Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Cup final daydreams … and nightmares

With the proliferation of live football in the 21st century, it’s fair to say that the FA Cup Final is not quite the sporting occasion that it used to be. The FA’s attempts to truss the trophy up in fishnets and bad eyeliner has hardly played to the gallery of the ‘core’ football fan, favouring pursuits nakedly corporate. The kickoff time has been moved to a teatime slot for television audience purposes. The simple fact is, there are large swathes of the general public that would rather be shopping at 3pm on a Saturday.

The occasion no longer feels like it is at the crux of the national interest, as once it was. However, if you are a fan of one of the competing teams, there is a feeling of genuine involvement in something special, something central to the football calendar. I have been incredibly fortunate in that this Saturday will be the eighth FA Cup Final I have attended in person. Attending a cup final is like being in Time Square, or walking past Big Ben at rush hour, ducking and diving between the whir of tourist cameras flashing. You feel like you are at the centre of the universe.

When your club is competing, you feel a part of it. An essentially useless part of it, an extra in the cast of thousands, photobombing the Mona Lisa, or jokingly cupping the testicles of the statue of David. But just for a few hours, it feels like all eyes are on you – or at least that you are where everybody else wants to be. It’s one football match where, against my better senses, I get a haircut and have a shave especially. I will always buy a new retro shirt and wear it for the first time on cup final day. I really ought to have grown out of this by now.

The anticipation during cup final week grips you, it dominates your thoughts. The waves of optimism and euphoria, the bouts of anxiety and panic. It is like coming up on a drug for an entire week without ever actually reaching the apogee. Nothing occupies your imagination quite like an impending cup final. I have spent a large portion of my week perpetually daydreaming and I would wager that you have too, dear reader. You will have likely visualised the winning goal (it always goes in off the crossbar in my mind’s eye) and the trophy presentation dozens of times already.

You have probably experienced a few cold sweats as your imagination projects the image of Szcz-spina tossing a tame Benteke header into his own net in stoppage time. Just as your head slumps into your hands in Wembley’s plastic seats, your mind snaps you free of your daydream, unable to bear its pain. It is akin to visualising a plane crash, you never quite allow yourself to hit the ocean. Essentially, you experience an infinite number of visitations, the ghosts of cup finals past and the ghosts of cup final future.

Every time you remember Linighan’s header, you are reminded of Michael Owen’s quick fire double. Ray Parlour’s bending shot merges into a matching shot of Nayim’s freak volley. Just as swiftly as you relive the toe-pokes of Aaron Ramsey and Charlie Nicholas, Obefami Martins and Brian Stein visit your subconscious to ward away the spirits of optimism. What you experience is a kind of mania, or Cupception. A sober, (relatively) sane adult should probably only experience this kind of psychological turmoil for important medical results, weddings or ultrasounds.

A common consequence of this mental tossing and turning is the dreaded ‘cup final dream.’ The cup final dream rarely imprints any imagined events from the actual match onto your subconscious. Your conscious is busy enough wrestling with those demons. No, the cup final dream instead manufactures increasingly ridiculous scenarios that see you miss the match altogether. Things always start inconspicuously enough, you’re on your way to the match in good time and then, “OH NO! HOW DID I NOT NOTICE THAT MY TICKETS ARE MADE OF HAM?!” Or your train scheduled to arrive at Wembley Park at 3.30pm has inexplicably taken you to Didcot Parkway and now there are only 5 minutes until kickoff. And to top it all off, “OH NO! IT TURNS OUT THAT MY TROUSERS ARE ACTUALLY MADE OF HAM!”

There is always a sense of carnival as you take the walk down Wembley Way towards the turnstiles, the hue of each team’s colours filtering the lens through which you glimpse the stadium in the distance. The backdrop of foghorns adds to the feeling of sea sickness as you approach the stadium. I have always felt apart from the party vibe, every time I fail to soak it in. I am just too anxious, too concentrated on getting to my seat and getting the whole ordeal over with. That’s the thing that nobody ever tells you about cup final day, there is so little about it that you actively enjoy.

Wembley have gone out of their way to add to the angst with their inexplicably loud public address system beating your ears to death with Maroon 5 and Katy Perry. They seem intent on drowning out any prospect of an organically sourced atmosphere, which can be very comforting to draw on. The idea that every Arsenal fan is in the trenches with you, each suffering their own demons. The occasion turns sensible, rational people into borderline lunatics. I have a friend who admitted that, during last year’s Cup Final, he forged a ritual that involved him putting his face into his shirt and spitting on his torso.

He is not a remotely superstitious individual, but the helplessness of it all made him want to feel as though he was doing ‘something’ to try and avert the tide as Hull raced into a two goal lead. No matter how many cup finals you experience, your stomach will spend the entirety of the match in an acidic knot. Every opposition attack is a certain goal in your mind, every misplaced Arsenal pass a personal affront. Knuckles will be gnawed, seats kicked and words that would make a navy seal blush will be yelled at volume. The cup final is a knife edge because you know that there is no median result, it will be utter delirium or total depression and nothing in between.

One of football’s great tragedies is that the emotional mincer of the cup final is a necessary prerequisite to winning trophies. Can’t it just be decided by twitter poll? Arsenal would never lose … the payoff is that you always want to be involved in them, despite the unbearable stress they invite. When you watch the cup final and your team is not involved, you wish more than anything that they were. This is what makes the experience so rewarding when you are a part of it, you know that everybody watching at home is making envious eyes at their television screens.

I will not enjoy Saturday in any serious way. I will bristle at Wembley’s horrendous sound system, I will be nervous, irritable and terrified for much of the day. ‘Abide With Me’ will be a very apt hymn for those that accompany me. I know there is at least a half decent chance it will all end in unfathomable misery too. But ultimately, there is no place I’d rather be come 5.30pm on Saturday.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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