With May at an end, it is time for season ticket holder Giles Smith to review the final month of the season from a supporter’s point of view. In doing so there are two cups finals (one ours and one not ours) to consider, the late show in the Premier League, and the overall achievement to assess…
Another May, another FA Cup final. There have been a few of those for us.
Indeed, I read on the BBC website that the legacy of our defeat on penalties at Wembley the other week is that Chelsea now have the ‘unwanted record’ of being the only team ever to lose three consecutive FA Cup finals.It made me wonder how ‘unwanted’ that record might actually be. I mean, as records go… So far as I can work out, in the entire 150-year history of the competition, only five teams have even been in three consecutive FA Cup finals, which would be another way of expressing it, had the BBC been looking for one.Getting yourself into the position where losing three consecutive Cup finals is an option seems to me a pretty impressive achievement, in fact. And that’s even before you begin to factor in extraneous circumstances, such as global pandemics, wars, enforced sales of the club, etc.
Losing three consecutive finals would certainly, on the balance of judgement, have more to recommend it than, say, getting there once and then going out in the Third Round the following two seasons, although, clearly, from the BBC’s point of view, that way you avoid an ‘unwanted record,’ so by all means go ahead.In terms of totals, by the way, our repeat-journey all the way to the endgame again this season means that we’ve been in 16 FA Cup finals, or more than one in every 10 across the competition’s century and a half, which – and I introduce this merely to give an idea of scale - is one more than Liverpool have been in, if anyone ever wants to have a conversation with you about ‘history’.
Our consistent application and respect with regard to the world’s oldest football knock-out competition is practically without parallel, then, and I was able to meditate on that with pride, even as I left the ground in disappointment and made my way smoothly to Wembley Stadium train station. (Lose the game but win the journey home is one of the compensatory great laws of FA Cup final football.)
Leaving it late
And another May, another top-four place secured – our 18th qualification for the Champions League since 1999. In keeping with the understandably faltering nature of things recently, our ultimate journey to the required total included some dropped points in unexpected places (at Everton and at home to Leicester) sandwiched around a consummate performance (at Leeds), leading ultimately to a pressure-free game of no particular consequence against Watford on the last day. But even that came alive in an unexpected way.There are, of course, few experiences in football as intense or as valuable as the last-minute winner. I’ve had cause here already this season to note the science-defeating properties of the 90-plus minute strike, which can cause the previous hour and a half of your life, and any frustrations contained within that period, simply to cease to exist, eclipsed by a sensation of unmixed euphoria which lasts all the way home and beyond.But a last-minute winner which comes on top of an almost equally last-minute equaliser by your opponent, which was the way it played out against Watford – well, in that case, a whole new roller-coaster element enters and the magic practically doubles. First the cameo of the warp-speed penalty at Wembley, and then that late clincher: May truly was, in ways which I don’t suppose many of us had predicted, the month of Ross Barkley.
There were pleasures to share in outcomes beyond our walls, as well. Last Saturday night was, of course, one for the ages. Indeed, first the Eurovision song contest, and then Real Madrid beating Liverpool in the Champions League final: the month of May really did spoil us for light entertainment spectaculars on television. It’s fast becoming the new Christmas in that respect.
Only available on TV
Pep Guardiola recently made the claim that ‘everyone supports Liverpool,’ a fairly massive misreading of the national mood, as was readily apparent at the weekend. It’s true that practically everyone who presents football on the television supports Liverpool, but that’s because practically everyone who presents football on the television used to play for them. It’s also the case that television has a necessarily complicated relationship with partisanship and how far the bias of football fans in the audience actually goes. It’s only on television, for instance, that you’ll see anyone talk about having a desire to ‘see English clubs do well in Europe’, which is an entirely mythical state of mind as far as most supporters are concerned.As a friend put it to me via text during that Champions League final: ‘You could atomise me in the Hadron Collider and you wouldn’t find the tiniest sub-particle that wanted anything other than a Real win tonight.’ I felt he spoke for a huge number of us, and certainly the overwhelming majority of the British audience tuning in on that occasion, whatever Michael Owen and Steve McManaman standing beside Jake Humphrey on BT Sport seemed to be assuming.A good outcome for us, then. And it was also heartening from our perspective to see Roma, with Tammy Abraham, win the inaugural Europa Papa John’s Vanarama Conference Trophy Vase, or whatever they’re calling it. It means that Jose Mourinho, formerly of this parish, has won trophies at seven of the eight clubs he has managed – a notable achievement. Can you think of the one where he didn’t? Answers on a postcard to The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London N17, or, as we can now think of it, following this weekend’s successful staging there of the Challenge Cup final between Wigan Warriors and Huddersfield Giants: the Home of Rugby League.
Have there been better Mays in our lifetimes? There have. 2021 and 2012 immediately come very happily to mind. Watching the 10th anniversary repeats of the Munich shoot-out this month (David Luiz running in practically from the centre circle, Juan Mata getting it wrong, Petr Cech getting it right, Didier Drogba putting the ball down and steadying himself), I still felt my palms glow hot, even though I knew how it ended.
But have there been worse Mays? Most certainly. 1988, 1979, 1975… those would have to rank as such, wouldn’t they? And, for similar reasons, 1962 also, if you go back that far. And has there ever been a May in which our team played in an FA Cup final and confirmed third place in the league in the same season that they had already been to a League Cup final, won the European Super Cup and the Club World Cup, and all against the backdrop of an international insurrection which obliged the club to have its business operation temporarily frozen?I don’t believe there has. So, to Thomas Tuchel and his staff, and to everyone involved in running the club, must go a bottomless fund of credit for keeping this show on the road in the absence, for the last three months, of a visible road. And I imagine historians will look back on this whole disrupted, broken, noisy and downright strange period, and on what nevertheless emerged from it, and, far from quibbling about dropped points at home to Leicester and ‘unwanted records’ relating to FA Cup final defeats, find it remarkable and, indeed, wholly admirable.