You can say what you like about the Premier League and how it’s the real test of footballing merit in England, but it’s never settled by a single kick, or for that matter by a single mistake.
Cup football has been downgraded in recent years, but the fact remains that Cup finals north and south of the border offer an opportunity to win it all with one single great performance – or even one single action.
Get it right and it’s right for all time; get it wrong and there’s no going back, not ever. That plain fact still adds the sparkle to domestic football’s annual set piece. It’s not about a year’s hard work: it’s about a single afternoon, when nothing that happened before matters and nothing that follows has any relevance.
A big football final is a tiny bit like the examination every Olympic athlete must face: when the work of a lifetime comes down to a single moment. There’s always another chance for a footballer, of course, but on Cup final day, you can change your destiny with a single action. A professional footballer is always watched, but the scrutiny is doubled for a Cup final.
Chelsea can tell themselves that the trophy doesn’t matter compared with their Premier League title, Arsenal can laugh it off as a consolation prize, but once the players are on the field, they will remember football’s essential truth: any match can turn on a single moment of gorgeous inspiration – or a single personal disaster.
That’s precisely why players make mistakes that they wouldn’t make in five seasons of league competition. It’s that one-off thing that does it: a format that consistently provides unlikely heroes and unexpected villains.
Sport routinely puts its athletes under varying forms of extreme stress so we can watch them struggling under the weight of it all – and sometimes finding inspiration. It’s unlikely that the modern FA Cup final will produce a legend like that of Bert Trautmann of Manchester City, who played on with a broken neck in 1956, or Blackpool’s Stan Mortensen, who scored a hat-trick in 1953.
But even in the modern era there are regular performances of memorable brilliance: Steven Gerrard’s rampaging display for Liverpool in the 2006 final, or Ray Parlour’s gloriously unexpected strike for Arsenal in 2002.
The Scottish Cup final has had its own share of heroics: in 1982 when Aberdeen scored three goals in extra time, or last year when David Gray scored a last-minute winner for Hibs. And there’s still scope for the errors that come close to defining the sport.
“And Smith must score.” That was Peter Jones’s Radio 2 commentary in the last minute of extra time in the 1983 final as Gordon Smith of Brighton & Hove Albion charged goalwards with the eternal glory of beating Manchester United at his feet. Missed. Damn. United won the replay 4–0.
A little more recently, in 1996, David James, the Liverpool goalkeeper, punched the ball clear to… Eric Cantona of Manchester United. Ouch.
You might call this the Ooh-er Factor. The sort of thing that wouldn’t happen in a league match often happens in a Cup final because it’s a one-off. You make errors because one error could be disastrous: you get inspired because one great kick could be glorious.
That extra tension puts the Ooh-er of doubt into some minds, just as it allows some players to find deeds beyond their usual capacity: like Roberto Di Matteo’s decisive strike in the 1997 final. The game started: less than one minute of time and a single second of inspiration and it was all over.
The FA Cup may not be the occasion it was, but they haven’t been able to destroy the Ooh-er Factor… and that’s why someone will seize the day – for good or ill.