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  • Ednold

The Final 8/2/20

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

With the general global shutdown of sporting events beginning in the middle of March this year, I feared that the FA Cup Final would be another casualty of the virus. The game is usually played in May, the last game before the summer break. This year it had been scheduled for May 23 before being postponed indefinitely while the powers that be decided when or if the remainder of the season should be contested. By the time play resumed in June it had been decided that the game would be played on August 1, and it was.

Here at CPHC Headquarters, where the FA Cup Final is the biggest game of the year, social distancing put a bit of a damper on our annual festivities. But we presented a scaled-back version of our celebration, including a Zoom gathering, and made the best of it. The Final typically begins at 5:00pm local time, which is just about right for getting a Saturday night dinner party started, but a little inconvenient for those of us on the American west coast where it’s just about right for a late breakfast. So that’s what we do. On the bright side, if our team wins we have the entire rest of the day to celebrate.

If you’re one of our frequent readers, chances are you are already familiar with the FA Cup Final, the championship game of the world’s oldest and most prestigious soccer tournament. For the uninitiated, consider the rest of this story your primer to the competition as well as your invitation to future Cup celebrations at CPHC Headquarters.

There is a lot of excitement in this country each spring around March Madness, the NCAA basketball tournament that includes 132 mens and womens teams playing over a 3 week period to crown their champions. And I love it, but it can’t compare with the FA Cup, and I’ll tell you why.

Firstly, the tournament is open to every team in the top ten tiers of the British Football Association. There were 736 teams competing for the Cup this season. In a country the approximate size of the state of Oregon, that’s a lot of teams. As you may imagine, a lot of those teams are small-scale operations from tiny towns and villages. Yet they are competing for the same prize as some of the richest, most powerful organizations in the sporting world. Imagine a baseball tournament where teams from Medford and Bend and Albany competed with all of the Major League teams. Who cares if it’s an impossibly steep climb for those small teams? They’re trying to reach the same summit as the big guys.

Just like March Madness, The FA Cup is a knockout tournament where a single loss knocks a team out of the competition. But it takes a while to eliminate 735 teams. The 2020 FA Cup competition actually began on August 10, 2019. Another nine days and it would have lasted a full year. The Cup competition takes place concurrent with, but outside of, the weekly League schedule for each of the teams, so they’re all competing for the championship of their respective leagues on the weekend and playing FA Cup matches usually during the week. Since the vast majority of teams are eliminated in the first few months, this isn’t a problem for most of them. But for those still juggling Cup competition along with their regular schedule into the new year, fatigue can become an issue.

The best part, and the thing that really makes things interesting, is that the tournament isn’t organized into a bracket. In most tournaments the participants are seeded, with the best teams taking on the worst teams in each round, ensuring that even the most overachieving weaker teams will be eliminated early on. In contrast, contests in each round of the FA Cup are determined by a random drawing. In each round it’s possible that the best teams may end up playing each other with the poor teams playing other poor teams. In this way it’s possible, and sometimes happens, that a small team from the hinterlands can get deep into the tournament without meeting a team with substantially greater resources. Inevitably it’s the big teams from the big cities that end up playing in the Final contest, but it’s fun to see which of the smaller teams can make a run through the opening rounds and knock out one of the heavyweights when given the chance.

In the eyes of some, the FA Cup has diminished in importance as the European Champions League, a similar tournament involving the best teams from all over Europe, and the Premier League, featuring the 20 best teams in England, have offered the opportunity to earn more money and more global exposure. For the powerhouse teams at the top, an FA Cup payday just isn’t worth the bother and they often rest their best players for all but the final few rounds. But for everyone else it’s still an opportunity to create some magic, and memories, and money, that will sustain the club long after their short moment in the spotlight is over.

Just this year third-tier club Shrewsbury Town tied Liverpool at home to set up a rematch in front of over 50,000 fans at Anfield. Quite a lucrative few games and an experience their fans won’t soon forget. It will also take a long while for the supporters of Bradford, another third-tier club, to forget the day in 2015 that their team came back from a 2-0 deficit to slay giants Chelsea on Chelsea’s home turf. That same season, fourth-tier Cambridge United were drawn against giants Manchester United and they managed a 0-0 tie at home. Despite losing a rematch away from home, the approximately 2 million pounds they made from those two games has kept the club financially viable ever since. And their fans? Just imagine the Yankees showing up to take on your local minor league team and the next week traveling to Yankee Stadium for a rematch. It doesn’t happen always, or even often. But it happens frequently enough that, except for the party-pooping heavy-hitters of the soccer world, everyone loves the FA Cup.

The incomparable Charlie George

There is also history behind the FA Cup that you won’t find in any other competition. Beginning in 1872, when Wanderers beat the Royal Engineers 1-0, the Cup has been contested every year with the exception of a four-year hiatus during WW1 and six additional years during WW2. Except for a few years early in this century when the stadium was being rebuilt, the Final has been played each year at historic Wembley Stadium since 1923. The new incarnation of Wembley opened in 2007 and is quite an improvement over the old stadium. New Wembley has 34 bars, 8 restaurants, and can provide over 40,000 pints of beer during halftime of a big game. While the current capacity is in excess of 90,000 people, the original stadium had a larger capacity that was still not nearly enough for that first game in 1923 where over 200,000 people crammed in, causing the start to be delayed while police removed fans from the pitch. All-reserved seating has made things a little less chaotic these days, but it’s still the ultimate dream of every fan to travel to Wembley and see their team hoist the trophy.

And speaking of the trophy, there have been five different versions used over the past 148 years. The first was stolen in 1895 from a Birmingham shop window where champions Aston Villa had it on display. It was never seen again. Fifteen years later, when the FA realized they didn’t own the design copyright to the trophy, the second trophy was retired in favor of a newly designed cup. The new design was much larger than the original and is the same design still in use today. That third cup lasted until 1992 when it was retired due to the number of dings and dents it had received over the years. Interestingly, it later made an appearance on the Antiques Roadshow in 2016, where its estimated value was 1 million pounds. I don’t know if anyone was surprised when the host, who noticed the grapes that form part of the trophy design, suggested that it may not have been designed from scratch. In his opinion it was originally designed as a champagne cooler, which is exactly what it looks like.

The fourth trophy took only 22 years to receive enough wear and tear that it was replaced itself in 2014 with a new look-alike. If you watched the ceremony this past Saturday you can see why they don’t last forever. By the time Arsenal have to give it back to the FA next March it will have been seen and handled by thousands of players, fans, executives and school children all wanting to see and touch the famous trophy, some of whom will probably use it to cool their champagne.

Maybe the most significant factor endearing the competition to the English public is the fact that until the early 1980’s no other soccer games were broadcast on television. Thinking that televised games would decrease ticket sales, soccer leadership inexplicably refused to allow their games to be shown on TV. The one exception each year was the FA Cup final, making that Saturday in May a virtual national holiday. Being the one day each year when a game was televised made it like Super Bowl Sunday on steroids. Though the soccer execs eventually took advantage of the enormously lucrative TV sports market and today you can get any game on pay-for-service TV, the FA Cup Final remains the one game each year mandated by the British government to be available on free broadcast television for everyone throughout the country. Alas, those rules don’t apply to North America where the game is only available on ESPN+, and there is a cost, and connection hassle, associated. But it’s one of the few sporting events that are always worth the price.

FA Cup Final day at Sandringham

One of the highlights of the unofficial national holiday is something else you won’t find at March Madness: The royal family. There is a Royal Box at Wembley and the queen herself attended the matches for many years. In 2006 Prince William was appointed President of the Football Association, taking over from his uncle, Prince Andrew, and now he handles the trophy-presentation duties at the end of the game. Of course, the royals don’t walk amidst the mayhem of commoners on the field while the players are celebrating. The Prince just waits for the winning team to ascend to the Royal Box, a route that includes climbing 107 stairs. It’s a little cruel for players who’ve just spent 90+ minutes running up and down the field, but it makes for a pretty dramatic ceremony.

After almost 150 years of competition, just about every team has their own FA Cup heroes and legends to go along with their greatest Cup successes, whether their feats were accomplished in recent memory or decades ago. Take Manchester City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann, for example. Bert fought for Germany in WW2 until the British captured him and stuck him in a POW camp where his natural goalkeeping talent became apparent. He eventually ended up playing in the 1956 edition of the FA Cup Final where he suffered a head injury with 15 minutes left in the game after colliding with an opposing player. Until 1965 substitutions for any reason weren’t allowed, so Bert stayed in the game and it wasn’t until three days later, after the 3-1 victory and after Prince Phillip had commented on how crooked Trautmann’s neck looked, that he learned he had finished the game with a broken neck.

In 2001, Premier League team Leicester City were scheduled to play a quarter-final game against injury-stricken Wycombe Wanderers from the third tier. Before the game Wycombe placed an advertisement for a striker who was in good shape and not otherwise engaged that weekend. Roy Essandoh answered the ad, signed a temporary contract, and scored the winning goal in extra time for a 2-1 victory. I’m guessing Roy hasn’t had to pay for too many drinks in the city of Wycombe since then.

Recent Premier League members Bournemouth were still a third-tier team in 1984 when they stunned mighty Manchester United 2-0. The day before the game a local pizzeria promised Bournemouth goalkeeper Ian Leigh free pizza for the rest of his life if he didn’t allow United a single goal. Even though he got his shutout, Leigh was never able to collect on all that pizza because soon afterward his coach, Harry Redknapp, bought the pizzeria and refused to honour the deal. That would suck.

And nobody will ever forget Allan Clarke’s header in 1972, giving underdog Leeds United their first, and still only, FA Cup Final victory. Talk about an upset! For Leeds to even have been on the same field with the Charlie George-led Arsenal machine was a big deal for Leeds. That they actually won the game was truly the miracle of all miracles. This was just one year after George had delivered an extra-time thunderbolt to beat Liverpool in the Final that is still regarded by some (me) as the greatest goal in FA Cup history.

The 2020 edition of the Final featured two teams from London, Arsenal and Chelsea, who have dominated the FA cup since the turn of this century, each winning six of the past twenty Finals. This would be the third meeting of the two teams in the Final, with (surprise!) Arsenal having won both of the previous matches. Which is really no surprise at all since Arsenal came into this game having won more FA Cups, 13, than any other club. Arsenal, from the London borough of Islington, and Chelsea, from the borough of Kensington & Chelsea, represent two very disparate parts of the city of London. I would give you a run-down on the differences between the two boroughs but, fortunately, Metro Towers magazine has already done my work for me, ranking each of the 32 boroughs and providing a rationale for each, so I’ll let you read their unbiased opinions along with their rank for our two contestants:

What happens when you ask the staff at Metro Towers to rank the London boroughs in order of worst to best? A fiery debate, of course, over whether west is better than east (hahaha no) or north is better than south (hahaha yes, obviously).

16. Kensington and Chelsea

Brimming with sickeningly entitled chinless rahs who have more money than sense and less taste than a Vegas arms fair.

1. Islington

If you were to take the whole of London and pack it into one borough this is what you’d be left with. Not only is Islington the absolute dream when it comes to buying a property (which you’ll probably never be able to afford) it’s a little bit rough around the edges. It’s home to more restaurants than days of the year and that is exactly what you want in a borough, right? Right!

So, an impartial panel ranked Islington #1. This is very good news here at CPHC. Since chinless rahs, Sloane Rangers, and other factions of the idle rich are actively discouraged from reading this blog, I’m suspecting that almost all of you were cheering for Arsenal, which is as it should be. Did I mention that Chelsea is owned by a Russian billionaire? I hope you all feel even better now about your choice to root for Arsenal this year.

The Eton Mess before it was an eaten mess.

With the backing track of phony crowd noise on the TV it was easy to forget the game was taking place in an empty stadium. But when the cameras pulled back for a wider view it was weird to see all of the empty seats. We weren’t the only ones socially distancing that

morning: Even the players’ families weren’t allowed to attend. They could have played the game at a local park and had plenty of room for everyone in attendance. The prince himself couldn’t get a ticket and was holding his own viewing party at his grandma’s Sandringham estate, and after seeing his set-up I’ve entered into negotiations with Mrs. Ednold to have a big screen TV installed in our backyard. I’ll let you know how that goes. (Though William is not an Arsenal fan, his brother Harry is, and presumably had a viewing party of his own on our side of the world.)

So I’m wondering, as I saute the mushrooms and fry up the bangers for the morning meal: Who’s going to emerge as the hero of the 2020 Final? Who’s going to have that one moment of magic? Just five minutes into the game it looked like Christian Pulisic might be the one, after the Chelsea forward from Pennsylvania put one past the Arsenal goalkeeper. But before halftime Arsenal striker Pierre Aubameyang had tied it with a penalty kick, so as we were finishing our breakfasts and having our mid-game toast with our virtual attendees, it was still anyone’s game.

In the end, I would not say that this was a Final for the ages. It was close, and each team had their chances in the second half until Aubameyang managed a sweet little chip past the keeper in the sixty-seventh minute. But when, five minutes later, the referee chose to issue a second yellow card to a Chelsea midfielder for what should have been a non-call, Chelsea played out the game with only ten men. What should have been an exciting and dramatic final 20 minutes was reduced to an anticlimactic, if not boring, prelude to a foregone conclusion. I won’t complain about the outcome, though; it was just about perfect. The American prodigy Pulisic had scored the first goal by an American man in an FA Cup Final (Carli Lloyd scored for Manchester City in the Women’s Final three years ago) but Arsenal had won their 14th Cup and cemented their place as the Kings of London.

With the prince away and unable to assist, captain Pierre Aubameyang was on his own to grab the trophy off the plinth at the end of the game. As we were busy turning our Eton Mess into an eaten mess, he mistakenly took the trophy pedestal with him and created his own mess, dropping the whole thing on the ground on his way over to his teammates. As the prince, the President of the FA, tweeted at the time, “This is why they need the President there.” The trophy was eventually sorted out and lifted in the traditional fashion, which was nice to see because I’m thinking he just might have to do it again next year. And I hope you can all be here with us to watch it happen.

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2 commentaires

03 août 2020

Good job. A fine explanation of the UKs oldest football competition. Where else could you find the Hicksville Hooters hosting Man U or Arsenal........with the pampered big boys dealing with cold showers and moldy lockers?

Just wish we could have been on hand for the fried tomatoes and bangers......even if Arsenal pulled a win out of the fire. Don't forget though, the Spurs will be coming on strong next year. Just think, a Gunners/Spurs Final. Now that would be epic.


03 août 2020

Wow! I learned more about soccer than I ever thought I wanted to know. But as you've long

suspected, I'm only in it for the bangers! Mom

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