FA Cup Final: The football match that used to stop the nation

IN DAYS of old, newspapers all over Britain would be preparing their FA Cup specials about this time of year, some getting their caricatures ready for their four-page supplements, others persuading players to pose on the Wembley turf with the odd prop. The cup final was a national event, one that stopped the traffic, commanded intense media attention and sparked interest from people normally disinterested in the great game. The FA Cup was almost part of the social calendar.

IN DAYS of old, newspapers all over Britain would be preparing their FA Cup specials about this time, some getting their characatures ready for their 4-page supplement, others persuading players to pose on the Wembley turf with the odd prop. The cup final was a national event, one that stopped the traffic, commanded many column inches and sparked interest from people not normally remotely interested in the great game. 

It has all changed, not because the FA Cup isn’t worth winning, but because we are bombarded with “special days”, from transfer deadlines to club rebrands, the currency of the word “special” has been devalued. Everyone is “wonderful” or “lovely” and Wembley appearances are not that golden ticket, they have become as commonplace as Monday night leftovers.

For Chelsea, it’s their 28th appearance at the “new” Wembley and 16th in FA Cup matches. They’ve won 14 of their 27 visits up until now and lost nine (not including penalty shoot-outs). Chelsea played at the old Wembley no more than a dozen times. 

Leicester will be playing in their fifth FA Cup final and they are still waiting for their first victory. Their last appearance was in 1969 when they were beaten by Manchester City. That was their third FA Cup final of the 1960s, having lost to Tottenham and Manchester United in 1961 and 1963 respectively. 

Form guide

There’s no doubt that Chelsea and Leicester have been two of the teams of the season in 2020-21, with Leicester losing a little momentum in the closing weeks and Chelsea resurgent under Thomas Tuchel. 

Leicester gave an indication of their intentions early on when they beat Manchester City 5-2 at the Etihad, while Chelsea started well, lost their way, sacked their manager and found their mojo again. Leicester have excited at times and demonstrated they are no longer so reliant on veteran Jamie Vardy.

Chelsea’s path to Wembley has included ties with two Premier League clubs (Sheffield United and Manchester City), two with Championship sides (Luton and Barnsley) and a third round clash with League Two Morecambe. They’ve conceded just one goal and scored 11. Tammy Abrahams, who now appears to be out of favour under Tuchel, has netted four goals, including a hat-trick in the 3-1 win against Luton Town. 

Leicester, meanwhile, have clashed with three Premier sides (Brighton, Manchester United and Southampton). Vardy, who has scored 15 goals this season, has yet to score in the FA Cup, but the player seen as his heir apparent, 24 year-old Kelechi Iheanacho, has scored four.

Leicester’s home form has been suspect, but since reaching the final, they have won three of their five league games. They face Chelsea again just a few days after the Wembley clash.

Chelsea, meanwhile, slipped up against Arsenal at home just before the final, allowing the Gunners to complete the “double” over them for the first time since 2003-04. But their win at Manchester City, clinched in added time, highlighted the progress made under Tuchel. Chelsea have also reached the UEFA Champions League where they will face Pep Guardiola’s side in Porto.

Big six 

Every season, the FA Cup comes under scrutiny: is the competition declining?, do the big clubs care?, do managers prioritise it?, do we need it?. The fact is, the FA Cup has been won by clubs from the so-called “big six” 12 times in the 14 finals that have been held at the new Wembley. Portsmouth in 2008 and Wigan in 2013 are the exceptions. Since 1971, when Arsenal won the double, the big six have won 38 of 50 finals and been runners-up on 23 occasions. That’s 61% of all finalists.

Leicester, of course, have challenged the big six this season and are now on the fringe of becoming a fully-fledged member of the elite. Their away form is good and against the six they have won at Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United. Chelsea’s results against the top clubs have not been impressive. They failed to win any of their games at home, but won at Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham.

Players

Chelsea’s Wembley squad, needless to say, has cost far more than Leicester City’s group of players. They have a very strong squad, which according to Transfermarkt, has a market value of £ 700 million-plus. Leicester’s squad has a value of around £ 430 million. The Chelsea line-up for the final will probably have cost the club more than £ 400 million compared to the £ 250 million Leicester paid for their team. 

Chelsea had a spending spree last summer, signing Ziyech, Havertz, Chilwell and Werner, all talented young players. The huge outlay, around £ 200 million, has yet to reap rewards, with some of the new men not hitting their best form on a consistent basis, but there have been flashes of brilliance that, if properly harnessed, could make Chelsea into title contenders once more. 

Leicester bolstered their defence in the close season, signing Wesley Fofana from Saint-Étienne for £ 30 million and Atalanta’s Timothy Castagne for £ 21 million. Iheanacho, who arrived from Manchester City in 2017 for £ 25 million, has been one of the stars of the season and is now valued at more than £ 40 million.

Viva la difference!

While Leicester City have certainly moved up the rankings in terms of their financial status, they are still way behind the likes of Chelsea. Leicester’s revenues for 2019-20, for example, totalled £ 150 million versus the £ 412 million generated by Chelsea. Leicester’s wage bill was £ 157 million, which amounted to 105% of income, a reflection of the pandemic’s impact on football finance. Covid-19 also contributed to Leicester’s loss of £ 60 million, but Chelsea managed to make a £ 39 million profit for the season.

Chelsea’s wage bill was £ 287 million. Their commercial clout is far in excess of Leicester’s capability at present. Chelsea’s commercial income stream totalled £ 175 million, while Leicester’s was £ 29 million. Chelsea’s matchday revenues were four times the Foxes’ total. 

Experience or enthusiasm?

Chelsea have become one of the FA Cup’s most prolific clubs over the past 15 years. This will be their 15th FA Cup final and the eighth of the Roman Abramovich era. That said, very few of their current team have won the competition: for Mendy, Pulisic, Jorginho, Christensen and the new signings, lifting the FA Cup will be a career first. Olivier Giroud, by contrast, has four FA Cup winners’ medals, won with Arsenal and Chelsea.

Leicester City will be eager to win their first FA Cup, which after an impressive season would confirm their status as an upper-echelon club. For players like Jamie Vardy, Jony Evans, Kapser Schmeichel and Marc Albrighton, who are all in their 30s, it could be their last chance of winning the competition – you never know when the chance will come again. 

This is what will make this final interesting – will it be the moment to remember for the current batch of Chelsea signings, who might have the Champions League on their mind, or will it be the dynamism of Vardy and his younger colleagues who will capture the day? Nobody should underestimate Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City team, they are no longer also-rans, but equally, Tuchel the technician deserves respect for the way he has changed Chelsea this season. These are clubs that are both in the top four of the Premier League, Wembley and the FA couldn’t really ask for more.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: Jon Candy, via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

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