On the way to Wembley yesterday, the train stopped at Birmingham train station, and we were there for a while. We started to get pretty restless, checking our watches, working out how long we had until kick off. It was still a few hours off at this point, but with no word from the driver, you could feel the slight nerves. Finally, a message came over the speakers that someone had committed suicide on the line ahead, and that we’d be running over an hour late. They apologised profusely about the fact we might now miss kick off, and assured us they would do all they could to get us there on time. If I was to believe in signs, maybe I, along with the other United fans on that train, would have been best off jumping on a train in the opposite direction back to Manchester. As it worked out, we stayed on the train, sat in Birmingham for an hour, and we did get to the ground on time, but the day didn’t get much better.
United have made three FA Cup finals in four years, losing two of them after 90 minutes. Leaving Cardiff on that rainy day left me feeling sick, whereas yesterday I just felt fed up. It was a pleasure to be one of the 89,000 at the first FA Cup final at the new Wembley, but I felt quite the opposite about being subjected to the match I watched. My prior worry about the game had been realised, as United looked shattered and struggled to shine.
With our first choice striker, Louis Saha, out injured for the past three months, Ferguson has been forced in to a whole array of formations. The most successful of these has been Giggs playing up front with Rooney, although it’s not entirely popular with the United faithful. Rooney, whilst being a goalscorer, is not a lone striker, and struggles being shoved up front by himself. Thirty three year old Giggs has filled the gap for the most part, but with over forty games under his belt this season, it was clear he could not go on forever. As we’ve seen from him in recent weeks, his legs just aren’t what they used to be, and it’s ridiculous to expect him to carry that attacking role after such a long season for the United favourite. This was expected of him yesterday, however, and he failed to deliver.
Both teams looked absolutely exhausted from the moment of kick off, United passing the ball around casually, with the Chelsea players making little to no effort to win it off them. Both sides gave away possession carelessly, with groans frequently being heard from both sections of the crowd. Both sides failed to produce a top save from either keeper. Both sides failed to work up much hope in their fans.
Our spirits lifted when Rooney ran the length of the pitch, speeding past and through the Chelsea defence, only to get in to the box and find himself alone, surrounded by blues. Scholesy, who was easily the best player on the field, provided Giggsy with a beautiful ball, which he managed to reach sandwiched between two defenders, only to volley over the bar.
Neither side deserved to win based on what he was had seen so far. After Jose Mourinho had put pressure on the ref before the game, it was then no surprise that there was to be some refereeing controversy, and it came in extra time. Rooney played in a perfect ball to Giggs. Essien slid into our winger, as Giggs got his foot on the ball, and Cech allowed the ball to cross over the line, after colliding with Giggs. Watching the highlights when I returned home, the commentators said it was no goal because of a foul by Giggs on the keeper. However, no freekick was awarded to Chelsea, and it appears the goal was deemed not a goal because the ref did not think it crossed the line. He was wrong. The whole ball did cross the line. Was it a penalty? It wasn’t a stonewall penalty in my mind, but did Essien’s contact on the player, nowhere near the ball, do enough to put Giggs off? Essien made no attempt to win the ball, so what was he doing sliding in on the player inches away from the goal line? Mourinho has claimed this season that referees always favour United with penalties, and work against Chelsea. Again, Ferguson will be left to regret not putting equal pressure on to the referee.
With time running out, Alan Smith’s fresh legs and determination continued to give United the upper hand. Smith slid in on Mikel, winning the ball cleanly, which should have won back possession for his team. However, Steve Bennett, who was stood right in front of the challenge, decided it would be more fitting to award Chelsea with a free kick. From this free kick, Chelsea scored the winning goal, just minutes before penalties.
Before the game, I stressed the importance of United winning the league, that whatever the outcome of the final, we had won what we wanted and needed to win this season. If Chelsea were to have taken the lead through a good move with no controversy earlier in the game, it would have been a case of taking it on the chin and getting on with it. But to lose at the time we did, in the way we did, is entirely frustrating. It’s frustrating that we weren’t able to show our attacking flair, it’s frustrating that for so much of the game we looked like the better side but couldn’t score, and it’s frustrating that there is any sense of “being robbed”. We were robbed blind in Cardiff two years ago, and whilst the difference between the sides wasn’t as pronounced yesterday, the Giggs’ goal and the poor refereeing decision which lead to Chelsea’s goal does leave a bitter taste.
With hindsight, it is easy to look at what could or should have been done. Maybe United should have started with Smith and Rooney up front, with Giggs and Ronaldo on the wings. This would have taken the pressure off Rooney, and would have given Ronaldo more room. Every time our Portugese winger was on the ball, he instantly had two or three blue shirts around him. The addition of a second striker, as well as two wingers, would have spread Chelsea’s defence more thinly. The drawback of this however, and surely the reason Ferguson picked the lineup he did, is that we would have limited attacking options on the bench. If we were a goal down, our only move would have been to bring Solskjaer on. Whilst he has had a cracking season, particularly after fearing he would never play again, he has racked up over thirty appearances this season, as well as an injury, and it would be a big risk to rely on that. A big risk we’d expect Ferguson to take? Possibly. But if United lost 1-0 because they’d conceded early on, and had no fresh attacking options on the bench, the fresh options Smith provided us with, chances are we’d have been calling for the tactics Ferguson did choose yesterday. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
As I walked around the streets in the direction of the Wembley Central tube, Chelsea fans sung and waved their flags in the air, trying to bait any United fans that passed. Yesterday was their day, and like Drogba carried them through this season, he also won them an FA Cup. It’s what happens in football, big players need just one chance, big decisions can cost you matches, or win you matches, cost you trophies, or win them for you. When two sides, who have set themselves apart from the rest of the league this season, meet in a final, then it is going to be a close run thing. When these two sides have challenged for the title, reached the semi’s in Europe, and made the final of FA Cup, then they are going to look knackered, and it is going to be the smallest of incidents that separates them on the day. But essentially, whilst a double would have been lovely this season, to really stick two fingers up at all of Ferguson’s critics, I’ll quite happily take the league title this season… and any honest Chelsea fan would admit that, regardless of their domestic cups, they’d rather have had our season too.