It was a breath of fresh air, this season's F.A. Cup Final at Wembley Stadium. For the first time in years none of the top 4 clubs are involved and 2 'novices' Portsmouth, Pompey', last win in 1939 and Cardiff City, 'The Bluebirds', winners way back in 1927.
Both sets of fans of course were at the same stadium recently for the semi-finals, but they were all excited to be there, and not as nonchalant as frequent visitors from Manchester, Merseyside and London. A year ago Chelsea and Manchester United almost put us to sleep in front of our television sets in a stalemate interupted by a Didier Drogba winning goal. This year it was another African, KANU who scored the only goal of the final, after a mistake by goalkeeper Peter Enckelman, and Harry Redknapp finally got a trophy.
Earlier in the day I had taken the train to the little rail station at Rochdale, who are trying to get out of the bottom tier for the first time in 40 years against Darlington, where at that city station you can see THE FIRST rail engine in the world Stephenson's ROCKET. The Darlo fans packed the carriages wearing their black and white hooped replica jerseys, dressed like a prison chain gang from the Louisiana State Penitentary at Angola, LA. Their former chairman, Harry Reynolds, a former safecracker,is actually a guest in Her Majesty's prisons for the second or third time for dodgy dealing. He built the ambitious REYNOLDS ARENA with 25,000 seats five years ago and a regular crowd is around 3,000, about the same as that of Rochdale. Darlo won 2-1 in the home leg in front of 9,000 fans and are looking to sweep THE DALE aside in the second leg and advance to the play-off final at Wembley.
I march into the town center and its majestic town hall and take the 10 minute bus ride on the two mile journey to SPOTLAND, their home for 88 years. They now share it with Rochdale Hornets the rugby league club and I share a pint in the club. The Dale win 2-1 after extra time so we have 3-3 aggregate and then penalties, and what good ones they are, taken with precision and style. After both scored their first four, Darlington's Jason Kennedy had his 5th shot saved by goalie Tommy Lee and then Ben Muirhead slotted home the winner there was a pitch invasion of the friendly kind and THE DALE are on their way to Wembley for the very first time in their CENTENARY YEAR.
It was a short train ride to Manchester where I watched part of the F.A. Cup Final in the comfortable leather chairs of The Balcony Bar in Piccadilly Station. Afterwards I wander into nearby Piccadilly Gardens, the site of complete mayham last Wednesday when so called Rangers thugs fought among themselves and police and innocent bystanders. The Gardens were peaceful on this Saturday afternoon with market stalls selling food from Spain, Asia, Germany, Holland and elsewhere. When I was there on the day of the UEFA Final, arriving about 11.30 am the Rangers fans had been drinking for 4 hours or so, -GREAT QUANTITIES. There were 20,000 in that small inadequate square, about the size of an Under 11 football pitch. They wallowed for 12 hours or more in their own filth and a mountain of beer cans, bottles, plastic bags, unfinished food, cardboard, urine and spilled beer.
This Wednesday in Moscow's Red Square I am sure that the Russian police will not be so gentle on CHAMPIONS LEAGUE day with unruly fans from England if they get out of line. UEFA President Michel Platini achieved one good thing by getting the authorities to finally wave visas for those holding a valid ticket. Well done Michel-you can finally have that annual haircut now.