Opinion: Apprehensive excitement for another Wembley trip

Friday 24 May 2024 17:59

So, here we are, at the end of a ten-month journey across England and Europe, with a toe even dipped ever-so briefly in Asia, which culminates with another walk of apprehensive excitement down Wembley Way.

With less to play for in the Premier League than we’d have hoped for in these last few weeks, attention has been firmly set on this date: Saturday 25 May.

It’s one of those moments in the schedule you keep free when the season begins. Plans for work, holidays, birthdays or whatever else are discussed and you can spot the football fan with ease — or at least the optimistic, switched-on ones. They pipe up quickly, before anything can be pencilled in, let alone set in stone, to point out, ‘that’s FA Cup final day, keep that free’.

And, in most years, there comes a point in the season when you can safely, with some disappointment, organise an event for that date, knowing you won’t be a part of that special day this time around. And that fate felt inevitable when this season began, simply because teams rarely reach consecutive cup finals. Surely United wouldn’t? Well, we have, via some remarkable moments. So, apologies Mum, first of all, for interrupting your 60th birthday weekend, but we did warn you…

Our FA Cup final bus Video

Our FA Cup final bus

On board the bus | "We're the famous Man United and we're on our way to Wembley..."

She won’t be watching under the arch on Saturday — after attending two finals with a 0% winning record, Mum thinks she brings the bad luck, despite our protestations. However, I will be there, as will my brother, my Dad and many mates, met on terraces, in concourses, bars, restaurants and streets in Manchester, around England and across the world, all through MUFC. And, despite some trepidation, I can’t wait.

It’s a special thing, the FA Cup final. For the history of course, but also just for its position at the culmination of a season. This is the final day after so many memorable ones. Whether, like me, you’re lucky enough to have followed the Reds across the world or you’ve watched in your own village, town or city elsewhere, we all have our own unique memories of the highs and the lows. And it’s those ups and downs, for me, which will come to mind again as the strains of Abide With Me draw closer on Saturday afternoon.

We’ve danced on tables at Oktoberfest in Munich, eaten Danish pastries in Copenhagen and seen the most incredible mosques while sailing down the Bosphorus in Istanbul. But we’ve also been scarred by that celebration music at the Allianz (I jump when I hear it now) after conceding four, gone from the Parken Stadium to the airport and work without sleeping — after shipping another four — and trudged through biblical rain in Turkey, after letting in a heartbreaking three.

As Bruno Fernandes said in his inspiring, heart-warming letter on Friday morning, “frustration… isn’t that what we all feel?” Indeed. Frustration for those moments that slipped away. And also for the bleakest spells, none more so than the first half at Crystal Palace earlier this month. Not the second half at Selhurst Park, though, because that’s where a pre-Cup final defiance shone through.

I came out of the Palace game after a 4-0 defeat buzzing. Football fans’ responses to on-pitch happenings are often seen as binary: happy to win, angry to lose. But it’s not so predictable. As the third goal was scored against us in south London, a wave of unspoken defiance washed over the away end. Fans stood proudly on seats, arms aloft, with increasingly hoarsening voices and as a fourth went in, the noise continued and grew.

It’s an amazing feeling watching your team win, but there’s something strangely brilliant about watching your team lose in that manner. When the whole world was lining up ready to laugh at United, we reminded everyone that while success has defined the club, enormous, noisy away ends have been the norm for decades, regardless of the score.

But key to that was the knowledge that these players needed our support. Forget a squabble over a place here and there in the league, there’s a Cup final to play for. They need to know that Reds will support the club through whatever, and thanks to a collection of truly unforgettable moments this season, there is that faith there. Yes, it’s title-winning Manchester City we are to face, our conquerors twice this season, but this is a United team that really can step up for the big games.

I can still picture Amad and Garnacho sprinting towards the Stretford End. You know for which goal. That raw pace and confidence of youth, dragged on by the most guttural roar. We had no hope arriving at Old Trafford that day, and what followed was one of the greatest games our fine old stadium has ever played host to.

Highlights: United v Liverpool Video

Highlights: United v Liverpool

Short highlights | The best action from an all-time FA Cup classic, packed into less than three minutes…

And again, this week, optimism builds first. Blind faith, perhaps. “Martinez 90th minute winner” was the first suggestion. It built from there. “Onana overhead kick?” someone else asked in the group chat. When another claimed it would be them to score, you could tell we were all dreaming. And why not? The hope isn’t what kills you, it’s what makes following a football team the best thing you can do.

Nerves will follow on Saturday morning, excited nerves at first, and then the sense of impending doom may follow, a sense of helplessness even. Finally, we’ll take our seats and the belief will come surging back, because you just have to believe when you’ve got 30,000 of your own kind around you and 30,000 of ‘them’ directly opposite.

The disdain for your opponent pulls at one heartstring, and the absolute love for your own team tugs at another, until a fast-paced symphony is racing away inside you, presented to the public as a tumult of waving fists, colours and contorted faces. I love it.

Those moments of victory in a United end at Wembley are hard to beat.

Then we'll watch, for 90 minutes, or perhaps 120. And very little of it will be enjoyable. A constant chorus will sing in my mind of the despair of defeat or how good victory could be. Some of the football will pass me by, other parts will have me biting fingernails or bubbling nervously up and down.

Last season was painful. We had the chance to stop City from replicating our feat in ‘99: a Treble. But I’d rather we had the chance and failed and desperately hope it will prove inspiration for round two. Under the arch at Wembley, this feels like a heavyweight boxing epic.

United were hardly given a chance last season and received a first-round knock-down, but steadied ourselves. We didn’t have quite enough firepower to rescue a result, but showed enough to warrant a re-match. And here it is. A second special opportunity to get one over our neighbours at Wembley, one match which could suddenly catapult an at-times miserable season into one forever defined by one moment, and perhaps one goalscorer, transformed immediately into cult hero.

I can picture the bedlam now; the uncontrollable joy, the hugging of mates I’ve travelled the world with and the endless euphoria which will stretch on long into the summer. We’re lucky enough to have seen it all and won the lot, but there really would be something really special about this one pot. Bring on United!