On Thursday, a friend offered me two unwanted corporate tickets for the FA Cup Final at Wembley. I gleefully accepted and offloaded the second ticket within minutes.
Saturday dawned cloudy and overcast. I realised I’d planned the journey for a tradtional 3pm kick-off. I had the tickets in my hand although it was a bit weird for something so valuable and sought after to be printed out on my mate’s cheap inkjet printer. No holograms, no watermark - just plain A4 paper from WH Smiths.
The obligatory bets were placed:
- Mata to score first (15/2)
- Valencia to score first (25/1)
- United 3-1 (16/1)
- United 4-1 (28/1)
- United to win on penalties (11/1)
Set off to Wembley. Stopped off at Clapham Junction for a couple of pints. Fittingly enough, the hostlery was called ‘The Junction’. £10.30 for two pints of Czech Kozel lager. Had another and I fleetingly thought ‘We’ve got seats, there’s a nice big screen. Why don’t we offload the tickets for £350 each and just stay here’ but sense prevailed.
Clapham to Willesden Junction, Change for Wembley Central. Quiet trains, subdued mood, mostly Palace fans from Saarf Landaaan trying to get their stupid ‘EAGLES’ chant going.
Walked down from Wembley Central (just I like did with my Dad 20 odd years ago). Again, very subdued, no Chevrolet/Retro shirts in sight or Manc accents screaming ‘Que sera sera’. Not even a sense of menace in the air. Just kebabs.
Good job we’d stopped in Clapham. All these pubs have security on the door and posters up ‘Designated Palace pub’ so, although we had no colours (strict condition of Club Wembley membership), we would have had to adopt our best Chas’n’Dave Cock-er-nee accents to get any more beer here.
Walked down the hill past the Wembley Stadium station with miles and miles of steel barriers later used to herd people homeward.
Where the hell are the United fans ? Disdainfully walk past the split-scarf sellers and anyone wearing one. Walk around the stadium perimeter looking for the Bobby Moore statue.
Entered the stadium, security check, escalator, toilets, Sushi bars, jazz band playing. The original wooden cross bar from the 1966 World Cup Final. Christ what a surreal experience.
Complimentary matchday program - retail value £10. Take up our seats. We are on row 1, in line with the penalty area, overhanging a Crystal Palace section but with a glorious view of the stadium. Plenty of leg room with a cup holder for your overpriced Wembley Cola and giant tub of popcorn.
A lady falls down the steps and headbutts a concrete step. Concerned we all immediately go to her aid and help her up. Thankfully, the only thing hurt is her pride. Her husband is completely oblivious and soaking up the pre-match atmosphere. ‘Bloody ’ell, Maureen - what are you doing on the ground love ? Get yerself over here’.
I didn’t think opening ceremonies could get any worse than the infamous ‘George and the Dragon’ spectacle at the opening of Euro ‘96 which I was also unfortunate enough to witness in person but subsequently tried to expunge from my memory.
However, the FA absolutely surpasses themselves here. After the players complete their warm-ups, a hundred soldiers tramp their hobnail boots across the hallowed turf unfurling gigantic United and Palace flags that each cover half of the pitch. Other paraphernalia is brought out - podiums, incendiary devices, red carpets, balloons, royalty.
Then some miniscule hip-hop star clad all in white come out and sings a crap song followed by a gospel choir singing ‘Abide With Me’. Sir Alex Ferguson and Steve Coppell come out for something. Then a lady in a shocking (literally) pink dress and watches while the ‘SOUTH LONDON MASSIVE’ heartily sing the National Anthem.
I take in the scene. The Palace end is a sea of red and blue foil and a giant black Eagle that looks quite good and they have been allocated a small but vociferous singing section which contributes to the atmosphere.
United have the same number of fans but are strangely quiet although it’s hard to say as we are adjacent to the Palace section. To identify ourselves as corporate day trippers who don’t know who No. 8 is, we are given another freebie under our seats. A lovely split allegiance flag - half United and half Palace.
Thankfully, the pre-match, err, ’entertainment’ comes to an end. The players tease Prince William about Villa’s demise. Bizarrely, the Palace coach puts down cones so the players can have one last 15 yard sprint. Finally, Mark Clattenburg signals the start of the 2016 FA Cup Final.
I am a bar stool correspondent and hardly attend games in person any more. That’s partly because I’m not an MUFC member but mostly because I am lazy. However, I do enjoy attending games in the flesh as you get so much more of of the experience. You can choose what to watch. You can watch the pattern of play. You can watch the coaches, you can watch the fans.
As expected, United dominate possession and create the occasional half chance. Palace are getting men back behind the ball but looking to release the pacy Zaha and Bolasie at every opportunity.
Rooney is playing in midfield, channeling the ghost of Glen Hoddle past. He’s trying hard but frequently misplaces the pass and loses possession or overhits the ball.
I suspect it’s incredibly frustrating for Martial (and Rashford) to play in this team as they get absolutely no service. Martial drifts out wide and Rashford keeps making fantastic runs and drifting into dangerous areas which no-one picks up.
I nearly explode and fall over the precipice when Juan Mata gets into the box and tries to curl the ball past Henessy into the far corner but the keeper saves it. Our section is 75-25 United fans but there’s no chanting at all - just calm and reasoned cliched analysis of the tactics.
Connor Wickham is released on the left wing. Chris Smalling clumsily falls over and brings him down. The Palace fans are enraged when Wickham puts the ball in the net only to find Clattenburg has brought play back for a free-kick and a yellow card for the rugby loving Smalling.
The pattern continues. Fellaini is a troublesome, awkward, clumsy, slow large lump but bizarrely manages to lose headers to Souare who must be a foot shorter.
Our midfield of Rooney, Mata, Carrick and Fellaini has about as much pace as a snail riding on the back of a hibernating tortoise. Rojo, clearly obeying orders, stops any overlapping run half way into their half as if there is an electric fence in his path. Valencia is slightly more adventurous and links well with Mata but we hardly get any crosses in.
United continue probing and passing sideways, backwards and occasionally forwards. It is incredibly frustrating to watch, especially with these stupid, incessant Palace chants ringing in your ears.
The second half gets underway and we get more of the same. Still, all our bets are intact and the queue for the toilets wasn’t too bad.
No changes to playing personnel or tactics. United are determined to grind the oppostition down and bore them into submission. Palace are tiring and Yohan Cabaye inexplicably starts a long running feud with the linesman close to us. Firstly, he’s awarded a throw-in which irritates him, Then he’s awarded a free-kick which positively drives him over the edge so he starts leaving his foot in.
Out of the red and blue, a goal. Fellaini clears a corner to a Palace player who instantly passes the ball out wide to the left wing. United defenders are looking for offside but the recently introduced Puncheon runs past Mata and blasts the ball past De Gea on his near post into the root of the net.
We sit in silence as our half of the ground erupts. We watch the replays. ‘No - he wasn’t offside’ No - De Gea wasn’t really at fault’.
Pardew, in a sharp blue suit, give a silly little dance. 10 minutes to go. 1-0 up in the Cup Final. I think he’s entitled to that.
I reflect on my pre-match committment to sit in silence listening to loud music if we lose ‘Nothing personal mate. I’m just not a good loser’ as I can’t see United getting back into this game. For all their possession and all the passing, I can hardly recall a shot on goal.
Rooney seems to take the goal as a personal insult and starts playing like David Beckham for England against Greece. He runs diagonally across four Palace players into the box and then pulls back an inviting cross for Fellaini who chests it down into the path of Juan Mata who drives it home through the full-back’s legs.
Euphoria, relief, elation, happiness but most of all surprise !
The Palace fans are silenced. A steward comes and squats down next to us for a vantage point. I look down to see a United fan being led away bleeding from a cut lip. Rather unwisely, he couldn’t contain himself at the excitement and a Palace fan smacked him in the gob for his trouble.
Gratyfyingly, he is still taunting and goading the Palace fans as he is led away which makes the situation worse. Loads of stewards and security pounce and get into the crowd try to identify the culprit blocking the view of the disabled section. Women and children look anxious. Men are staring around looking for any more ‘Manc bastards’ so I oblige by unfurling one half of my banner and singing ‘MANCHESTER, LA LA LA’ from the safety of my balcony.
The Palace players have done a lot of running and starting to cramp up. Wilfried Zaha is still Wilfried Zaha - fast, mazy dribbles with no end product but I reward him with a ‘UNITED REJECT’ chant that is well received from down below.
Full-time. Still in it, thank God. Surely we are going to win this now. Cabaye (sly bastard) takes out his frustration by stamping on Rashford who can’t continue and is replaced by Lingard. Rojo and Mata are also substituted for Darmian and Young.
Extra-time. Palace fans find their voice again and urge their team forward. Bolasie is, literally, rugby tackled by the idiotic Smalling who is walking off the pitch before Clattenburg has got the red card out of his back pocket.
10 men. ‘You know what happened last time we were down to 10 men in a final’. Yea I do mate as I’m a top Red just like you’.
A tiring, frustrated Rooney gets the red mist and continues his incessant moaning and cleating to Clattenburg and starts charging into ill considered and ill-timed challenges. If he doesn’t get a grip, we’ll be down to 9 men.
Lingard has injected some much needed pace and energy to United. Louis van Gaal’s right hand Dutchman gets off his arse for the first time in two years, walks to the technical area and urges United’s improvised back-line (Blind, Darmian, Young) to advance 10 yards and for Valencia to get forward.
Right wingers are normally better as right wingers than right-backs and so it proves. Tony Valencia drives into the box and I stand up, screaming ‘HIT IT VERY HARD AND LOW INTO THE BOX WITHOUT LOOKING’ with any sense of irony.
Inevitably, Valencia hears my urging over 88,748 voices and obliges. A tired Palace defender kicks the ball away but only to Lingard who makes up for the cringeworthy West Ham bus video by volleying the ball first time at the speed of light into the back of the net.
For the first time, after 110 minutes, the United fans finally find their voices and at last we get to join in with some singing. Palace are beaten now - they’re spent. Just enough time for De Gea to waste time, Zaha to continue his diving antics and Pardew to look like a man who’s lost all his bets (like me).
Final whistle. Turns out we are on the same row are Prince Harry, Ed Woodward and all the gang just 80 seats away from Rooney and Carrick lifting the trophy. Loads of excited bloody day trippers and marketing managers come to take snaps and videos, obscuring my view but who bloody cares.
First trophy since Ferguson’s departure but Christ, it was hard work.