“I had great years here,” Ronnie recalled, as the sun beamed down. “Home Farm were brilliant for kids when I was growing up and I’m sure they still are now. It wasn’t just football they taught you, they tried to teach you manners, the way of life, shirt always tucked in.”
At which point, his face creased into a grin. “Not like this scruffy bastard,” he added with a chuckle, nodding to a colleague who, for once, had managed to outdo even your humble correspondent in the informality stakes.
Whelan’s good humour evaporated, however, when the talk turned to today’s FA Cup final, the warm nostalgia of the moment giving away to something more like grim realism.
“I just feel it’s sad that the FA Cup has been forgotten,” said a man who collected three winners’ medals in the days of Liverpool’s domestic dominance.
“Yes, it was a good finish to the Premier League this season but I was reading the paper on the way over, and then I see a piece about the FA Cup final being on Saturday. I would have always known when the FA Cup final was on, you’d be looking out for who’s playing, and this time I wasn’t even sure it was Arsenal and Hull. There was a time when everybody wanted to win it. It’s now secondary, or even less than that.”
You can understand his despondency. Back when he was taking his first steps on the Home Farm pitch, the FA Cup would have been the epitome of footballing glamour in the eyes of the young Dubliner. Ronnie was six in 1968, the year West Brom beat Everton 1-0 in front of 100,000 fans at Wembley as millions more revelled in the exotic experience of a one-day festival of live football on the box.
The league might have defined the best, as it always does, but in those days the cup final still felt like the season’s summit, especially when there was added romance in the air, as in 1973, when Second Division Sunderland shocked mighty Leeds United.
“Yeah, Jim Montgomery,” enthused Ronnie, recalling the keeper’s incredible double save which, coupled with Ian Porterfield’s goal, gave the Wearsiders an improbable 1-0 win, sending their gaffer Bob Stokoe flying across the pitch in one of Wembley’s most iconic celebrations. “FA Cup finals throw up some funny results.”
As Whelan should know, though he was quick to add that he didn’t play in the 1988 final — “so don’t blame me!” — when Wimbledon beat Liverpool and Aldo failed from the spot, the ‘Crazy Gang’ turning over the ‘Culture Club’, as John Motson would have it.
The relevance of this trip down memory lane to today’s decider, of course, is that in 2014 — one year after Wigan memorably stepped up to the plate against Manchester City — Hull City get to fill the honoured role of underdogs, albeit of the Premier League variety, with the greening of Humberside under Steve Bruce serving to add further spice to an intriguing affair for those watching from this side of the Irish Sea.
And the lure of the cup even seems to have worked some early magic on Robbie Brady, the winger who was expected to take no further part in a season already disfigured by a serious groin problem. The Dubliner has, according to Bruce, “come from nowhere in the last couple of weeks” in a bid for inclusion in the Hull squad, though one hopes he won’t pay a heavy price for pushing himself too hard, as he did earlier in the season when attempting what turned out to be a premature comeback. Still, as Bruce remarked: “It’s amazing what an FA Cup final does.”
Perhaps the gladdest tiding for fans of the grand old trophy, is that the favourites today go into a game in which, for them, defeat would not be what it was for Manchester City last year, a mere blip between two league titles. Instead, for Arsenal, the attritional effect of nine years without silverware makes today’s match a critical and potentially even defining one for Arsene Wenger and the club.
As Ronnie Whelan noted this week: “It takes on huge significance for Wenger, especially after Mourinho slaughtered him and called him a failure and a serial loser, was it? So it’s a big one for him and then he can stick it right up Mourinho then because Mourinho’s won nothing this year. But Wenger needs a trophy.”
So everything to play for, then. On this FA Cup Final morning, you could almost convince yourself that the glory game is back.