People are very nice to you before cup finals, even people who don't care much for football. They wish you good luck a lot; they ring the evening before the match and sing encouraging songs on your answerphone. When I set out on Saturday morning, I found on the doorstep a white flower dipped in blue ink, from the people up the road. It's like your birthday, Valentine's Day and Christmas all at once.
I met Ben, my partner at Chelsea games, at Oxford Circus. Naturally we had discussed in the past the notion of following Chelsea to Wembley, but only in the spirit in which you discuss other fantasy proposals, like: 'If someone gave you a million pounds tomorrow, what would you do with it?'
Now, however, we really were going. And judging by our frozen expressions, neither of us quite believed it.
As a diversionary tactic, we called at a bookies in Berwick Street to see if we could bet that Manchester United's Roy Keane would get sent off. We were told that there were no odds available on this, which we took as further evidence that it was a foregone conclusion. Then we had breakfast: one last meal before nerves closed down my digestive system. I refused solids for the rest of the day.
We walked ruminatively up Wembley Way at the same sort of pace at which people amble through art galleries. It seemed prudent to capitalise on every aspect of the experience in case we were too old and infirm to make it next time. We savoured our seats, the noise and the colour. And then United came out and spoilt it all.
Inevitably, after a disaster of this magnitude, you begin to wonder: was it me? Was there anything I didn't do? And I've got to hold a hand up here and say that, when it came to it, I should have paced myself better; I was hoarse by about 1.30. Perhaps it wasn't very far-sighted to get so worked up at seeing the team arrive in their suits to inspect the pitch. Come the end of 'Abide with Me' I had no voice left whatsoever and was, in any case, speechless and tearful with emotion. I made the classic error. I let the big occasion get to me.
Then, once the game got going, I never settled. I had assumed there would be a few first minute jitters,but that eventually I would relax and begin to play my natural game. Instead, for the hour that the score sheet remained blank while we were seeking the one goal which would have sunk them, I was gripped by stomach cramps, incipient angina and what felt like a circulatory problem preventing blood from reaching my legs.
Of course, I objected loudly to both penalty decisions, my judgement unaffected by the fact that I didn't actually see either incident. (And I don't want to check the video, not yet.)
Also, I don't recall once setting eyes on the actual FA Cup trophy. I'm sure Manchester United must have walked past with it, but it was probably while I was watching Dennis Wise trudging off at the other end, head bowed, holding a sopping wet Chelsea flag. It's an image which will stay with me for a long time.
I had started the day lifting floral tributes from my funny doorstep. I ended it walking dejectedly down Wembley's grim streets in the filthy rain, drenched, silent, holding a polystyrene cup of tea.
Ben's brother Tom met us afterwards. He had secured a ticket through some kind of dealer after protracted negotiations by mobile phone. It was at the Manchester United end and it cost him pounds 400. As it worked out, that was pounds 100 per United goal. Plus he had to sit very quietly and pretend to enjoy it when they scored. But it had been Tom's ambition since the age of 12 to stand at Wembley singing 'Abide With Me' with a Chelsea side waiting in the tunnel. He reckoned he got a bargain and so do I.
People are very nice to you after cup finals. At home on Saturday night, there were messages again, this time of condolence, two of them from non-partisans reassuring me that the second one never was a penalty. (Are you reading this, ref?)
I need some time to get over this. Maybe the summer break will do it. Maybe 24 years.
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