How Cardiff put Wembley in the shade

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The Independent Football

"When did the FA Cup go outside England?" has been a long-serving question on the pub quiz circuit, but now the answer will require an update. In 1927, Cardiff City beat Arsenal 1-0 (sorry, you Gunners fans for rubbing it in) and took the trophy home to Wales. On Saturday the FA Cup final itself came to Cardiff, setting up another little piece of football history that will eventually filter down to the quiz circuit. Before that happens though, the debate over Cardiff's suitability as a host city for a big football occasion will be over, as the reactions have all been extremely positive.

"When did the FA Cup go outside England?" has been a long-serving question on the pub quiz circuit, but now the answer will require an update. In 1927, Cardiff City beat Arsenal 1-0 (sorry, you Gunners fans for rubbing it in) and took the trophy home to Wales. On Saturday the FA Cup final itself came to Cardiff, setting up another little piece of football history that will eventually filter down to the quiz circuit. Before that happens though, the debate over Cardiff's suitability as a host city for a big football occasion will be over, as the reactions have all been extremely positive.

The Millennium Stadium has established itself as a great sporting venue which generates an electric atmosphere, with supporters being as close to the pitch as they are in most Premiership grounds ­ apart, perhaps, from the top tier of the vast North Stand at Old Trafford where you can see more of the Pennines than the players.

The stadium also offered a timely counterpoint to the redevelopment of Wembley as England's national stadium. Not only is the arena a stunning architectural achievement, it's also a cheap one, having been completed for about a third of the cost that is currently being proposed for Wembley.

The third factor in the stadium's success is its location right in the heart of Cardiff, not stuck out on a suburban industrial estate like Wembley. My first FA Cup final was, ironically, the 1971 Arsenal vs Liverpool tie and, quite apart from the suffocating heat and the disappointment of losing, the two-hour wait for a tube train at Wembley Park station turned me irrevocably against the venue.

This antagonism was fuelled by the realisation that London mostly regarded the Cup Final and visiting fans as an opportunity to practice both advanced "geezerdom" ­ three-card tricks, fake tickets, over-priced drinks ­ as well as a studied indifference to provincials. Trying to chat up London girls that weekend brought the shattering realisation that they no longer had designs on long-haired lovers from Liverpool. Did they ever?

Cardiff's success in eradicating the mistakes made when it staged the Worthington Cup Final in February suggests a city with an eagerness to please and to react to visitors' complaints. The deliberate misdirecting of traffic to the west of the city, which largely created the infamous grid-lock that ensnared myself and my friend Stan until 10pm, was abandoned on Saturday. Fans were also encouraged to use trains this time around after being warned in February that it would be, more or less, "every fan for himself" at the station after the game.

So this time Stan took the local train to Cardiff on my advice. It seemed to have worked perfectly until his call at around 9.45pm on Saturday informing me that he had missed the last train back, not through any administrative malfunction, but because "the fucking thing had left on time". But even at that hour he'd been able to get a hotel bed.

What he'd found, like many other Liverpool fans to whom I've spoken, was that Cardiff had gone out of its way to welcome the occasion and the fans, rather than to treat them like pillaging hordes that had to be repelled at the first opportunity. At a time when everyone running a hotel, restaurant or visitor attraction is moaning about falling profits, Arsenal and Liverpool fans have probably pumped something like £10m into the Cardiff economy over the weekend.

Having visited Cardiff for work more frequently than London over the past decade, I feel pleased for a city that I've come to like enormously. It seems to be growing in self-confidence and national pride. Did you know, incidentally, that it's only been the capital since 1955? Sorry, there goes another pub-quiz question.

stanhey@aol.com

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