James Lawton: Wembley rivals roll back the years to make final one for knight to remember

This Cup final was more engaging than last year's collision of wealth and power

When Sir Bobby Robson, the guest of honour, entangled his feet in the red carpet, when you saw, as you did in a west London banqueting suite two days earlier at the latest coronation of Cristiano Ronaldo, that the very act of walking was a great effort of will, you wanted some of this Cup final to belong to him.

You wanted it for the old, ailing football man as much as for the managers Harry Redknapp and David Jones and the players and fans of Portsmouth and Cardiff, who came out of the past like sentinels of some of the warmest of the game's history.

This was not as highfalutin an ambition as it may sound because all you were really summoning was a genuine football match, one which had spirit and intensity and, as it happened, one that answered the call of the Portsmouth coach, Joe Jordan, for every player to realise that they might never know such an occasion again.

For the stricken Cardiff City goalkeeper Peter Enckelman, around whose calamitous mistake the game was always likely to revolve, this was a possibility of much poignancy. But then the goalie's sad fate was scarcely a unique one on such a day and long before the end wider hopes had been fulfilled generously enough.

It was indeed a match to put before a football knight who in more vigorous days routinely got up from the dinner table to re-enact some move that had come rearing up in his memory.

No, Portsmouth's narrow victory didn't achieve classic status. It didn't ride alongside the Matthews final of 1953 or Manchester United's timeless lifting of post-war gloom with their brilliant demolition of Blackpool in 1948. Also undeniable was that in the 60 years since the triumph of Sir Matt Busby's first great side there have no doubt been Wembley – and Millennium Stadium – collisions that for both drama and skill demanded a much higher rating.

Nwankwo Kanu's huge feet produced exquisite daintiness only fleetingly and in his excitement Cardiff's teenaged prodigy Aaron Ramsey offered more promise, albeit thrillingly, than cool execution.

But then it was also true that in the first final not to involve a top four club since Tottenham overcame the self-destructive madness of their star Paul Gascoigne to beat Nottingham Forest in 1991 we had much that was both entertaining and even charming.

This was certainly a Cup final that lived far more engagingly than last year's collision of power and wealth between Chelsea and Manchester United. It was stripped of the worst cynicism, and caution, of modern football almost from the first whistle, and much of the credit had to go to the beaten long shots Cardiff.

Portsmouth, eighth in the Premier League, and Cardiff, 12th in the Championship, indeed suggested this was the most important match they had played – and perhaps would ever play.

Any doubts about this were surely swept away by the celebration of Sylvain Distin. At 30, and after stints with six professional clubs, the strong and accomplished Frenchman had won his first major trophy. Handsomely rewarded in his pay packet since arriving at Newcastle, and then moving to Portsmouth after becoming the franchise player of Manchester City's defence, Distin was contradicting his compatriot Arsène Wenger when he tore off his shirt and waved it over his head.

He glowed with something that seemed more deliverance than a single victory. Wenger, of course, once declared that finishing fourth in the Premiership was infinitely more important than winning the Cup, a dismissive view of football's oldest knockout tournament rather confirmed by Manchester United when, as holders, they abandoned the competition for a catchpenny ride to Brazil for an ill-conceived world club tournament.

On Saturday the clock rolled back over the years of neglect, of harping on money – and the belief that fans only wanted their teams to keep company in the Premier League even though they had eyes only for their own team and routinely booed the best of the opposition.

Saturday didn't lack partisanship but it was good-hearted, almost innocent by the standards of most of what we see and hear today.

Pompey's midfield engine Lassana Diarra was no less jubilant than Distin – and he too brought the Svengali of the Emirates to mind. What, you had to speculate, would Wenger have done for the force and the sharp, economic touch of the discarded midfielder when the precocity of Cesc Fabregas and the drive of Mathieu Flamini hit the rocks towards season's end?

Diarra was man of the match by some distance and made still another mockery of the habit of handing the award to someone who happens to find the net, a task which could not have been easier for Kanu when Enckelman plopped the ball so haplessly at his feet.

Kanu's claim might have been far more substantial on the individual honours if he had finished a sublime passage of skill, when he took the ball past Glenn Loovens and the goalkeeper, with a goal rather than a shot against the post. As it was, Diarra's influence meant that good performances from Cardiff's muscular and tenacious centre-back Roger Johnson, Joe Ledley, and Stephen McPhail and the Ramsey cameo were always likely to be pushed into the margins.

Redknapp, resplendent with a flower in his buttonhole, naturally buried most of his emotions beneath the macho veneer of an East End streetwise guy. However, it wasn't so hard to guess his pride that the day was shaped largely by his career-sustaining knack of picking up discarded diamonds and giving them a good polish. Niko Kranjcar, another example of Redknapp's inspired raids into the market, threatened to make the point most spectacularly when he backheeled the ball stunningly into the path of his team-mate Sulley Muntari.

Disappointingly, the man who swept England off the road to the European Championship on a wet and grisly Wembley night, promptly became anonymous again.

However, he did supply a memorable grace note to the day football went back to its roots before handing Redknapp his prize – and making Sir Bobby Robson's gallant journey worthwhile.

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