There’s supposed to be no place for sentiment in football—a lesson Brendan Rodgers very nearly learned in the most painful way. With nine minutes remaining he sent on Wes Morgan, the 37-year-old former captain who hadn’t played since December, for an emotional cameo. Eight minutes later, it looked like some combination of his knee and Ben Chilwell’s shin had forced in a Chelsea equalizer and had cost Leicester its first-ever FA Cup triumph. But then VAR intervened, Morgan and Rodgers were saved and Leicester was on its way to a 1–0 victory and glory.
This is a day that will never be forgotten in Leicester, but it was also a huge day for English football as a whole. For the 1927 FA Cup final, King George V was asked what he would like the bands of the Grenaders and Irish Guards to play before kick-off. He asked for the favorite hymn of his wife, Queen Mary, and so "Abide With Me" became a part of Cup final tradition. It’s been played at every Cup final since (bar 1959, for reasons that remain obscure) but can rarely have felt so apposite as it did here.
For Bert Trautmann, the former Nazi paratrooper who became Manchester City’s goalkeeper and a great symbol of post-War reconciliation as he played in the 1955 and 1956 FA Cup finals, the words encapsulated the capacity of football to bring together everybody from the kids of a grimy back street in a northern industrial town to royalty. Others in those finals immediately after the Wars would have felt keenly the significance of the final verse as the return of football marked a return to normality: “Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies/Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee/In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”
And as 21,000 fans returned to Wembley, the largest crowd congregated in the UK for 14 months, the symbolic value of the Cup final as the beginning of the end of restrictions—on Monday, different households will be able to mix indoors for the first time this year, while cafes and restaurants will open—was clear. There has been a tendency in recent years for the singing of "Abide With Me" to be largely neglected, but on Saturday it had a haunting quality. Perhaps the rituals feel more important now, less hackneyed after a year without them, or perhaps it was the words: in life, in 127,675 Covid-related deaths in the UK.
The presence of a crowd clearly gave an edge. A first half that in other circumstances might have been dismissed as dreary felt like an occasion: The rumbles of anticipation and ripples of appreciation are part of the spectacle. But before anybody got too sentimental, it must be noted that there was some isolated booing, from both ends of the ground, of the players taking the knee in support of the FA’s anti-racism initiatives.
If anybody was in any doubt about the benefits of a crowd, it surely disappeared after 63 minutes with the spontaneous eruption of joy as Youri Tielemans seized on the ball after Reece James’s poor pass out from the back had been intercepted, possibly with the use of a hand by Ayoze Perez, advanced as Chelsea backed off and hammered a shot from 28 yards into the top corner. It was a stunning goal, one that entered immediately into the canon of great FA Cup final strikes, and it proved to be the winner.
It was deserved, not just for this game, in which Leicester withstood pressure at the beginning of each half before effectively neutering Chelsea, but for the way the club has developed over the past couple of seasons. It would have been easy to assume the title win in 2016 was a one-off and settled for a diminished status in mid-table. But Leicester showed ambition in appointing Rodgers and has continued to buy with imagination and intelligence.
Tielemans, signed in 2019, is the club’s record signing at just over $50 million, representative of its ability to attract promising young talent. But the other two outstanding players were the central defenders, Wesley Fofana and Caglar Soyuncu, who cost $65 million in total and were far from household names. Chelsea, having lost momentum, never regained it, although Kasper Schmeichel made two astonishing late saves, one from a Ben Chilwell header and one from a Mason Mount volley. And then there was that hair’s breadth VAR offside.
The sides meet again in the league on Tuesday in a game that will go a long way to determining who qualifies for next season’s Champions League. Financially, perhaps, that is of more significance, but the game is about glory and no Leicester fan, you suspect, would swap this win for anything. Seventy-two years after its first FA Cup final, Leicester has won the competition at last, and those memories will endure far longer than anything a balance sheet could offer. This was about emotion and a sense that football is returning.
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