Much as we all enjoy fulminating at those responsible for the expensive shambles that is the redevelopment of Wembley Stadium, I for one - and the publicans of Cardiff for a few dozen more - will be a little regretful when the FA Cup final eventually relocates from the banks of the Taff to the lee of the North Circular Road, in whichever decade that might be.
One of the joys of going as a supporter to the FA Cup final is the journey, a joy denied to Londoners travelling to Wembley, because the words "joy" and "Metropolitan Line" do not belong in the same sentence, and the words "joy" and "North Circular" scarcely belong in the same language.
I know all this from bitter experience. There is plenty for which I ought to remember the all-Merseyside 1989 FA Cup final - an extraordinarily poignant occasion because of the Hillsborough disaster the previous month - yet my mind's eye is fixed firmly and none too fondly on a hot, smelly and desperately crowded London Underground train that took almost an hour to limp between two stations. It might have been easier to bear had there been a jolly journey from Lime Street to Euston that morning, but I lived in London at the time, so the journey to Wembley was limited to the nightmare that was, and will be again, the Metropolitan Line on Cup final day. I remember an ironic chorus of "We shall not be moved", which petered out when we all realised that we couldn't waste our energy on song, we needed it to breathe.
No, going to a Cup final, to be truly fulfilling, needs to involve a motorway or, at the very least, a mainline train journey. It needs scarves flapping out of car windows on the fast lane of the M1, or even hanging limply in an eight-mile tailback. It needs thumbs-up and tooting horns, and perhaps even the occasional hairy backside pressed against glass. Whatever, it always seemed a shame to me that fans of Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea (clubs which between them have contested more than half the finals since 1980) should be deprived of what, for fans of Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton, was so much part of the fun.
Cardiff has changed all that. With the not-unpredictable failure of Cardiff City to reach an FA Cup final for the first time since 1927, almost all fans have had to travel to get there, thereby introducing the London-based contingent to what my friend Mark, a Hammer happy to leave his home in Kent at 6.30 this morning, refers to as the "togetherness" of Cup final motorway-syndrome.
There will be similar togetherness on the trains, the difference being that not everyone will be bound for the Millennium Stadium. Some of the Liverpool fans changing at Crewe and joining the Manchester-Cardiff service, for instance, will doubtless rub shoulders with punters bound for the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival. There may be some West Ham fans on board, too, which will make the compartment a true cultural melting pot.
I had an exquisite taste of this a few years ago when Mark invited me to join him at the Championship play-off final between West Ham and Crystal Palace. I boarded the Cardiff train at Ludlow, and was richly amused to watch the genteel couple opposite intently scrutinising their Hay Festival programme while across the aisle four West Ham fans discussed the forthcoming match, their eloquence diminishing at exactly the same rate as their empty lager cans proliferated.
Of course, the pleasure of travelling to matches is by no means confined to finals. Every weekend, at every match in every division, it is an essential part of the football experience. Last Sunday, for instance, I drove my son, Joe, to Goodison Park. We normally get the train, but with it being the last game of the season I thought we might linger afterwards, thereby missing the 5.52 from Lime Street. So I needed to park, and eventually found a space in a scruffy side street. An elderly woman, small, squat and red-haired, her few teeth best described as a flat back four, wandered over. She nodded towards a couple of urchins sitting on a wall eyeing my car. "They'll have it stripped in no time," she said. "But don't worry, love, I'll keep my eye on it."
She did, too, and three hours later I gratefully slipped her a fiver. Only as we drove away did it occur to me that the urchins, too, had been small, squat and red-haired. Still, better to fall victim to a granny's protection racket than to lose your wheels. And here's another thought: if those in charge of rebuilding Wembley had done their job as cleverly as she does hers, the roads to Cardiff today would be a sight quieter.Reuse content