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The FA Cup -The Millenium Stadium Years

It was hard being a young football fan in the early 2000s. Yes, we still lived in the glossy façade of pre- Iraq war New Labour, but football for many old timers was a degenerating tradition. There I was, a seven year old struggling to profess my love for the game in a climate where pundits, the media and my parents were complaining ‘well, it’s not like it was’.

One of the main gripes for many football fans of that period was the demolition of the old Wembley stadium. Wembley was THE football venue. Structurally impressive, a retainer of so many memories and an old friend, its plan for demolition sent many traditionalists into breakdown. This was also in a period where it was uncertain whether Wembley would actually return to Wembley, or be transferred to another part of the country. Some of the suggestions being talked about including Manchester and….Coventry.  Thus, when the FA Cup final venue was moved to the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff temporarily, fans were bemused and angry. This is the story of those 5 years in Cardiff, a time which hopefully proved more fruitful than the doubters originally suspected and added to the legacy of the FA Cup rather than destroying it.

The first final pitted two giants of English football. Liverpool vs. Arsenal was a huge deal to me back then; Liverpool had Michael Owen in their squad who was essentially a god to someone of my generation. He was young, successful and had his own video games. What more could a seven year old want from life? Arsenal just scared me, but in the way that I garnered a deep respect for them, especially Henry and strangely Slyvain Wiltord and Ray Parlour. Freddie Ljungberg, with his bright, yet incredibly tacky red hair opened the scoring after a bit of defensive hesitation from Westerveld. The abiding memory I have from that goal is the way Ljungberg’s shirt caught in the wind when he celebrated, capturing his utter hysteria. But, the day was only ever going to belong to one man really and that was Mr Owen.  The way he poached his first goal gave me the idea that I would lazily attempt to poach a few myself with a snapped half volley for my village team, only Owen’s shots would go in. His second was pure power, fending off those Arsenal stalwarts Dixon and Adam’s to create his FA Cup final moment and one of my favourites for its sheer drama factor. The first final had proved the doubters wrong, Cardiff was more than suitable to sustain the final as the inevitable blue print and structural delays on the new Wembley (To be built at Wembley and not Coventry) set in.

The 2002 final was personally harrowing for me. I always knew Chelsea were going to lose, but at the same time the game had given me some hope that I might actually witness my team win something (Yes, this seems ridiculous now). I was actually a very pessimistic young fan, I thought Arsenal were the superior outfit despite being a Chelsea supporter and thought Henry, Wiltord and Parlour would rip us to shreds (I was a third right). However, half chances from Lampard and Le Saux had given me hope at half time. One of the funniest memories I have from that day was when  Eidur Gudjohnsen took a typically innovative shot sending Seaman sprawling to knock the ball over the crossbar. Subsequently, I found it hilarious the way both Seaman and his ridiculous pony tail fell to the floor. My laughter stopped. Parlour and Ljungberg’s near identical curling wonder goals (and equally debateable hairstyles) had dashed my young dreams. The only thing I could hold onto at the time was how we had matched the best team of their generation for 45 minutes and also Seaman’s embarrassing, yet brilliant save.

The next cup final angered the traditionalists more. The roof was closed and the FA were once again in the firing line for destroying tradition not helped by the fact the building of the new Wembley did not seem to be anywhere near beginning. The final itself was a pretty dull and plodding affair with Arsenal happy to sit back on a fairly simple Robert Pires goal. Credit must go out to the Southampton team of the period that included Wayne Bridge, James Beattie and a young Chris Baird for keeping the soon-to-be ‘Invincibles’ of Arsenal to a 1-0 score line. However, their performance does not mask the fact this was one of the weaker Millenium Stadium finals, not helped by the continuing questioning of the roof closure and the delays on the New Wembley project.

Ronaldo was the star of the 2004 final. He was elevated to the young starlet of Alex Ferguson’s eye through his now trademark trickery and dramatics which lit up the bulk of this very one sided and predictable final. Millwall served as the archetype for many underdogs in modern football where luck seems to only take you so far. In fact, the Millenium Stadium years could be seen as the death of the ‘Giant Killing’. With football gravitating towards the corporate and money driven landscape which we inhabit today, the chances of a team defeating a big club let alone reaching and winning a major final grew smaller and smaller. ‘Where were the Ronnie Radford’s?’ the older fans cried. Alex Ferguson did not care. United destroyed the dreams of Millwall with the sort of certainty and professionalism you might only expect them to display when at Old Trafford. This was enough of a reward for Ferguson in a year where anyone other than Arsenal could only hope for a domestic cup victory.

As much as I’m trying to suggest that the Millenium stadium both adapted and withheld the traditions of the FA Cup in its tenure as the finals venue, I have to admit that 2005 was turgid. The season of the final had been hit by the arrival of Jose Mourinho into football whose style was both impossible to reproduce  and for the most part almost impossible to defeat. The 2005 final reflected how the two former leading managers of the Premier League had failed to replicate Mourinho’s ethic of sound defensive work, professionalism whilst also managing to score a goal or two to pinch the points. Strangely, Chelsea were defeated 1-0 in a rather non-descript 5th Round tie in which Patrick Kluivert destroyed Mourinho’s ambitious quadruple plans. This left Arsenal and Manchester United to slog out a 0-0 draw in normal and extra time with only Paul Scholes’s penalty miss separating the two teams at the end of a long and turgid battle which left question marks over Ferguson’s and Wenger’s approach to the next season. Ferguson recovered, Wenger never really has done.

2006 more than made up for it. It’s as if the chaos surrounding the future of Wembley and the FA Cup locked up inside the Millenium stadium was fit to burst once the new Wembley stadium was almost up and running and ready for the final the following year. The match included an own goal, a last minute screamer and a dramatic penalty shootout as the Millenium Stadium put on a swansong which would have given any Cup final beforehand a run for its money. Jamie Carragher’s own goal probably was not befitting of the loyalty and passion he has displayed for Liverpool, but was no less comical because of this. Luckily, his friend and equally passionate midfield behemoth Steven Gerrard scored two cracking goals epitomising his commitment to the Liverpool cause. The last one is particularly memorable to me for the John Motson over-the-top commentary quickly undercut by the Mark Lawrenson deadpan analysis. Liverpool being the kings of penalties in English football unsurprisingly won the shoot- out in what was an otherwise unpredictable and classic cup final clash.

The Millenium Stadium defied the doubters. It was a short period in FA Cup history which served both as a microcosm and a continuation of its rich legacy rather than destroying a competition more hampered by the emphasis on European competitions in recent years than its short change in location. The finals were at times unbelievable, boring and just strange (Or is that just the processes within my memory) and created a unique atmosphere for which the New Wembley could do well to look back upon. Yes, it wasn’t Stanley Matthews, Ricky Villa and the White Horse but it was still highly entertaining.

Nathan Packman