It’s being reported as a dire game. But for those of us who weren’t looking to it to “prove to Europe” something or other about the Premiership, it was both tense and compelling, spoiled only by ad breaks at insultingly-chosen moments. (We even went to ads between the end of extra time and the start of penalties, an ignorant and tasteless thing to do).
Liverpool now have far too much “history” with the European Cup for commentators to avoid making too much of it. My own thoughts aren’t “Rome, Istanbul, Athens”, but, well done and bully for you. The plain fact of the matter is that Liverpool have spent much of this season as spectators to other teams’ narratives, and their arrival in the Final this time is as much interruption as achievement.
Some of the greatest team seasons end without silverware. The ultimate example of this belongs of course to Leeds United in 1969-70 – runners-up in the League, FA Cup Finallists, semi-finalists in the European Cup. At one point that team played five games in eight days, at a time when Leeds played as a first team, not as a first team squad.
The League that year went west with a 3-1 defeat to Southampton, which Norman Hunter described as “embarrassing”. 1970 would be Everton and Alan Ball’s title. But there was nothing embarrassing about a narrow defeat to Jock Stein’s Celtic:
In 1970, FA Cup semi-finals didn’t go to penalties: drawn matches meant replays, until a winner emerged. Leeds needed three matches to get past Manchester United. And then, for the first time, the FA Cup Final went to a replay:
It was an infamously tough game:
And then came Chelsea’s equaliser, and, eventually, defeat:
That would be Leeds United who have just slipped into the equivalent of the old Third Division. Next season contains the sorry chance of two ghost-ridden Leeds v Forest matches, assuming that Forest don’t succeed in the play-offs. I don’t think I could bear to watch.
Liverpool came close to a treble – something that doesn’t seem to be mentioned often, for reasons I can’t fathom – in 1976-7. League and European Cup were obtained – and an FA Cup Final:
1969-70, 1976-7, and Manchester United’s successful tilt at the same targets in 1999, were all essentially one-team seasons. What has set this year apart is the way both Chelsea and the rejuvenated Manchester United have been doing a Leeds, something completely unprecedented. Treble attempts are rare enough even these days, with the top four clubs dominating trophies.
Until last weekend and Bolton’s farewell to Allardyce in a 2-2 draw against the Champions, not only were two teams going for the treble, but there was the prospect of the season ending in the armageddon atmosphere of three Chelsea-Manchester United matches that would decide the oldest football competition in the world, the wealthiest football competition in the world, and, not in any way incidentally, the Premiership title.
It would have felt like the culmination of more than just a football season. Victory would have given meaning and shape to Mourinho’s tenure at Chelsea or a climax to Ferguson’s at Manchester United. The contest would have been the greatest display of football management in such a short space of time imaginable: how do two evidently great managers carry their players through such fire as this?
We’ll never know. In the real world, football doesn’t often attend to that kind of history. That saddening mediocrity that waits just below football’s surface has surfaced again, and, piece by piece, the season’s great ending is being taken apart. The title race has fizzled: if Milan win tonight by only one goal, the Champions League will be 2005 again, and it will be interesting to see if either United or Chelsea care too much about the FA Cup after that.
The last four seasons all seem to be about incredible possibility, never fulfilled. I can’t help tracking all that back to 2004 and Rooney’s injury against Portugal. Perhaps appropriately, it’s very hard to find the moment on internet video. Something good stopped growing that night, and now there’s a sense of it having gone away altogether.