Offside, 28 May
Only a loser would abolish draws.
Let’s abolish draws. That’s the latest barking proposal from Sepp Blatter. ‘When you play cards or any other game, there’s always a winner and a loser’, said the deranged FIFA head honcho. ‘We should have the courage to introduce a final decision in every game of football.’
Blatter’s latest comments quite rightly provoked howls of derision from football journalists. The reason Blatter is wrong is that a drawn game is a final decision. At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, both teams gain a point from a drawn game. And a single point in a league competition can be just as valuable as a win. Remember England’s 0-0 draw in Rome that secured qualification for the 1998 World Cup Finals? Or David Beckham’s last-minute equaliser against Greece that put England on the plane to Japan? And what about England’s 0-0 draw in Istanbul against Turkey, which brought automatic qualification to Euro 2004? England fans celebrated all these draws as though they were victories.
A draw, in certain situations, can smell just as sweet as victory. And had Sepp Blatter attended last Saturday’s FA Cup Final in Cardiff, he would have witnessed something even more bizarre – a defeat celebrated as though it were a victory. The way Millwall fans celebrated, anyone would have thought that it was them rather than Manchester United who had won the FA Cup. They outsang their opponents throughout the game. Even when the United players were collecting their winners’ medals it was the Millwall supporters who were making all the noise.
It would be tempting to conclude that Millwall fans were more vocal because they are ‘genuine salt-of-the-earth, pie-and-mash-eating, gor-blimey-guvnor-maybe-it’s-because-I’m-a-Londoner’ fans, whereas United supporters are just plastic, prawn-sandwich munching, Surrey dormitory town-dwelling, glory hunters. In fact what Saturday actually highlighted was the contrasting aspirations of the two clubs.
Millwall fans were just glad to be there. It was a big day out for them – the first time the south London club had reached the Cup Final. The Millwall fans obviously didn’t expect to win and, judging by the way they performed, neither did the players. Their modest ambition, it appeared, was to avoid a humiliating thrashing. This probably explains why, at the final whistle, there were no undignified camera shots of devastated players on their knees blubbing like babies. They’d come to do a job – to lose with dignity – and they achieved their objective. Absurdly, there was even an open-top bus parade through the streets of Bermondsey to celebrate the defeat.
United fans weren’t relatively muted because they’re all prawn-sandwich munchers – remember the noise they made at Villa Park when they beat Arsenal in the semi-final? No, they didn’t sing because winning the FA Cup doesn’t mean that much to United anymore. In many respects it was just a day out for United’s players and fans too. Sure, they wouldn’t say no to the FA Cup, especially if it comes as part of a box set that includes the Premiership title and, ideally, the Champions League trophy. But without a ‘real’ trophy to accompany it, the FA Cup is nothing more than a consolation prize. Significantly, unlike Millwall, there was no victory parade through Manchester for the FA Cup winners either.
In his autobiography Roy Keane was typically forthright in his assessment of the FA Cup Final: ‘The Wembley myth, the folklore attached to the walk out of the tunnel, the red carpet, meeting the big shots, going up to the Royal Box to receive your medal, a pat on the back from the great and the good (and hopefully the Cup), all of it was bollocks.’ One newspaper reprinted the quote to mischievously suggest that Keane had now changed his tune. But while Keane is more diplomatic these days, he clearly still sees the FA Cup as a lesser prize. ‘Our priority every season is the Premiership and Champions League’, said Keane. ‘But the FA Cup is still a great trophy and it was important for us to end the season on a high.’
With the phoney cup final out of the way we can now concentrate on the real thing – the First Division play-off final between Crystal Palace and West Ham next Saturday. Play-off finals are arguably bigger and more meaningful than the Cup Final these days. They are certainly more keenly contested and usually far more dramatic. I’ve got my ticket and I’m certainly not going for a big day out (if I wanted a big day out do you really think I’d go to Cardiff?). I’m going for one reason only: to see Palace win promotion to the Premiership. After the final whistle I hope we’ll be singing along to ‘We are the Champions’ and waving giant foam fingers in the air. Unlike the FA Cup there really is ‘no time for losers’ at the play-offs final.