Seventeen times in 19 seasons the big four clubs – names that no longer need to be spelt out – have walked off with the FA Cup. Even the two teams to deny them during that period, Everton and Tottenham, are among the fashionable few who ought to be challenging for domestic cups, if no longer the League itself.
So while Portsmouth and Cardiff City bring not so much a breath of fresh air as a typhoon to next Saturday's final, there is an obligation on them to prove to television viewers around the world that there is substance to the depth about which English football regularly boasts.
Among the 400 million expected to watch in 160 countries, some scratching of heads over the identity of the finalists will be understandable. Ports-mouth, they will be told, have won the Cup once, the League championship twice and nothing at all for 58 years. Cardiff, not even an English club (hence the second national anthem being played before kick-off), have not achieved much either these past, er, 81 years. But they beat Barnsley, who knocked out Liverpool and Chelsea, while Portsmouth defeated Man-chester United, who had disposed of Arsenal; and that is the way knockout football works.
An additional novelty will be the sight of an English managerwalking up the steps at the end of it all to collect a winner's medal – the first since Joe Royle in 1995. Dave Jones, whose Scouse accent has never left him during sojourns in Stockport, Southampton, Wolverhampton and now Cardiff, would be a popular choice, above all for his dignity during the appalling allegations that cost him his job at Southampton and a year out of the game but were thrown out of court within a few days.
There can be few, however, who would begrudge success to Harry Redknapp, 35 years in football, the last 25 of them as a manager, but with a trophy cabinet that has never made great demands on the Brasso.
"It would be fantastic to win it, and we're not going to get a better chance, let's not kid ourselves," Redknapp said on Friday, hiding what would be huge personal satisfaction. "It's more important to the fans and the club, it's for them really. When I've gone, history moves on, but for the club and fans, winning the FA Cup is something they'll never forget."
Nor, surely, would football family Redknapp, if dad could go one better than son Jamie, a runner-up in 1996. There was an InterToto Cup with West Ham, in the days when three different clubs all "won" it in the same season; and an Associate Members Cup with Bournemouth once, the year before the competition first earned a sponsor and a glamorous Wembley final. But when Portsmouth beat West Bromwich Albion 1-0 in last month's semi-final, it was his first match there as either player or manager.
The longevity hints at success in other areas, which may be summed up simply as a knack of taking a team and improving it. Indeed, the worse the team, the better he does. Never have AFC Bournemouth known headier days than the 1980s, when Redknapp's side knocked Manchester United out of the Cup and reached the old Second Division for the first time in their history. That was a team whose first two games under him were lost 9-0 to Lincoln and 5-0 to Leyton Orient. West Ham, having been relegated twice in four years, were taken to fifth place in the Premier League; twice he has revived Portsmouth, a club originally inherited when in danger of relegation to the third tier.
Each time the quest has been for better players, an apparentlyceaseless search that to Redknapp's fury attracted the attention of the City of London policeto Portsmouth in November.
"The game's about good players," has always been his mantra, and his judgement of them has mostly been vindicated again: a back five with almost 2,000 appearances between them, who have kept 22 clean sheets this season, plus midfield balance from Papa Bouba Diop, Lassana Diarra, Sulley Muntari and Niko Kranjcar. "We've got a great goalkeeper, two terrific centre-halves and the full-backs have done well," he says. "I could say I've drilled them for 12 hours a day on the training ground but I'd be talking a load of bollocks.
"When I came back here we were bottom of the League, because the team was useless, terrible. The players were no good. That's why I had to get rid of them and bring better players in. The job's easy when you walk out in the morning and see good players." All the more so when they are players other supposedly good judges have warned you off: "I bought Sol Campbell and everybody said, 'Are you mad, he's lost it, finished', but he's been great. David James the same; people now involved with the England set-up wouldn't touch him with a bargepole, but he's been brilliant."
Many supporters are less convinced about strikers Kanu and Milan Baros, who with Jermain Defoe cup-tied must carry the game to Cardiff more effectivelythan they did against West Brom-wich. How that pair fare against Fulham this afternoon, trying to end a run of three successive defeats, will decide whether Redknapp reverts to the 4-5-1 formation that has served Ports-mouth so well away but would be against his natural instincts for an occasion such as this.
"I think people get fed up every year watching Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United, and last year's final was pretty dull," he said. Four hundred million are waiting to see if the lesser lights can shine more brightly.
Watch Portsmouth and Cardiff contest the FA Cup final next Saturday on BBC1, 3pmkick-off. More sport: sport.independent.co.ukReuse content