Commentary

The FA Cup: The loudest place on earth

Springtime at Wembley Stadium for the Cup final … it's a special kind of passion

Originally Published: May 17, 2011
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Manchester City fansAlex Livesey/Getty ImagesThe devotion of the British soccer faithful might not have an equal here, even at the Super Bowl.

LONDON -- On Savile Row or on Carnaby Street this season, the silhouette for men's suits is narrower than it has been in some time. Jackets are slim-shouldered, short, unpadded, tapering tight to the waist; pants are snugged through the hips and pegged at the ankles; in bold chalk stripes or lunatic windowpane plaid or rough Shantung silk bright as chrome. Fitted white shirting with wide spread collars and lavender paisley ascots are back. No one older than 30, or larger than a 38 regular, need trouble themselves. And the shoes! The shoes this year are as long and pointed as anything worn by an elf in a fairy tale.

So it is that on any given afternoon in May 2011, every young man on the Underground platform at Piccadilly Circus looks exactly like every young man on the Underground platform at Piccadilly Circus in May 1966. The wheel turns, but never very far and never very fast.


The lilacs and first roses have already come and gone in the dooryards of Mayfair and Bloomsbury. At lunch in Belgravia or Soho, people sit at sidewalk tables and tip their faces squinting to the sun. In Hackney and Stratford, the East End road crews and Olympic construction gangs do the same; and at the Turkish market behind the station in Dalston Junction, the butchers from Ghana and the grocers from Pakistan and the incense sellers from Jamaica argue smiling in 20 languages.

[+] EnlargeFA Cup Finals
Shaun Botterill/Getty ImagesIt might not have been the prettiest of matches, but Micah Richards (left) of Manchester City and Marc Wilson of Stoke City had their moments.

Thus does spring come to England. And with it the FA Cup final.

The Football Association Challenge Cup is a season-long knockout tournament open to nearly every club and team big and small in England. Oldest prize in organized soccer, begun in 1871. Imagine your local American Legion team working its way through the draw to play the St. Louis Cardinals, and you get a sense of the thing. What we call a "Cinderella" back home, they call a "giant-killer" here; and teams move across months of upsets and beatdowns to get to the finals.

This year, it's Stoke City in red and white against Manchester City in powder blue. One the second fiddle in its own hometown; the other a hard-luck team in a hard-luck time who could use a win to lift the spirits of the folks back home.

The game is played down here in London at Wembley Stadium. Wembley, the national temple no matter how often rebuilt or made modern.

On game day, people pour in from every point of the compass. Listed attendance Saturday afternoon is 88,000-plus. Exactly 44,000 of whom are clad in red to my left, and 44,000 of whom are dressed in blue to my right. The stadium is divided at the center aisle precisely in half by a row of security personnel in orange. And there are bobbies everywhere. An army of them in stab vests and emergency green windbreakers. Drunken hooligans -- and hoodies and scousers and chavs -- will be harshly dealt with today.

I have never been to a game, a race or a tournament with more impassioned fans for whom so much seemed at stake. Genuine fans. Real fans. Ardent, loyal followers across generations of the teams in play. The British seem to excel at this kind of deep, sharp, heartfelt devotion. And the FA Cup is perhaps their purest, most compressed expression of it.

(Americans, on the other hand, are best at spectacle. Our biggest game is the Super Bowl, a noisy thing attended by almost no real fans. Rather, the Super Bowl is a weeklong corporate debauch and narrative exercise in the fiction of the expense account.)

We also differ in our modes of expression. American fans mostly freelance their chants and cheers. Here, they sing in unison. And they don't know it yet, but the highlight of the day for the Stoke faithful will be their famous live cover of the Tom Jones hit, "Delilah."

The game itself is unlovely, workmanlike and flat-footed. No poetry here, no lyric, only tug and grunt and kick. Stoke falls back again and again and again into a kind of collapsing trap, into a tangle of legs and panicked back tackles, into a defense by congestion.

[+] EnlargeStoke City fans
Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty ImagesEverybody sing along with Stoke City's fans: "My, my, my … Delilah!"

Eventually, though, inevitably, by simply pressing forward and shooting and waiting for the law of averages to kick in the rebound, Manchester City scores.

One-nil, the Sky Blues win the FA Cup.

And for the next 10 minutes, Wembley Stadium is the loudest place on earth. The players for Manchester City climb the stairs to the royal box. The fans of Stoke City rise and applaud them while the tears stream down their cheeks.

Outside, the police presence is overwhelming. There now looks to be a glowering cop for every weaving, singing fan, and a grim-faced battalion on horseback rank upon rank glaring down at you as you walk to the trains. Even the horses wear riot gear.

But there's no trouble anywhere I can see. Just happy fans from Manchester parading and singing and showing the flag; and the buses and coaches back to Stoke filling with pale, rueful faces.

The whole afternoon dissolves under the sunset like sugar.


Earlier in the week, there'd been a lunchtime punch-up on the subway. A skinny drunken fellow, red-faced, maybe 27 or 28 years old and with a can of Carling balanced carefully on one knee, had been hit very hard on the nose. Very hard indeed. In front of him on the floor of the car was a spreading pool of blood and spilled beer. He held a paper napkin soaked with both pressed to his nostrils. He sat very still and very straight and from what he told the conductor through the napkin, nothing much had happened, just a "disagreement" among mates and that everything was fine, and that if only they would "please close the doors now please" and let the train go off, he "wouldn't inconvenience no one."

[+] EnlargeJermaine Pennant
AP Photo/Kirsty WigglesworthIt hurts to lose, and Stoke City's Jermaine Pennant can't hide it.

In light of an assault like this, and the ensuing mess of lager and bodily fluids, this, of course, they could not and would not do. He refused very quietly to move. The coppers were called.

But here occurs the defining thing: That tipping moment of difference between this society and that one, between here and there, between them and us, between crown and colony.

Or possibly not.

Rather than handcuff and haul away this sad, polite young man already ruined by drink and humiliated by fistic mischief, the coppers and the trainsmen conferred in whispers and then asked the several hundred rest of us to de-train. Sober and unpunched, this we did.

And from the platform, we all watched as that train pulled slowly away, so very slowly, silent and entirely empty but for two unsmiling bobbies on either side of a young man sitting very straight, chin up, a puddle of blood at his feet and his pointed shoes polished to a perfect mirror shine.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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