Football is rarely just about the football. Often it’s not really about the football at all, particularly when it comes to finals. Was Bolton’s victory over West Ham in 1923 a good game? Who knows, but its place in folklore rests not on David Jack’s two goals but on the efforts of the mounted policeman George Scorey to push back the crowds. And so the White Horse final takes its place alongside the 1915 Khaki Cup final and the Matthews final, Jim Montgomery’s double save and Ricky Villa’s run, Keith Houchen’s diving header and Steven Gerrard’s absurd late equaliser in the collective memory.
For an hour on Saturday, not a lot happened. Timo Werner was, as ever, exceptionally good at some aspects of football, and exceptionally bad at others. Youri Tielemans passed the ball beautifully. Jamie Vardy made some runs. César Azpilicueta snarled. The Cup final cliches about the tension of the occasion and neither side wanting to lose had their annual airing. Jonny Evans limped off. And then Tielemans scored his outrageous 28-yard strike, and ignited a final 30 minutes of gripping drama. It was not perhaps a great game, but it was a great Cup final and as such, perhaps, will mark the rejuvenation of the FA Cup, the Covid final, the day when we remembered collectively why football matters, and why this used to be a great national day.
In that sense the result was right – the underdogs winning out with a brilliant goal, two outstanding saves and a last-gasp hair’s-breadth VAR offside of exquisite tension although, depending how league results go in the next week, historians of the future may struggle to explain how a team that finished third beating a team that finished fifth could ever be deemed a shock. (And it may be even less explicable that it was considered a much bigger shock than Arsenal – remember them? – beating the same opposition in the final the previous year).
Context, in that sense, is key. Chelsea may have been the first of the Super League 12 to break rank, and they may have been reluctant partners in the fiasco, but they were nonetheless a rebel side – and their takeover by Roman Abramovich in 2003 represented a dramatic change in the financial landscape of football. That Leicester are owned by a Thai consortium is part of that landscape, of course, but few owners seem quite so conscious of their club’s community role as the Srivaddhanaprabha family, bonds that were strengthened by the helicopter crash that killed the then chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha outside the King Power Stadium in 2018.
The more immediate context, though, was the pandemic. When George V, asked what he would like the bands of the Irish Guards and Grenadiers to play before the 1927 final, replied with the favourite hymn of his wife, Queen Mary, it must have seemed a slightly odd choice. Abide With Me was written by an Anglican clergyman in 1847 as he struggled through the later stages of tuberculosis. It is a hymn about the comfort of faith as death approaches, and would seem to have little obvious connection to the showpiece event of the football calendar.
And yet it became the Cup final hymn and has been sung at every final since 1927, other than 1959 (for reasons that are not entirely clear). It has a resonance, precisely because of its subject matter. Bert Trautmann, Nazi paratrooper turned FA Cup final hero and icon of postwar reconciliation, a man who had plenty of experience of death, spoke of the sense it gave him of the communality of football. Perhaps only in 1946 can the pre-match singing have felt more apt than it did on Saturday, for this was a final played in the presence of death, that of Vichai, but more generally of the 130,000 UK victims of the pandemic, and will hopefully stand as a milepost on a return to post-Covid normality.
Other than last year, when no fans were admitted at all, and not including replays, the attendance of just over 20,000 was the smallest for a Cup final since Blackburn Rovers beat the Wednesday 6-1 at Kennington Oval in 1890. And yet those fans can rarely have felt so present: every mumble of anticipation, every ripple of appreciation, every foul-mouthed tirade – all a welcome reminder of how things used to be, culminating in two moments, first the euphoric shock from Leicester fans as Tielemans’s winner flashed by the right hand of Kepa, and then the sinking realisation on the part of jubilant Chelsea fans that what had appeared an equaliser was going to be ruled out.
That disallowed goal ended up flying in off Wes Morgan’s knee, which would have seemed very much against the spirit of the occasion. This, after all, was a 37-year-old who had not played for six months thrown on with nine minutes remaining as much, it seemed, to give Leicester an emotional lift as for any actual defending he would be doing – and this was not a day for sentimentality to be punished.
Rather it was a day for English football to remember itself and its traditions, its place in the national consciousness, to remember that it is a better sport played before a human audience – whether exultant or fulminating – than before sterile banks of empty plastic, to remember that immense wealth does not always win. And to remember that – in life, in death – it can touch us all.