I suppose if they’re going to hold FA Cup finals when we’re not in a position to go to them, at least let them be ones where we lose to Arsenal during a blizzard of poor refereeing decisions and to a soundtrack of twanging hamstrings. Those, you could reasonably argue, were exactly the kind of games that staying at home was made for.
That said, what an utterly flat experience it was all round: flat in prospect, flat in actuality and flat afterwards. We didn’t even get the satisfaction traditionally afforded to fans of the losing side at Wembley finals: winning the journey home.
With some sharp footwork, I would have been halfway to Marylebone by the time that confetti rather pointlessly exploded over Arsenal last Saturday evening, and probably in McDonald’s in Balham while their lot were still shuffling up the steps to Wembley Central. And I’m not saying it would have completely made amends, but it would have been something.
I can still recall being on the train as it pulled out of Cardiff Central in 2002 and thinking, ‘Well, that sucked, but at least some of us are going to be home before Sunday lunchtime.’ You take your consolations where you can find them.
I don’t intend to harp on about the refereeing decisions. It’s not profitable to do so, and neither is it fair. Refereeing is hard - almost as hard as some referees make it look. That was that particular ref’s second FA Cup final – a break with tradition in this altogether irregular year – and I might sound like I’m swimming against the tide here, but I for one very much hope he gets given a third at some point, just to see if he can finally get one right. People deserve a second chance. And, after that, a third one.
Wasn’t it that ref who missed that Alexis Sanchez handball last time? And over-ruled his linesman on an Aaron Ramsay offside? I believe it might have been. And this time a foul by Granit Xhaka on Mateo Kovacic was a second yellow offence for our player. People say the worst thing about English refereeing is the inconsistency, but I don’t know about that: it seems pretty consistent to me.
As for the matter of whether or not Arsenal’s goalkeeper might have over-enthusiastically carried the ball outside his penalty area, how would any of us watching on television at the time have known? The coverage decided there was nothing to see and urged us to move along. Did the boffins at Stockley Park get their luminous lines out? Presumably, but a fat lot we knew about it. At home in the sitting room, it was as though the incident had never happened. Which, in the age of VAR, felt like something of a throwback, to say the least. When were you last able to feel that a controversial moment on a football pitch had been UNDER-analysed by television? Maybe we should be feeling grateful.
But forget the refereeing. I preferred the manager’s summary: a better performance would have made the refereeing irrelevant. I suppose the question will be asked: did too many of our players already have one eye on this Saturday’s Miracle of Munich? Were they keeping themselves back for the bigger occasion? I guess it’s a possibility. And with tumbleweed blowing around an empty Wembley Stadium, there would have been plenty of excuses for a loss of focus and a few wandering minds. I know mine did.
When up ahead of you lies the possibility of completing one of the greatest comebacks in Champions League history and marching on to lift the biggest trophy in club football for the second time this century, it can be hard to have your attention completely absorbed by a secondary scuffle for low-value bragging rights against Arsenal.
At the same time, I would maintain that the performances of our team in the post-Restart period have, by and large, been characterised by an exceptional ability to concentrate on the matter at hand. So focus probably wasn’t the issue.
Anyway, it’s all water now. And also further evidence. We can gussy it up and talk about it as if it matters and admire it at the level of sheer logistics. But the one thing we have discovered in this pandemic period is that football really doesn’t mean very much in the absence of fans. And the longer this phase goes on, and the more trophies get half-heartedly lifted in empty grounds and the more important outcomes get decided against canvas backdrops and with cheering supplied in a can by EA Sports, the more one has it confirmed.
I would have liked to have been there when we clinched fourth place against Wolves. I would have liked to have been there when we lost the FA Cup final to Arsenal. Because then it would have meant something. And if I’m not there when Frank Lampard wins the Champions League in his first season as manager, I really don’t know how I’m going to feel. I would suggest that ‘disappointed’ won’t really begin to cover it.