Monday, 1 June 2009

Why we wuz robbed at Wembley

What to do if offered a ticket for your team's first FA Cup final for fourteen years while on paternity leave is one of those existential dilemmas for which there is no correct answer. So I can't offer any particular rationalisation of how I found myself escaping for a few hours to be at Wembley on Saturday. It was a great day out, with a disappointing result for Evertonians.

The Sunday papers agreed that this was one of the better Cup finals of recent years and all noted just how much Everton's fans brought to the occasion - outsinging Chelsea even in the minute after the final whistle blew- but the team could not hold on to their first minute lead, and Chelsea were clearly the stronger side after going 2-1 ahead.

That Everton were universally billed as plucky underdogs and unlikely finalists, despite having finished 5th in the league for the second season in a row, offered a striking illustration of the stratification into a new caste system. The bookies (sensibly) offered odds of 2:1 on Cup final morning against the Cup going to Merseyside.

You can see why when Chelsea's victory means that the 'big four' end up winning 19 of the 20 League titles and FA Cups this decade, denied a clean sweep only by Portsmouth's FA Cup victory in 2008. Five clubs have won the major domestic trophies in this decade - the most predictable and least broadly contested in English football history - yet twelve clubs shared those 20 trophies in the 1970s, when there were six league champions and nine different FA Cup winners.

The Fabian Society's research into football's collapsed social mobility also showed how the pool of FA Cup winners has narrowed. The Cup winners have, on average, finished third in the league in this last decade, compared to 11th in the 1970s and 8th in the 1980s. (The first final I remember - and among the greatest ever - was in 1981 between Spurs and Man City sides who had finished 10th and 12th in the league).

The Times had an interesting factoid yesterday morning: that 11 of the last 13 finals have been won by the team finishing higher in the league. Tellingly, the only exceptions were the victories of Chelsea (2nd) over Manchester United in 2007, and Liverpool (3rd) over Arsenal (2nd) in 2001.

This may explain why great Cup finals are now so few and far between: those finals with the potential to emulate historic upsets having too often turned into mismatches. Indeed, there has been only one classic in the Premiership years: the West Ham-Liverpool game in 2006. By contrast, in the previous two decades, the Cup finals of 1973, 1976, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1991 were among those which could all stake reasonable claims to the all-time classics list.

The issue of predictability and stratification is increasingly dominant in the sports pages. Both Mark Reason in The Sunday Telegraph and Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times wrote about predictability killing the Cup on Sunday.

As Reason wrote:

OK, so occasionally miracles do happen. Last year, Portsmouth beat Cardiff City in the final. But that was a freak of nature – 17 of the previous 19 Cup finals have been won by Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool. Predictability kills nostalgia.
Who can really, truly remember much about those past 19 finals? ... If Saha's goal had proved the winner, if apples were oranges we might still have a smidgeon of faith. But a lot of us are now atheists as far as the FA Cup is concerned.

I was among those (mildly) offended by ITV's marketing of a "week of finals" to cross-promote the European Cup and FA Cup finals with the grand final of Britain's Got Talent.


Yet unlike the Wembley showpiece, the talent show did provide the kind of last minute giant-killing shock for which the FA Cup was once famous.


Calix said...

Sunder, I just knew that you would write a blog about the FA Cup Final!

At least it was a decent game with decent goals. But, unfortunately it just goes to prove your point about the lack of mobility.

The European Cup though was a wonderful final and gave hope to football lovers. Barcelona are a club run by fans and even pay money to UNICEF to be on their shirts rather than the other way round. Barcelona also represent a lot more than most footbnall clubs - they are a key part of the Catalan identity. And, to top it all, what fantastic football to leave United looking like a pub team.

roym said...

The only lack of mobility was that demonstrated by the everton players after going into the lead.

Where was the dynamism and pace? They looked leaden footed and second to every ball. At one stage i feared hibbert was going to have a coronary. he really needed to be in the shade.

The big four may have more gamebreakers on average (see lampards recover and left foot shoot) but that cant excuse why other teams can't run harder, jump higher (lescott) and be stronger. too many teams are beaten in the build up sadly.

Sunder Katwala said...


I agree that Hibbert melted and had a shocker, certainly, and that made the threat of Malouda much greater. A disappointment was that Cahill struggled to get involved in the first half. In the second half, with a switch to Fellaini playing in midfield and Cahill up front, we were rather better - and had the better of the first 20 minutes after the break before Lampard scored. They were much stronger once ahead. Pienaar played well for Everton throughout.

Part of the issue of stratification is strength in depth and across the squad. Everton lacked quality in midfield, where the injury to Arteta had a significant impact. He is the best player the club has. They were also without Yakubu and Jagielka, who are significant players, and Anichibe who was a possible replacement for Yakubu.

Everton at full strength have a decent chance in one-off games against the big four. The difference is that the rest of the squad is often very promising youngsters: I felt Jack Rodwell should have played in midfield.

Of course, every team will have injuries. By contrast, Chelsea were able to field, as a substitute, Michael Ballack. The big four essentially have 25+ established first team stars of international quality. One issue being discussed is either squad size caps or salary caps.