A step too far for Everton

There are 107 steps to be climbed from the pitch to the Royal Box at Wembley Stadium. A long trek after an energy sapping finale to a long season of English football—this year was the latest that an FA Cup Final has been played.

For Steven Pienaar’s Everton it proved a step too far—despite seeing off Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester United en route to the Final, they fell short against an accomplished Chelsea side rejuvenated under the interim leadership of Guus Hiddink.

Chelsea fully deserved their victory at the splendid home of English football—the twin towers may have gone but the aura at new Wembley is as intoxicating as ever - and it served to demonstrate the closing gap between the Big Four of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea and Everton.

Everton finished fifth in the Premiership this season marking them as the best of the rest, but did not have quite enough to dispel Chelsea. Mistakes by two of their better players on the day, Joleon Lescott and Phil Neville, allowed Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard just enough time and space to score the Chelsea goals that would secure their fifth FA Cup success.

The current status of the two clubs could also be measured by the attitude and expectation of their fans. For Chelsea, winning the FA Cup was a consolation prize.

Although their fans got noisier as the game wore on and as Everton were worn down, one sensed that they really yearned to win the Champions League trophy in Rome a few days earlier. That Manchester United folded so meekly against Barcelona only compounded their disappointment.

However, the Champions League is far removed from the FA Cup. The FA Cup still retains some of the Corinthian spirit, although Chelsea could not be accused of embracing such moral values. The world’s oldest domestic tournament begins in August with 762 teams participating this year. Non-league teams dream of getting to the third round and an upset against a Premiership outfit.

Therein lies the encapsulating romance of this prestigious tournament. It was fitting that the guest of honour was former UN chief, Kofi Annan, who has done so much to promote what is good in this world.

I could taste that special atmosphere of a big game as we walked down Wembley Way towards the stadium. The carnival mood was boosted this year by an unusually hot day in London (temperatures on the pitch reached 40°C), as both sets of fans strolled together in celebratory spirits to the stadium. Once inside the Everton fans dominated, with more volume and the famous Scouse humour evident on the many banners as well. Chelsea may have more money but they are not a ‘bigger’ club.

For Everton, a club with a long and proud history, getting to the FA Cup Final was a step on the way back to the top, a marker on the road to breaking into the Big Four and sharing in some of that Champions League money. Their fans made twice as much noise even in defeat. They ‘sang’ the team’s Z cars theme tune (that has no words) with gusto! They sense a new beginning for the ‘People’s Club’.

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