way through the Liverpool defence and broke the hearts of the Spice Boys.
Then, three years later, United overcame fierce rivals Arsenal 2-1 in the 1999 semi-final replay, which in my opinion still stands as the greatest football match ever played.
Two gigantic teams at the peak of their rivalry, United down to 10 men with Roy Keane sent off, Nicolas Anelka’s late goal being disallowed for offside, Peter Schmeichel diving to his left to claw out Dennis Bergkamp’s stoppage-time penalty, then Ryan Giggs slaloming through five Arsenal players in extra-time to slam home past David Seaman to score the greatest FA Cup goal of all time and blessing us with his glorious chest hair in celebration.
Nothing will ever top that.
I’m hopeful that come Saturday, we’ll join Arsenal on 13 titles apiece. Mourinho is the master of cup finals and seems to have the mental advantage over Conte, so I see United sneaking a narrow 1-0 victory to lift the trophy.
It remains to be seen who will present the trophy to the winning team though. That job usually falls to the President of the FA, which for the past 12 years has been Prince William. However, he is somewhat preoccupied on Saturday.