F.Ootball is rarely just about soccer. Often times it’s not really about football at all, especially when it comes to finals. Was Bolton’s 1923 win over West Ham a good game? Who knows, but his place in folklore is based not on David Jack’s two goals, but on the efforts of mounted cop George Scorey to push the crowd back. And so the White Horse final takes its place in the collective memory alongside the 1915 Khaki Cup final and the Matthews final, Jim Montgomery’s double save and Ricky Villas run, Keith Houchen’s header and Steven Gerrard’s absurd late equalization.
Not much happened for an hour on Saturday. As always, Timo Werner was exceptionally good in some aspects of football and exceptionally bad in others. Youri Tielemans passed the ball beautifully. Jamie Vardy made a few runs. César Azpilicueta growled. The cup final stereotypes about the excitement of the occasion and no side that wanted to lose were broadcast annually. Jonny Evans hobbled away. And then Tielemans scored his incredible 28-yard hit and ignited the final 30 minutes of gripping drama. It may not have been a great game, but it was a great cup final and as such it may mark the rejuvenation of the FA Cup, the Covid final, which we remembered together about why football is important and why it used to be a big national holiday.
In that sense the score was correct – the underdogs won with a brilliant goal, two outstanding saves and a VAR outside of exquisite tension, although for the next week, depending on the league’s results, future historians may struggle to explain how a team that won third against a team fifth could ever be seen as a shock. (And it may be even less explainable that it was seen as a much bigger shock than Arsenal – remember them? – beating the same opponent in last year’s final).
The context is key in this sense. Chelsea may have been the first Super League 12 to break the rank and they may have been reluctant to partner in the fiasco, but they were a rebellious team nonetheless – and their takeover by Roman Abramovich in 2003 marked a dramatic change in the financial landscape of football. Having Leicester owned by a Thai consortium is part of that landscape, of course, but few owners seem as aware of their club’s role in the community as the Srivaddhanaprabha family, who were killed in the helicopter crash that killed then-chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha outside , the King Power Stadium was strengthened in 2018.
The more immediate context, however, was the pandemic. When George V asked what the Irish Guards and Grenadiers bands should play before the 1927 final, he replied with his wife Queen Mary’s favorite anthem that this must have been a strange choice. Abide With Me was written by an Anglican clergyman in 1847 as he was battling his way through the later stages of tuberculosis. It is a hymn to the comfort of faith when death approaches and seems to have little obvious connection to the flagship event on the football calendar.
And yet it became the cup final and has been sung in every final since 1927 except 1959 (for reasons not entirely clear). It has a resonance, precisely because of its topic. Bert Trautmann, paratrooper of the Nazis, became the last hero of the FA Cup and an icon of post-war reconciliation. He had a lot of experience with death and spoke of the feeling he had for the community of football. Perhaps it wasn’t until 1946 that the pre-game vocals may have felt more fitting than on Saturday, as this was a final played in the presence of Death, that of Vichai, but more generally of the 130,000 British pandemic victims and will, hopefully as a milestone at the return to normality after Covid.
Kasper Schmeichel wins the trophy with Wes Morgan, whose nine-minute appearance at the end of the game added to the mood of the event. Photo: Nick Potts / EPA
Unlike last year, when no fans were allowed in at all and no replays were included, the attendance of just over 20,000 has been the lowest for a cup final since Blackburn Rovers beat Wednesday 6-1 at the Kennington Oval in 1890. And yet these fans I can rarely have felt so present: every murmur of anticipation, every wave of appreciation, every tirade with a bad mouth – all a welcome reminder of how things used to be and culminated in two moments, the euphoric one flashed first Leicester fans shocked when Tielemans’ winner flashed through Kepa’s right hand and then the declining realization of cheering Chelsea fans that what had appeared to equalize was going to be ruled out.
This inadmissible goal flew in from Wes Morgan’s knee, which seemed very counter to the spirit of the occasion. After all, this was a 37-year-old who hadn’t played for six months and had nine minutes as much as it seemed to give Leicester an emotional boost like any actual defense he would do – and that was it not even a day on which sentimentality is punished.
Rather, it was a day for English football to remember itself and its traditions, its place in the national consciousness, to remember that it is a better sport to be played in front of a human audience – whether cheering or fulminating – as in front of sterile banks of empty plastic Remember that immense wealth does not always win. And to remember that it can affect us all – in life, in death.