Saturday May 17th 2008
Kick Off 3:00pm
Weather: Damp and cool
Distance travelled: 58 miles
Waking up this morning I felt somewhat drained. Emotionally, mentally and physically. But in a satisfied and almost smug way. As my 16th FA Cup game yesterday drew to a close under the magnificent Wembley arch, the realisation of what I and my friends have achieved finally sunk in. In the whole scheme of things, it is something quite inconsequential. Especially so against the back-drop of cyclones, earthquakes, Third World poverty, the failing economy and melting ice caps. But for me, it has become a dream fulfilled. I am now nursing the morning after, and it all feels a bit surreal. Partly empty at the sudden conclusion of it all, but partly full to the brim with the wonderful memories I have collected, like keepsakes, along the way.
And yesterday provided one last fantastic keepsake. If you have a moment, please let me tell you about my day.
The day was going to be all about the occasion. As with most finals, a decent football game is a bonus. The game itself was far from classic, but intriguing nonetheless and one that was certainly entertaining. I awoke Saturday morning feeling very excited about the day, the culmination of my travels, but at the same time a little subdued. At first I thought this was due to the imminent closure of this little chapter of my life before I realised that was not the reason at all. I had already had one trip to Wembley, for the semi-final, and that was an unbelievable day. As I prepared to set off for by second visit in six weeks I was in a "it can't be any better than the semi-final" state of mind.
Yet, not for the first time on this run, I was wrong. Going to an FA Cup Final is big. A first for me. I was not prepared for how much of a sense of occasion there is. Television coverage does not do it any justice at all. And one cannot fail to be engulfed by it all, even as a neutral.
I was lucky and very pleased to be joined at the 2008 FA Cup Final at Wembley by two of my fellow journeymen, PB and Mackem. That and 89,781 significant others. The atmosphere in the Cardiff end of the stadium was, once again, quite electric. Add the noise reverberating around the stanchions from the Portsmouth end and the resultant mix was heady. Every seat in the house had a flag left beneath it - black and yellow for Cardiff, blue and white for Pompey - and the vista minutes before kick-off was a sea of flags waved. A sight and sound sensory overload.
And when the teams emerged from the tunnel the decibel levels and excitement levels were cranked up several notches. Quite heart-stoppingly magnificent. With a huge spoonful of hindsight, the highlight of the occasion for Cardiff City was probably right there, right then. Cardiff City walking out for the 2008 FA Cup Final? Who'd have thought that? For the Premiership boys from Portsmouth, who were no doubt equally surprised to be there, the afternoon was to develop into something very, very special indeed.
It was Cardiff who started the stronger and enjoyed the majority of possession in the opening exchanges. They made the most of the wide Wembley pitch and played a high line that brought both full backs into play. Paul Parry and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink led the line for Cardiff but it was Joe Ledley who impressed the most early on. It was Ledley who played a delightful ball in to send Parry into a one-on-one with David James in the Portsmouth goal, but James smothered the effort from Parry on twelve minutes. For the first quarter, Cardiff were winning the second balls and quicker in midfield. For a team that has enjoyed early goals in their FA Cup run, that twelfth minute miss proved to be decisive.
Portsmouth slowly found their rhythm, and the on-field experience in the likes of James, Campbell, Mendes, Glen Johnson and Kanu began to show. Pompey also used the width of the pitch well and on more than one occasion delivered some telling crosses that tested an shaky looking Peter Enckleman in the Cardiff goal. On twenty one minutes, Portsmouth should have scored. Kanu did the hard part with some neat footwork that took him around Enckleman. With a chance that seemed easier to score, Kanu hit the post from six yards out. Cardiff City breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The relief was short lived. Another good move from Portsmouth down the right resulted in a near post cross from Utaka. Encklemen's nervous start to the game was compounded as he fumbled the ball to Kanu who prodded home a simple effort.
Cardiff's response was almost instant. Paul Parry found space on the left and crossed deep to an on rushing McNaughton in space. He had to stretch for his shot and the result was never going to threaten the Portsmouth goal. A large section of the Cardiff support thought they had equalised a minute before the interval when Glen Loovens poked home, but the goal was disallowed for a clear handball in the build up.
The second half could have been billed the Sol Campbell show. Kanu, presumably for his goal, was given the official man-of-the-match award, but for me, it was Campbell in the heart of the Pompey defence who shone. He barely put a foot wrong. The Cardiff fans sat around me were starting to get slightly frustrated with their team's tactics. They often resorted to high balls into the box and Campbell won everything. The team from Wales enjoyed possession and battled hard on the fringes of the box, but just came up short at crucial times. One flag waving Cardiff fan yelled "it's just not enough" and he was spot on.
If Campbell failed to put a foot wrong, Hasselbaink by comparison couldn't keep his feet. I was disappointed with the Dutchman's display, who spent more time on the floor. He went down under challenges far too easy and looked to the referee far too often for help. There were numerous times when it would have been more advantageous to his teammates if had stayed vertical.
Clear chances for either side were few and far between in the second forty five minutes. After fifty two minutes Kanu arrowed in a shot that was heading for the top corner before it hit Loovens' chest and out for a corner. A flurry of substitutions saw Whittingham replaced by Ramsey, Hasselbaink replaced by Thompson and Portsmouth took off Utaka and Mendes for Nugent and Diop respectively. Aaron Ramsey's entrance heralded more play on the deck for Cardiff, but not enough to break through the Portsmouth back line.
Cardiff City, as they pressed for the equaliser, were vulnerable to the counter-attack. Nugent forced Enckleman into a near post standing save from a crisp shot and Distin looked to be clear through on goal; a fine last ditch tackle from Roger Johnson stopped Distin in his tracks. Cardiff City had their fair share of corners and set pieces but it was that man Campbell who stamped his authority. A late, looping header from Loovens from a set piece drifted harmlessly over and with it Cardiff's last chance of salvaging something from the game.
And that was just about that. All the way through the game I felt that Portsmouth had just about the edge and in the end shaded it. Few were predicting an avalanche of goals and in the end it was an error that decided the outcome. Cardiff fell just that little short in quality, but made up for it in endeavour and desire. Portsmouth ended the day as winners of the 2008 FA Cup.
At the end of my second visit to Wembley this season, the final whistle celebrations were at the opposite end. The fans from Portsmouth in their blue and white lapped up the moment and deservedly so. The biggest cheer of the afternoon arrived as Harry Redknapp lifted the famous cup aloft. A fitting personal climax to his season.
The Cardiff City fans stood dejected and tears of a different kind were wiped away. The majority stayed for the presentation of the trophy. No doubt a sad journey back down the M4, but I'm sure they are very proud of their club's achievement. And so they should be. Despite the defeat, Cardiff City will treasure this FA Cup campaign.
And so, if it is memories we are talking about, then this season's FA Cup has provided them by the bucket load. In what has been a quite remarkable competition, the magic of the FA Cup has been laid bare for all to see. Like a breath of fresh air, football fans of all ages, loyalties and persuasions around our island have been served up with an FA Cup competition that has been a joy to behold and will linger for many a season yet. For the fans of Cardiff City and Portsmouth, the memories will never fade. We may have to wait a long, long time before two clubs of the likes of yesterday's finalists reach the last match again. And my own memories have been handsomely fed and watered as I have meandered through this season's tournament; I really am full to the brim and I don't think fate could have given me a better FA Cup season than this.
Here I am at the end of it all, full to bursting and emotionally and mentally drained. A "Road to Wembley" completed. In my very first post, a full eight months ago, I invited you to "come on in, the water is lovely". I don't know about you, but I for one have had a simply unforgettable swim.