Giles Smith's Thursday Thoughts

Columnist Giles Smith was in attendance at Wembley on Saturday as the Blues brought the curtain down on the season in the best possible manner, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way…


Turned out nice again. The FA Cup final, I mean, although, now I come to think of it, the weather last weekend wasn’t bad, either. If by some chance you’d been having, say, a wedding in the London area on Saturday, I reckon you would have been pretty happy with the conditions for the photos. I wonder if anybody did.

But nice day for an FA Cup final, too, as Billy Idol would no doubt have sung, back in the day, if he had been a Chelsea supporter, and if it had scanned a bit better. And nice day for photos of that FA Cup final. Nice day, additionally, for a ruminative drink in the sun outside Marylebone Starbucks (or the pub next door, if you prefer). Nice day for getting off the train, strolling over the bridge from Wembley Stadium station and moving casually among the food concessions on the concrete perimeter, taking in the sights, the sounds and, most of all, the smells.

Nice day for eventually going inside, outwitting Manchester United and winning the second most prestigious trophy in English football for the eighth time in the history of the club, and for the seventh time in nine attempts in the last 21 years alone.

So, yes: turned out nice again.

Then again, I can’t deny that the heat was a factor during the match itself, and before it, also. Way too warm for a half-and-half scarf, definitely. But then maybe life itself is way too warm for half-and-half scarves.

More to the point (and without wishing to sound ungrateful), my category two ticket, priced at – deep intake of breath here - £115 positioned me in direct sunlight, for a long time rendering much of the pitch invisible to the naked eye and obliging me to do a lot of squinting and using my phone as an improvised eye-shade. I’d say it was around the 60th minute when the sun finally moved round, enabling what was left of my retinas to come off the boil and becoming the problem of the supporters to my left.

Now, maybe you will say I should have been better prepared, and that’s certainly an argument we could have. But of course, we’re not used to the east end at Wembley – not on the big occasions, anyway.

On the numerous times in recent history when we’ve qualified for finals at the national stadium, we’ve tended for some reason, on the luck of the draw, to end up being given seats at the west end of the ground. To the best of my recollection, even the finals against Manchester United, Middlesbrough and Aston Villa, before the rebuild, found us parked up at that end. It wouldn’t be surprising if Chelsea fans, heading up Wembley Way, now found themselves turning right as instinctively as celebrities turn left when they board aeroplanes.

But the east? I seem to recall being required to sit at that end during an unthinkable defeat to Tottenham in a League Cup final at some point in the early years of this century, but my memories of that afternoon are mostly suppressed and, consequently, are patchy and unreliable at best. Did it even happen, in fact? I’ll need to consult the record books and get back to you.

Otherwise, it’s been a virtually unbroken stretch of Wembley westerliness. Which has been fine by me. It’s handier for return trains to Marylebone, and, as I now discover, it’s pretty solidly in the afternoon shade. Still, the other end didn’t let us down, and I reckon I could grow to love it, given time.

What about that pre-match show, though? It would have been a good day to invade Britain because most of the country’s armed forces seemed to be on the pitch at Wembley, either playing instruments or making sure that flags unfurled. Now, while this kind of thing can attract sneering from the old-school or hardcore football follower, I’m broadly of the opinion that a bit of pageantry before a game doesn’t hurt. Yet respect and hats off to the supporter near me who, even as flames were shooting to a height of 50 feet and orchestral music was thundering from speakers and banners were being winched out across every available inch of grass, remained buried in her Patricia Cornwell novel, finally putting it away only when the teams came out. Some people, clearly, know what they’ve come for.

One thing about the pre-amble, though, is that it helped the atmosphere to build – and we can probably agree that Wembley, where the noise from the crowd floats up and out and becomes a frustratingly indeterminate mush, can always use a little help in that regard.

Incidentally, on the subject of football grounds that get a bad rep, I went to the London Stadium this week and I’ve got no idea why West Ham fans complain about the lack of atmosphere there. The night I went, the place was throbbing – absolutely jumping, you would even say.

Mind you, I was watching the Rolling Stones, who were able to offer ‘Gimme Shelter’, ‘Street Fighting Man’ and ‘Start Me Up’ not to mention roughly four billion watts-worth of high-end lighting, a bank of crystal-clear video screens and some fireworks. Perhaps it’s different when West Ham play. Or perhaps we’ve just found out what the London Stadium is genuinely good for.

Anyway, how fitting that the Ray Wilkins Final should have reached the conclusion that Ray Wilkins would most have appreciated. Indeed, I enjoyed the fittingness so much, I stopped complaining about the price of the ticket. I mean, yes, it was outrageous, for sure. Yet sometimes you’re just glad you were there. And, as that advert for a credit card likes to put it: beating Manchester United in an FA Cup final? Priceless.

Meanwhile, with regard to the performance, Victor Moses spoke, surely, for us all: “I thought we were tremendous.” We were – although, of course, a lot of the subsequent writing about the final has come to the conclusion that it wasn’t one of the classics. My sense is that it depends, ultimately, how you define ‘classic’. Mostly people seem to mean that it wasn’t ‘one for the neutrals’, and that may well be right. But many FA Cup finals – perhaps even most FA Cup finals - turn out, ultimately, to be ‘one for the fans of the winning team.’ And fair enough. What have the neutrals ever done for us? Winning sometimes has a face that only a fan could love. That’s football.

What lifted the spirits even further after the final whistle was to see the players so clearly happy at the end of what has been, let’s face it, a weirdly simmering, strangely clogged and frequently bewildering season. Certainly a break would now seem to be in order, in which to re-fuel some tanks and re-set some clocks. And guess what? Here comes one. So that’s convenient.

The big question for the analysts now, and the one on which so much hinges, is: who will still be here when we come back? But I think, as supporters, we all know the answer. We all will be.


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