No calamity as James lifts curse

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The Independent Football

If you think the white suits were the worst mistake David James has made in an FA Cup final, think again. Before yesterday he had been to the Wembley showpiece twice and had to endure a long night of lonely self-examination contemplating clangers afterwards. The 1996 final is best remembered for James's disastrous attempt at haute couture, which condemned his Liverpool team-mates to parading under the Twin Towers dressed like refugees from an accident in a flour factory. Even cricketers adopted coloured clothing by way of protest.

Take your mind if you can off the men in the white suits, and the pivotal moment was Eric Cantona's exquisite volley from the edge of the box. But the reason why the Frenchman was able to win the Cup for Manchester United was James's flap at a corner. Four years later James, who had moved to Aston Villa, was blamed for Roberto Di Matteo's winner for Chelsea, which made it two played, two lost, two question marks. No wonder the Portsmouth goalkeeper had a slightly jaundiced attitude.

"My own Cup finals have been shit," he said last week. "The build-up is nice, you enjoy it, great day out, right until the final whistle and then it's horrible. It's one of the worst experiences in football." To give him his due, he has spent most of this season living down the "Calamity James" nickname, and he arrived at the new Wembley not so much an accident waiting to happen as a footballer reinvented.

He was as important as anyone in getting Portsmouth to Wembley, he has regained his place as England's No 1 and while it would be an exaggeration to describe him as a national treasure, he has gone from being a figure of fun to one of respect.

At 37 he is approaching the venerable stage, but that was in keeping with his defence, which included Sol Campbell (33), Sylvain Distin (30) and Hermann Hreidarsson (33). What the 23-year-old Glen Johnson talks about to his fellow members of the back five is anyone's guess but it won't be music and, unless he has a passion for Saturday Night Fever, it won't be fashion either.

Not that anybody appeared to be talking in the opening 35 minutes, when the Pompey defence were so flat a simple pass over their heads had Harry Redknapp's version of Dad's Army charging round like Corporal Jones shouting: "Don't panic".

Campbell, who won the Cup twice with Arsenal, looked like a man rusty from being injured and his partner Distin was hardlycommanding either. Over to Jambo, then, and as early as the first minute James, described by assistant manager Tony Adams as "super-fit", had to race off his line to flick the ball away from Paul Parry. Eleven minutes later James spread himself to deny Parry again after the striker had outpaced and outhustled Campbell, so you could understand why he was berating his back four. "We all buzz off each other," he said, and there was no doubt the words were stinging.

Someone was listening, because after a poor opening in which James was more sweeperthan goalkeeper, the attention switched from one thirtysome-thing to another. Kanu was an isolated figure while his keeperwas keeping Pompey in the match, but once his midfielders had the confidence to join him, he became the decisive figure. The 31-year-old Nigerian striker inexplicably hit the post after a splendid dribble on 22 minutes but preyed on Peter Enckelman's mistake to get the winner.

Give Portsmouth a lead and they usually hang on to it, although James did have his usual Wembley moment at the end of the first-half. Time seemed to go into slow motion as he stretched for a corner and, impeded, could gain only the scantiest of touches. Heads went in hands, the ball into the net as Glenn Loovens scooped it over a slew of Portsmouth defenders.

Was this Di Matteo and, most of all, Cantona revisited? Fortunately for James, no. On television replays it was revealed the England keeper had used his forward momentum to get a second, vital, touch that had flicked the ball on to Loovens' forearm.

The referee, much to Pompey's relief, rightly whistled for a free-kick. After that you felt that the Cup final curse that had afflicted James had been lifted, and in the second half he cut a confident and reassuring figure, barely troubled even when Cardiff threw their resources forward towards the end.

There were only fleeting moments of alarm but, most of all no calamities. The final moment saw James rise to collect a cross so coolly it could have been a practice match. "It was scrappy but we deserved it," he said. "We have defended for our lives in every round." The gods of Wembley had smiled on him at last. For the first time following an FA Cup final, you suspect he had a good night.