Power struggle is a final let-down

Richard Williams at Wembley bemoans a lack of style as a game reverts to type
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THE SHARED smiles of Joe Royle and Alex Ferguson as they met outside the dressing-rooms to lead their teams through the Wembley tunnel created a deceptively promising prelude to an FA Cup final that mirrored the season as a whole. However tempting it had seemed on paper, the reality of the match reflected the crudest and most basic truths of English football.

No domestic season in living memory has started with more optimism than the one that drew to a fevered close at 4.45pm yesterday. In the wake of a marvellous World Cup, great players from France, Germany, Russia, Nigeria, Scandinavia, Ghana and elsewhere were assembling to entertain us in splendidly refurbished stadiums fit for all the family. The extraordinary success of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch and the appearance of Four-Four-Two, an intelligent football magazine, contributed to the mood of classless and cosmopolitan pleasure.

How differently it turned out. Now, after months of continuous trauma, English football must prepare itself for a season of rehabilitation on and off the pitch before we host the European Championship next summer.

In prospect, yesterday's match hummed with anticipation. Who could not be moved by the possibilities inherent in the meeting of a reborn Everton with a Manchester United team struggling to hang on to its last remaining chance of honours in a season that had once offered the mirage of total domination? But as Dave Watson, the winning captain, mounted the steps to claim the Cup, it had long become clear to all except Evertonians that the English game had reverted to type.

Perhaps it was just the thing football fans from Paris to Peking are hoping for when they tune in to the FA Cup Final. Well, here it was, in all its fabled intensity: crash-bang football, of a type played virtually nowhere else in the world since the Second World War.

You could see what this kind of football culture does even to a young player of constructive inclination. Nicky Butt is a skinny 20-year-old forward in the best traditions of Manchester United. After five minutes, his intuitive flicked pass gave the match its first moment of class. But as the half wore on his contribution came to fit more appropriately between the snarling of Paul Ince, the thundering of Roy Keane and the rumbling of Mark Hughes. In fact Butt was getting involved in all this largely because of the ineffectiveness of Ince, supposedly United's midfield enforcer. But between the 30th and the 40th minutes Ince was the loser in a cameo battle with, of all people, Anders Limpar.

The Swede is the archetypal tanner ball-player, the kind whose inconsistency infuriates English managers. He represents the struggle of the cerebral against the physical. But here he was, half an hour into the game, profiting from Ince's failure to block a clearance on the edge of the Everton penalty area, scampering clear with three team-mates to create Paul Rideout's goal. Three minutes later Limpar robbed Ince in midfield, launching another attack. A further four minutes later he did it again, to the same player, creating a chance from which Rideout should have put Everton two up. The commitment of the Swedish luxury player had shaped the game.

But such a brief description already makes the game sound better than it was. Through poverty of imagination, a reluctance to take risks and the absence of a single player with the ability to slow the tempo, this was a demonstration of almost unrelieved banality.

It is enough of an indictment that there were more passes back to the goalkeeper than I have seen in a game since the law changed three years ago. As early as the first quarter of an hour, the unfortunate Steve Bruce - one of England's more skilful central defenders - was sufficiently mistrustful of his own technique to turn and pass back to Peter Schmeichel from a position 10 yards inside his own half, while under the minimum of pressure.

When Ryan Giggs came on for the second half, it looked as though the game might at last have found the flame to light its spirit. Instead, it was left to an altogether less glamorous Welshman to illuminate the closing stages.

Playing his 650th game for Everton, 14 years after his pounds 150,000 transfer from Bury, Neville Southall banished the memory of Norman Whiteside's curler in the 1985 final with a series of interventions: a double save with hand and foot from Paul Scholes and a graceful plunge on to Gary Pallister's header redoubled his team-mates' confidence and broke United's hearts as the match crashed and banged to its predictable conclusion.