Old-fashioned spectacle perfectly captured in Millennium Stadium

'Who would have predicted that the 2001 FA Cup final teams would be led on to a Welsh field by a pair of Frenchmen?'
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The Independent Football

Was it just me, or was it you too? For several reasons Saturday seemed like a throwback to the days when the sun always shone, butter tasted like butter, and the FA Cup final provided the domestic football season with a thrilling exclamation mark.

Was it just me, or was it you too? For several reasons Saturday seemed like a throwback to the days when the sun always shone, butter tasted like butter, and the FA Cup final provided the domestic football season with a thrilling exclamation mark.

Strictly speaking, Saturday's match was more of a semi-colon, with the promotion play-offs still to come and Champions' League qualification still to be decided. Footie is no longer done and dusted by mid-May as it used to be, indeed the 2000/2001 Premier League season chugs on until the third day of the first Test match, which is a lamentable state of affairs.

Nevertheless, watching the telly on Saturday I was transported back to Cup final Saturdays of my youth. To be sure, there were some things missing, such as Cup final It's A Knockout, with teams from north London and Merseyside walking the plank in giant weeble costumes, and Stuart Hall staggering around in the background having a mirth-induced seizure. And sadly there was no Meet The Players' Wives, with Mrs Lee Dixon confiding that her hubbie eats two bowls of Frosties every morning and has all Barry White's albums. But the ITV camera did linger salaciously on the pop singer Louise, Mrs Jamie Redknapp, which I suppose was Meet The Players' Wives 2001-style.

Another thing that turned this FA Cup final into a throwback was the venue, which was mightily ironic given that the match has never before been held outside England. But Cardiff's Millennium Stadium did it proud, and restored the sense of occasion that started to wither at Wembley as soon as the shabby old place was used to house semi-finals and play-off finals and Arsenal's European games and any old bunfight.

Of course it made hard commercial sense to use Wembley more often. The late Joe Cohen, the founder of Tesco, would have approved, for it was he who once advised the MCC committee to make greater use of Lord's by running a dog track around the outside of the pitch, and holding dance band concerts in the middle. "And if that doesn't work you should knock the bloody place down and build a great big supermarket," he added.

Perhaps a great big supermarket is what Wembley should yet become. Its closure was due cause for a few sentimental tears ­ even if the endless farewell concerts and farewell auctions, almost all of them featuring Sir Geoff Hurst in a leading role, was pitching it a bit strong ­ but to gaze upon the sparkling Millennium Stadium on Saturday was to realise that the Twin Towers should have been bulldozed yonks ago. Moreover, we should know by now that if we want an English institution to be managed properly, we're better off looking beyond our borders. For Wembley, Cardiff and the FA Cup final, read Kevin Keegan, Sven Goran Eriksson and the England football team.

So that was partly it; the venue. But there were other ingredients stirring memories of FA Cup finals of yore. The fixture, for starters. Because for chaps of my generation accelerating towards 40 like Michael Owen towards David Seaman's goal ­ Arsenal v Liverpool carries huge resonance.

Their 1971 encounter represented the first FA Cup final of my formative footballing years. I was nine years old and already committed to Everton, the previous season's League champions, but Cup final day transcended local partisanship. So, always happy to wallow in my own nostalgia, I recently submitted an interview request to the hero of 1971, Charlie George. He declined. Apparently, he sounded genuinely bewildered. Why on earth would he want to spend time with a journalist unless there was some dosh in it for him? Let a scoring opportunity go begging? Not Charlie, then or now.

Saturday's match itself was the other factor turning the clock back. For years now FA Cup finals have, with only the odd exception, been turgid, one-sided affairs devoid of memorable goals or even skill. For 75 minutes this one followed more or less the same script, but then the thing exploded, and Owen's fantastic second goal seemed like an armed robbery on the memory banks. It was just like winning goals in Cup finals used to be and ought to be, propelling young Owen into the archives, where he will forever rub shoulders with the likes of Charlie George and Ricky Villa.

All of which is hugely reassuring in these changing times. After all, one only had to look at Saturday's Sky Sports pundits to be reminded that football is an ever-evolving beast. Who would have predicted three months ago that of Harry Redknapp, George Graham and Graeme Souness, only Souness would be contemplating Premiership management next season? And who would have predicted 30 years ago that the 2001 FA Cup final teams would be led on to a Welsh field by a pair of Frenchmen? All credit to them, and to Cardiff, for providing such a splendidly old-fashioned spectacle.

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