Cup Final Day

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

It’s a pleasantly sunny morning in early May 1993. I am getting ready for school quietly in my room, just like any other day. My mother enters and nonchalantly hands me an envelope. “Some post for you,” she says breezily. It’s highly unusual for a 9 year old to receive mail and from one look at the envelope, I could see it was not my monthly newsletter from the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles fan club.

I take the envelope and quickly notice that not only is it already open, but it has my mother’s name on it. I look inquisitively at my mum whose face remains unassuming. I forage inside the envelope and fish out the contents. Two enormous stubs stare back at me. They are tickets for the 1993 FA Cup Final. My mood rises at the same rate as my mum’s smile.

Everything about the ticket stubs is beautifully official. I had never seen the FA Cup described as ‘the Football Association Challenge Cup’ before. We were season ticket holders at Highbury at the time and looking back I can’t fathom why I was so surprised to get tickets. Nor can I decipher exactly why getting tickets didn’t really seem to enter my mind.

My entire football existence at that point was wound up in going to Highbury, since this game was not being played there, perhaps I just didn’t think the administration through. There again, I had been present at the Coca Cola Cup Final and FA Cup semi-final victory over Spurs a month earlier, so it’s a bit of a mystery to me why I wasn’t more on top of the situation. Maybe it’s one of those convenient tricks of memory, where I have retrospectively romanticised the moment over the years.

Come final day, I recall leaving for the game at an absurdly early hour. My mum is at least an hour early for every engagement she makes and I am an individual for whom anxiety is a primary driver. During the week of the game, I think a kind of arms race developed as we egged one another on to leave for the match earlier and earlier. We ended up catching a train at about 10am.

I don’t recall an awful lot else about the day. I remember that our seats were in the upper tier at the side of the pitch and I remember that both goals were scored at our end. I remember being so wracked with nerves during the whole occasion that I could barely stand. I spent much of the game sitting forward and cradling my belly in a vain attempt to halt the fluttering of butterflies.

I do recall asking my mum as we boarded the train that morning, “Do you think there will be fans at Wembley already?” Her answer was simple, “Yes, that’s what Cup Final day is all about.” So early were we that we ended up eating lunch at the bottom of the concrete steps that used to lurch up towards the turnstiles, which had not even opened yet. (I wasn’t old enough to kill the time with a beer!)

I also remember playing a kind of psychological confidence trick on myself when Ian Wright headed Arsenal into a first half lead. “If Wednesday score now, it’ll only be an equaliser” I kept telling myself over and over again, as if that would protect me from the sting of the inevitable. Obviously, when the Owls did level the score up through David Hirst, my gut sank and I discovered that my attempt at kidology had been in vain.

This Saturday will be my 9th FA Cup Final, which makes me very lucky indeed. On one hand, I know what to expect. The meal in the usual place pre-match. The nerves slowly enveloping me as the tube rattles into Wembley Central. My pace gradually quickening as I make the walk down Wembley Way in my desperation to get to my seat and get this mental torture over with. The ear splitting sound of the stadium PA forming an uneasy marriage with my increasing sense of anxiety.

Yet I also know that there will be defining moments- moments that, for better or worse, will be embroidered onto my memory forever. Ian Wright wheeling away in celebration in 1993. Gilles Grimandi’s wide eyed amazement at the crowd as he warmed up beneath us in the closing moments of the 1998 Final. My stepfather’s hands massaging the back of my neck when my head sank as Michael Owen hit a late winner in 2001.

Seeing Lee Dixon out of the corner of my eye, sprinting away in celebration down below us when Freddie Ljungberg lobbed Cudicini. The steam rising inside the Millennium Stadium in 2003, with the roof closed due to the teeming rain and some 80,000 soaked punters causing a cloud of evaporation. The chants of “USA! USA!” as Scholes stepped up for his fateful penalty in 2005. (How little we knew).

In 2014, I celebrated Koscielny’s equaliser with furious vigour. By the time Ramsey toe poked an extra-time winner, I was barely able to climb to my feet. I was spent, the effort of celebration was beyond me. I realised what Frank McLintock meant when he said he couldn’t celebrate Arsenal winning the Cup in 1971 because he was “too knackered.”

Then there was the sight of Alexis’ fulminating shot rippling Shay Given’s net. It was the first Arsenal Cup Final goal I think I ever truly enjoyed, in the sense of the word that I understand. The ones before it had been greeted with either a sense of visceral, almost angry vibration, or an overwhelming feeling of relief. Given the circumstances, I was able to enjoy that Alexis goal aesthetically, to drink it in as a piece of sports theatre.

Because, like a North London derby or a penalty shootout, there is very little about a Cup Final that is genuinely entertaining when your team is involved. This week has and will continue to form an extended day dream before the main event. The “Cup Final Dream™” will become a nightly psychological boxset, with each episode becoming more absurd than the last as you proceed to lose your ticket, your trousers and your route to the stadium in increasingly bizarre ways with each passing night.

It’s five minutes before kickoff, WHY AM I STANDING NAKED AT WATFORD JUNCTION AND WHY IS MY TICKET NOW MADE OF STRING? AND WHAT THE ABSOLUTE FUCK IS BUNGLE FROM RAINBOW DOING HERE?!

Like you, I have spent much of the last few weeks day dreaming about the game. I too have visualised the stoppage time John Terry own goal dozens of times now. The Fabregas penalty miss in the shootout, the meteor that inexplicably strikes Diego Costa early in the game, Atom and Humber cocking their legs and having a celebratory wee inside the old trophy during the lap of honour.

I said earlier in the piece that I am driven by anxiety, but on Saturday, anxiety will drive me. I will be fidgety, awkward, only semi-responsive and sick with nerves for much of the day. I know now that I will actively enjoy very little about the game, my reactions will be driven by fear and nausea. I hope it doesn’t sound spoiled or entitled when I say there will be no “soaking it in” or “enjoying the occasion,” because it’s not a sense of entitlement that drives this. It’s far more animalistic than that.

Saturday, like just about every other Cup Final I can remember (with the exception of the second half in 2015), will be about endurance. My muscles will be tighter than piano wire, my knuckles will have teeth marks and my heart will be in a constant cycle of palpitation. Beer will be drunk, not as a lubricant, but as a crutch- a coping mechanism. I can’t wait and I have no idea why.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– or like my page on Facebook.