As I walked out of Wembley after watching Arsenal lift the FA Cup aloft last month, crammed in amid thousands of supporters waiting patiently to get into Wembley Park tube station, I started to recall where my FA Cup Quest actually began.
Readers of my blog will know that my starting club was South Normanton Athletic. But the decision to start with them, a decision which would ultimately plot my journey to the final, actually began on a wet and muggy July evening at a friendly between Heanor Town and Mansfield Town.
You see, the intention was to begin my Quest in Heanor, a small town in Derbyshire, as I was born there 39 years ago. So I thought it would be fitting to start with them. But, as I went for a half time pint at that friendly, I noticed a poster in the club house informing fans that Heanor’s Extra Preliminary Round tie was scheduled for a Friday night. And, with the missus already having plans for that night – meaning I was on child duty – the decision to once again start at Lees Lane, South Normanton, was made. I like to start local, with a Derbyshire team if possible, so Normo was ideal. I will, at a later date, compare the two routes. The route I actually took, and the route I would have taken had I have been able to attend Heanor’s game.
So as I waited amongst gleeful Gooners, I felt a sense of achievement. I’d accomplished something. I’d done what I set out to do 10 months ago. I’m not the only person who’s ever completed this journey of course. In fact there are probably a few who have done it this season (if you have, let me know. I’d be interested to see your journey). But to go to every game – all 16 – from the Extra Preliminarily Round to the Final, for me, at least, was something I can tick off my ‘to do’ list.
That’s not to say this is the end of my Quest. I’ll be back again in August – hopefully with Heanor Town this time – and I’ll start it all over again. But if it goes belly up and I simply cannot get to Carlisle on a Tuesday night, then so be it. Although I shall try my hardest.
The Final, as you will know, was a cracker. Chelsea v Arsenal could’ve been dull. They could have cancelled each other out. But it was end-to-end, and I’m pleased that the team I was officially following won. Not just because they were my Quest team, but because they absolutely deserved it.
Pre-game I’d spent time amongst Chelsea fans in their designated fan zone. I soaked up the atmosphere as the sun shone down and celery was thrown. Yes, celery. For some unknown reason, sticks of celery were flying over people’s heads as the Chelsea fan zone became vegetable warfare. The fan zone idea is great. A DJ whipped up the atmosphere while beers were drank and burgers were scoffed while a big screen showed Chelsea’s former Cup triumphs.
Although can someone explain why this is only made available for one club? Arsenal fans weren’t given the same deal. There’s only one fan zone and that was Chelsea’s. It was the same in the semi-final, with Man City supporters getting the zone. Maybe the deal is that the ‘home’ side get the zone and the ‘away’ side get the pubs. It certainly seemed that way in the semi as every pub around Wembley was Arsenal.
Despite the lack of balance over the fan zones, all around the ground the atmosphere was friendly. The week before, Britain had once again been targeted by terrorists, as a bomb at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester had killed 18 people. With the country’s terror alert maxed up to critical, meaning more terror attacks were imminent, many thought the Cup Final could be targeted. But that did not dampen the atmosphere. In fact, it probably bolstered the air of togetherness; a unity between rival London supporters seldom seen at matches. Fans mingled, selfies were taken with police horses, supporters chatted with cops and people just got on with things. It was heart warming to see a bunch of kids – in both Chelsea and Arsenal replica shirts – happily having a kick about outside the stadium.
It was my first ever FA Cup Final, and what a day it was. Hopefully I shall return next year. Until July, when next season’s Extra Preliminary Round draw is made, that’s all from me.
Pics and videos from cup final day
The obligatory pre-match Wembley Way shot.
Bobby Moore standing proudly outside the stadium.
The Arsenal end fills up…
…as does the Chelsea end.
The teams are out.