Why this FA Cup final means so much more than a trophy

They said the FA Cup didn’t matter anymore. Try telling that to Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho when the clock ticks into injury time tonight.

Mourinho, Conte

Jose Mourinho (L) and Antonio Conte (R) are separated by fourth official Mike Jones Source: Getty Images

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Even if you’re neither a Chelsea nor Manchester United fan, you can be absolutely guaranteed of fireworks when the two teams lock horns in the final at Wembley.

Put simply, there is too much on the line – especially for the loser. There is a certain atmosphere around this final that is certain to spill over. And the managerial tension will be the nucleus of it all.

An FA Cup victory is no guarantee of a stay of execution, as Louis van Gaal found out two years ago. But it has been the magic elixir for Arsene Wenger, who, no matter what his detractors said about the Gunners’ league form, ended three of the past five seasons with a Wembley triumph.

Conte finds himself half-way between those two. Van Gaal was a dead man walking; the Wembley press box found out at half-time of the final that Mourinho’s arrival had been confirmed – and the Dutchman was fired that night. Conversely, Wenger just needed to give Stan Kroenke an excuse to keep him, which silverware proved to be.

The Italian has survived all manner of grenades lobbed his way this season and finishing fifth in the league is, by any measure, hugely underwhelming. With no European honours to chase, a Cup defeat would almost finish him off. The opposite of Kroenke, Roman Abramovich is the most unforgiving of owners.

Conte is a great manager who deserves better than to be shown the door but these are the times we live in. A trophy tonight should give him the bargaining power to extend for another six months – enough time to recruit the players he needs and to move on those who haven’t delivered. This season, there’s been more than a few of those.

But there will be glorious schadenfreude for Mourinho if he wins and then Conte, the man who replaced him at Stamford Bridge, is sacked. The Special One will again prove – at least in his own mind – that he should never have been fired from Chelsea.

And it is Chelsea with who Mourinho cannot be untangled. Of the five titles they’ve won in the past 15 years, he was at the helm for three of them, and the fans still love him. A third stint, something that usually only happens in South America, can’t ever be ruled out.

United were better this season under Mourinho than they were in 2016-17 but victory in the UEFA Europa League and League Cup papered over some of the cracks in that campaign. Finishing second this year suggests an upwards curve but there’s still a feeling he needs to get more from an increasingly expensive squad. Winning the FA Cup would at least build belief around a title run next year.

And yet, irrespective of the side narratives, this is an FA Cup final, which making alone is an enormous achievement. It is the most important of all domestic cups, whose currencies have been falling at roughly the same rate domestic and European leagues have been increasing.

But the FA Cup still matters. It will always matter. It just holds a different place in the football pantheon now. Cups increasingly rely on their giant-killing narratives to provide the feel-good context, but there’s no reason big clubs shouldn’t aim to win them. As soon as Prince Harry slips the ring on Meghan Markle, everyone will switch over.
The final also has a special place for Australians because, for many years, it was the only live football that many were able to see live each year. Midnight would strike, and grainy pictures (which gradually became clearer and eventually became colour) would be sent back of magic moments that would become football folklore.

An inordinate amount of Australian sports fans still remember the classic FA Cup finals of the 1970s and 1980s and they helped bed the foundation of the modern day obsession with the English Premier League. With so much on the line, this year's might be as captivating as any of them.

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Published 19 May 2018 at 4:53pm
By Sebastian Hassett