Fortitude in the face of yet another disaster

FA CUP FINAL: Rupert Cornwell picks his way through huge-bellied figure s in a sea of beer cans to enjoy a thoroughly English event
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The Independent Online
How English it all was. Yes, an Italian was even money to score the first goal, and he did - in record time to boot. Yes, the foreign legion drew the biggest cheers from both sets of supporters and Zola-emblazoned tricolori at the Chelsea end were rivalled in number by yellow and green Brazilian scarves wrapped around sweaty Teesside necks on this sauna bath of a Cup Final day. And yes, some modishly dressed spectators (if sociologists are to be believed, Chelsea followers all) did bring back for this writer fleeting memories of Sunday afternoons past at the Stadio Olimpico or San Siro. But deep down, this was Wembley as it was, is, and I devoutly hope, always shall be.

Some things admittedly had changed since 1978 when I last went to a Cup Final. There was less physical menace in the air, far fewer hooligans in evidence but many more women - including one improbably serene specimen sitting opposite me on the Tube from Charing Cross, dressed in a Boro shirt but made up like a Geisha girl down to a black beauty spot above her lip, smiling sweetly at her companion's every remark. But then again, if he's got you a ticket costing pounds 600 from a tout, why not?

But the approach to the stadium reverted instantly to type. Mounted policemen stood out as islands above a shuffling sea of humanity, split between reds and blues. The smells were as English as the aroma of burnt coffee is Italian: of bad hotdogs and warm lager, spiced with vinegar and horse manure. On either side, huge bellied figures reclined in a sea of beer cans, taking a breather before the battle to come. Supporters took souvenir photos of themselves, had their faces painted, and at one point let loose a ribald yell as one of their number swilled her drink in one hand and bared her bosom with the other.

But these were mere cosmetics. The central element on Saturday was the utterly British ordeal of Middlesbrough football club at this climax of the benighted season of 1996-97, an almost unimaginable series of disasters - some of them self-inflicted - but all borne with stoical fortitude and a resignation somehow transmuted into the conviction that it would be an offence to nature if their team entered any contest on level terms with the opposition.

Thus, after just 43 seconds of abnormal and unsettling parity, Boro's defence generously stood aside as Roberto di Matteo surged through to strike his wickedly dipping shot. To ensure that initial setback would be irreversible, Fabrizio Ravanelli (who should surely never have taken the field to start with) limped off midway through the first half. And, of course, when Gianluca Festa headed home from what looked to be a legal position, there was no way the equalizing goal would be permitted to stand. That, as they say, was the ball game. And Middlesbrough's fatalistic supporters knew it as they downed their half-time beers in the Long Bar beneath the main grandstand, safe in the knowledge that guiding destiny had not failed them.

The second half was as scrappy as what had gone before. Despite the odd shafts of brilliance from Zola, Di Matteo and Juninho, the style was far more English than continental; lots of high speed, dodgem football on a draining day which screamed for someone to pause and think. Intermittently the game was exciting, but from that 43rd second the result was pre-ordained. When it was all over, the red section of the stadium applauded politely and then emptied in silence, while the blue masses revelled at the other end.

Outside, like a defeated and numbed army after a great battle, Juninho's faithful filed slowly back down Olympic Way towards Wembley Park station. There was no anger and - unlike after last weekend's draw at Leeds that sealed relegation - no tears either. They had been stripped of their will to resist, but not of a fundamental British restraint and sense of order.

Every 100 yards or so they were stopped by police, to prevent an unmanageable crush at the station itself. As we waited at one barrier, a policeman on a horse tried to console them. "Commiserations to Middlesbrough," he said through the loudhailer. "But remember, you can't win the Cup if you don't come to Wembley to play the game." In other years, delivered to other supporters, such off-the-cuff philosophizing might have provoked a riot. This time a single voice did yell: "You're a wanker." But most of the Boro fans, whether decked in red or Brazilian yellow and green, raised themselves for a wan cheer. No sambas, no fireworks, no fisticuffs. This was after all England on a Cup Final day like Cup Final days long past. Mercifully, just another game, and there is always next season. For Middlesbrough it can't be worse than the one just finished.