It is a dilemma for the sports pages when the match turns out to be a stinker. Tell your readers up front how bad the game was and you risk them not reading on. Spice it up, and you are in danger of being dishonest. That was the problem for writers and editors around a drab FA Cup final between Chelsea and Manchester United.
Fortunately there was the drama of a late winning goal, by Didier Drogba for Chelsea, and this year the long-awaited story of the return to the rebuilt Wembley Stadium to divert from the dross. ‘Nice day, shame about the game,’as The Sunday Times put it.
In that paper, the excellent Jonathan Norcroft – one of the best of the younger breed of football writers – had his readers reading on. ‘The man is a marvel of muscle and dynamic power, but even by his own standards, Didier Drogba was extraordinary,’his intro said, impressively given that the single goal was a deadline-stretcher.
The enduringly excellent Patrick Collins in my own Mail on Sunday said: ‘In a perfect world, all summers would be golden, all Christmases would be white and the FA Cup final would be the finest game of the football season. But the world is not perfect, and while we had hoped that the new Wembley would offer something wonderful, we were forced to settle for something far less.’Telling it how it is, but entertainingly.
It was a day, in fact, to recall Sidney Lumet’s film, Murder on the Orient Express, which starred Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall and Sean Connery. So much talent on view, but the real star was the train.
‘Years from now,’wrote the versatile and prolific Martin Samuel in the News of the World, ‘when we are blasÃ© about the magnificence of the new structure, we will again judge FA Cup finals on football alone. Yesterday, whenever the tempo flagged, we would look around and marvel at a venue that is, to its highest rafter, a place where legends will be made and drama will unfold.”
If the game of football has changed, so has ours – such is the power of television, such is the space that sport, and especially football, demands and commands. Too much sometimes: The Sunday Times even had Rod Liddle and Russell Brand, who fancy they can write about sport, telling of how they didn’t watch the Cup final.
We know that viewers will have seen it all now, that every base has been covered, leaving the dailies to wonder – as the Sundays do after a midweek event – how to take the story on. Manfully they tried.
In The Sun, Shaun Custis, a better writer than he gets credit for, ventured that the winning Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, had still not satisfied his paymasters because of the quality of the football on show.
In the Daily Telegraph, Alan Smith, the former England striker who has earned respect because he has learned the journalist’s trade rather than simply speak down a phone to a ghost, put the professionals’ view neatly.
‘All this took me back to my time at Arsenal, where George Graham’s words stand out to this day. ‘You might not always enjoy playing for me,’ he once said in an address to his squad [he was right]. ‘But if we’ve been successful you’ll look back on our time together with great pride and affection.’ Right again boss. That’s exactly how it looks 13 years on.”
Monday also brought the incomparable Martin Kelner TV review in The Guardian with its priceless quality of readability, whether or not you were interested in TV, Cup final or stadium.
‘The new Wembley boasts more toilets than any other building in the world,’he wrote. ‘Not so much a football stadium, more a cathedral of high-tech micturition, consigning – to the U-bend of history one would hope – Peter Cook’s joke about being unable to tell the difference between the gents and the bar at most football grounds.”
Finally, a word from David Emery and his Non-League Paper. ‘It was probably too much to hope that yesterday’s FA Cup final could provide the kind of goal action we were treated to in the FA Trophy and FA Vase finals,’said an editorial. Never forget the local angle.