“Football’s coming home” became an anthem and motif 25 years ago, summing up the spirit of English football during Euro ‘96, and the joy and the heartbreak of the beautiful game returned to Wembley on Saturday when Brendan Rodgers led Leicester City into the history books.
It was not the sort of evenly-matched chess game, expertly executed by expensive technicians, as the architects of the ill-fated European Super League would have us believe is the way forward.
But it was a classic FA Cup final, a throwback to the heyday when the world’s oldest cup competition was so special. Leicester were like David slinging his stones at Goliath, getting in that one shot to win it and fighting for their lives. Youri Tielemans scored a goal that goes straight into the pantheon of best-ever FA Cup final-winning goals, up there with Charlie George in 1971, Ricky Villa 10 years later and Michael Owen in 2001.
The Belgian’s 25-yard rocket in the 63rd minute was Leicester’s fatal slingshot, and they held on to win because of two magnificent saves by Kasper Schmeichel to deny Ben Chilwell and then Mason Mount in the closing stages.
And just to ramp up the drama and ensure it was a cup final for the modern age, VAR intervened to show Chilwell was offside when he forced what he thought was an 89th-minute equaliser. In that moment the hopes of 6,000 Chelsea fans inside Wembley were crushed, while their Leicester counterparts celebrated in realisation that this was their day, the first the FA Cup since the club was founded as Leicester Fosse 137 years ago.
While Chelsea’s end emptied rapidly after the final whistle, the scenes around the rest of Wembley showed what this meant, not just to Rodgers, his staff and players, but to the owner Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, whose father Vichai died in a helicopter crash three years ago.
Top, as the Thai billionaire is known, could not hide his joy as he communed with Rodgers, the players and their fans, those lucky few allowed into Wembley making it a proper occasion, one that will go down in history.
Because, just as Euro ‘96 saw English football emerge blinking into the light after the dark days of hooliganism, Heysel, and Hillsborough, this Saturday was the heart and soul of football returning to its spiritual home, fans flooding into Wembley and bringing it back to life.
The drama, danger of defeat and unpredictability of victory are exactly what would disappear from the game if the ESL had been allowed to happen. Chelsea signed up to it, even if they were one of the first to realise the error of their ways. Roman Abramovich has spent well over a billion euro on players and demands trophies in return. He was not at Wembley on Saturday, but cannot have thought the quarter of a billion spent last summer on the likes of Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, and Kai Havertz was money well spent. The last was only a late substitute, the former two started but never got going, misfiring like most of their team-mates. Instead, the stars of the show were Leicester’s teenage local boy Luke Thomas, low-key recruits Caglar Soyuncu and Timothy Castagne, and bargain buys Schmeichel and Jamie Vardy, who each cost just over €1m. Tielemans and Wesley Fofana cost substantially more, but their values are rising sharply, as Rodgers knows.
“I’m sure Leicester will lose players. It’s not something we want but it’s the nature of the game,” he said. “I don’t worry about it too much.”
Rodgers is also a wanted man, a long term target for Tottenham, but why would the former Liverpool and Celtic manager leave such a well-run club for Spurs? He is on a mission in the Midlands, as he explained: “We want to establish ourselves in the top six. Financially we cannot compete with Liverpool, Chelsea, or the Manchester clubs, but the way strategies are delivered off the field allows me as manager to build a vision and be competitive.”
Thomas Tuchel has more pressure on him, as Chelsea need to beat Leicester tomorrow as they chase a top-four finish, and then face Manchester City in the Champions League final on May 29.
“Now we have another two finals to come and it is about bouncing back, staying positive. It’s hard to accept losing a final, we deserved to win and were simply unlucky.”
CHELSEA (3-4-3): Kepa 6; James 7, Silva 6, Rudiger 6; Azpilicueta 5 (Hudson-Odoi 76), Kante 7, Jorginho 6 (Havertz 76), Alonso 5 (Chilwell 68); Mount 7, Werner 5 (Giroud 82), Ziyech 6 (Pulisic 68).
LEICESTER (3-4-3): Schmeichel 8; Fofana 8, Evans 6 (Albrighton 34) Soyuncu 8; Castagne 7, Tielemans 9, Ndidi 8, Thomas 7 (Morgan 82); Iheanacho 6 (Maddison 68), Vardy 7, Perez 7 (Choudhury 82).
Referee: Michael Oliver 8/10.