Manchester United supporter Greg Johnson accompanied his City-supporting father to the FA Cup Final to watch Wigan Athletic triumph, tradition fade and football win the day…
Emerging from underground, the first thing that hits you about Wembley is its size, looming impossibly large in the middle-distance, with its craning white arch. Strangely, however, as you approach the stadium it almost begins to feel out of scale, like a dolly zoom warping its 90,000 capacity into a confusingly manageable frame.
Unmistakably large but hardly intimidating, the venue, shrinking in stature with every step, fits the occasion perfectly. Once grand enough to occupy a whole date on the national events calendar, FA Cup Final Day is now FA Cup Final Evening; shunted into the primetime TV slot with the early distraction of an afternoon Premier League fixture to contend with.
I was a Manchester United fan in stealth mode, attending my first fixture at the new Wembley alongside my City supporting father. Aged four he took me to see Denis Irwin, Paul Ince and Eric Cantona at Old Trafford a number of times thanks to spare tickets gained through work. One of those games happened to be the 9-0 dismantling of Ipswich Town – an experience that painted my impressionable, glory-hunting young mind the colour red.
Having accidentally fallen for Manchester City’s main rivals while he introduced me to my love of football, joining him for the game was the least I could do, and besides; father and son, the FA Cup final, Wembley: in many ways this was a dream I’d long wished to realise.
Strolling towards the electronic turnstiles together, I didn’t care about the distortion of perspective my eyes had suffered on the way down from the station. It was when we reached the counter of the merchandise stand that the romantic façade began to crack under the strain of reality. Two official match day programmes for the price of a months worth of admittance down at Champion Hill to watch the likes of Fisher FC and Dulwich Hamlet.
The magic of the FA Cup seemed to have been replaced by a marketing spell designed to cast a 21st century Midas effect on proceedings: everything it touched turned to product. Ticket: £85; paper hot dogs and programmes for a fiver; bland American lager in a plastic bottle: £4.70; the FA Cup with Budweiser… priceless?
We took our seats for the interpretive dance and sterile hype music – Right Here, Right Now crushing the opening attempts at forcing some atmosphere from the stands into silence. As fireworks and floor-filling banners stretched out across the pitch, it all felt a bit distant: played out for the benefit of the cameras with the 80-odd thousand supporters expected to wait their turn; we weren’t to ruin things for the FA on their big day. Why do the fans inside need an opening ceremony and montages played out on the jumbo-vision screens dotted about the tiers?
Gazing about Wembley’s innards, my eyes again felt tricked by the proportions presented to them. Twisting to look at the levels directly above us, the stand appeared mightily high and impressive, yet there was something a bit deflated about the look of the stadium’s layout as it stretched around the pitch. The new Wembley suffers from the same syndrome as the Emirates; lacking drama or definition, like a bland, identikit oval without the features or idiosyncrasies to suggest at a sense of history or gravitas worthy of writing its own.
The match itself was a relief. Sat in the southeast corner, on the lowest shelf next to the Wigan support behind the goal, we were gifted with perhaps one of the best visual and aural vantage points in the stadium. Before the game my Dad had laughed off the challenge of Roberto Martinez’s men, extolling his firm belief in the four or five nil drubbing that was to come from Manchester City. They had Yaya Toure and David Silva, how could they lose?
I wasn’t exactly certain Wigan Athletic would win, but I thought it’d be a great deal tighter than that. As a tactician and motivator, Martinez is a dangerous opponent in one-off crunch games. His record at escaping multiple relegations is testament to his ability to bring his team together at the most vital of moments.
From the off Wigan looked to take the initiative and push City back into their own half. Constantly playing into each other’s feet and winning most of the second balls, the underdogs looked dangerous and far hungrier than their much-fancied final rivals. While substitute Ben Watson would come on to head the winner home later in the game, just six months after breaking his leg, and Callum McManaman claimed the man of the match award, from our positions in the crook of the stadium corner, Wigan’s number 18, Roger Espinoza looked to be the game’s most dangerous man. A constant threat down the left wing, he seemed to find plenty of space around and in front of him at every transition, often beating Zabaleta with his first touch and checking the City right-back’s early forays into Wigan territory.
The Argentinian would eventually be sent off for a second yellow, ushering in a period of Wigan added time pressure that produced the winning corner, but in truth, while both sides contributed to an exciting and flowing game filled with chances, on balance City were second-rate. Across the 90-plus minutes Wigan retained and used the ball to a greater effect and performed better as a unit, with City’s best chances coming from their star individuals rather than slow, patient momentum building.
While the commercialism of the modern cup final threatened to stain the day, the match saved the glamour and the glory, with some much needed prestige brought by an unlikely yet worthy winner, and an engrossing match that stands as testament to low-scoring spectacle. The scarcity of goals is an underrated wonder these days, and the timing, identity of scorer and in-game narrative that led up to Watson’s winner was both delicious and satisfying to watch, even from the City ranks. Our seats helped capture the moment mind, with the Wigan players spilling on top of each other with ecstasy at the foot of our corner.
Though I was surrounded by despair, the emotion emanating from across the steward line was infectious. While relegation looms heavy once again over Wigan Athletic this May, their fans – loud, proud and beautifully obnoxious towards their opposite numbers in sky blue shirts – ascended into paradise at the final whistle; breathing new meaning into a trophy so often ridiculed and maligned by big four supporters who have come to treat it as a consolation rather than a prize.
As most of those around us emptied out to board their coaches and cars back to the North West, my dad and I sat behind to take in the post-match euphoria. Though he grew up a committed City fan, over the years he’s come to favour Sale Sharks and rugby union, and although his team lost we both enjoyed watching the evening’s script unfold on the turf in front of us. While I bemoaned forgetting to place a £10 bet on a Wigan win, he recounted and appraised their performance, City’s shortcomings and, disarmed by the game and the time spent in each others’ company, almost seemed to have relaxed. For a workaholic who’d rushed down to London in his van after having spent the morning grafting, that’s no mean feat. Ultimately, FA Cup final day was exactly what I wanted it to be: a quality game with some quality time between my dad and me.