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May 12, 2013

Marc Stein's 12-hour Wembley diary

LONDON -- It was the legendary Nick Hornby who so expertly explained in "Fever Pitch" that the summit of football-watching in his formative years was a "2-0 home victory against the league leaders after a fish-and-chip lunch."

I've been dreaming of writing a sentence that tasty since the first time I read it.

Yet I was dead sure as I boarded a London-bound plane out of Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday night that I would soon be getting the chance to try and tell my own Hornby-esque tale. It was all lined up from the moment my bosses told me that I'd be taking a brief detour from the NBA playoffs to go the new Wembley Stadium for the very first time: Manchester City facing relegation-threatened Wigan in the most inviting of FA Cup finals... with the promise of a celebratory trip to the chip shop when it was all over to fuel the happy writing ahead.

Not quite.

Not yet.

The 2012-13 season will forever be remembered at Stein Line HQ as the season that finally took me to two of the greatest cathedrals on the world soccer map, but my one-weekend loan deal from ESPN.com's NBA team to ESPNFC for Saturday's FA Cup final played out a lot like my September journey to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu as a supporter to see City's heartbreaking 3-2 loss in the Champions League at Real Madrid.

Jolly: Martinez writes fairytale ending Brewin: Latics too much for Mancini Brown: Wigan's dream realized Report: Sub Watson stuns Man City Watch: Marc Stein, Craig Burley interview Video: Stein on significance of City's 'Cupset'

It's at times like these, so close to soccer bliss when it's suddenly snatched away, that it's wise to remember the cautionary tone of that Hornby passage in its entirety: "Life isn't, and has never been, a 2-0 home victory against the League leaders after a fish-and-chip lunch."

However ...

Lots and lots happened over the 12 hours that I spent on my maiden voyage to a real live match at Wembley before the latest twist in this crazy game that made us all say yet again: "Football, bloody hell." Way too much to focus purely on the result.

Lots and lots to share from a one-of-a-kind, red-carpet experience that helpfully came with an oversized press pass to use as a shield against any lasting scars.

8:35 a.m.: With a long day ahead on little sleep after a transatlantic flight in close proximity to the proverbial screaming baby, there's no time to be adventurous. The uncertainty in the voice of the hotel concierge in his attempts to explain the London Underground route from where I'm staying to Wembley Way forces me into a taxi to make sure I get right where I need to be for a 9 a.m. meet-up. ESPN international PR maven Paul Melvin has demanded my presence in the lobby of the Hilton adjacent to the stadium right at 9. You don't want to face Melvin's hairdryer -- trust me -- so taxi ride it is.

8:48 a.m.: The smooth ride over gives me another chance to scroll through the prematch notes provided by ace ESPN researcher Paul "PaulBOT" Carr. City's playing staff, according to Carr's findings via the folks at Sporting Intelligence, is worth nearly $620 million. Wigan's? Right around $65 million total. What could go wrong?

9:13 a.m.: Question: Why do you get to Wembley more than seven hours before kickoff? Answer: When you know they're going to hand you one of these. Even a Wembley rookie can work out that it's spectacularly good news when someone explains that the eye chart on the front of this credential includes pitchside access. We repeat: Pitchside access at Wembley. 9:52 a.m.: Before actually setting foot inside one of the most hallowed temples in the sport, we head skyward to drop in on the rooftop set ESPN has arranged for its nine-plus hours of prematch coverage on its UK channel. This, after all, is English football's answer to the Super Bowl, so it's going to get a Super Bowl-esque lineup of programming from The Worldwide Leader to get everyone in the mood. Has to.

9:54 a.m.: The day's first signs of trouble ensue. No. 1: Expecting to find a pile of national newspapers to pore through on that rooftop set -- something I still look forward to after nearly two decades of making these footy trips with the breathless anticipation of a 1980s teenager finding his dad's hidden stack of Playboys -- I find none. Worse yet: Dave Beasant is the first ex-pro I meet from the expansive team of analysts ESPN has assembled for all of these pregame shows. The same Dave Beasant who saved a second-half John Aldridge penalty in 1988 to seal Wimbledon's historic 1-0 upset of Liverpool in the club's first FA Cup final.

9:55 a.m.: Some quick math without even needing PaulBOT's help confirms my worst fears, that yes, Wigan has 25th anniversary karma in its favor because the Latics, like Wimbledon before them, are making their first appearance in an FA Cup final. Yet I can't say at this early hour that I dwelled on those warning signs for too long, partially because this was around the same time that I caught a glimpse of former Wigan winger Kevin Kilbane working as an ESPN pundit. Which immediately sparked a fresh debate with those voices inside my head: How many footballers over the years have a better nickname than "Zinedine Kilbane?" Not many, I'd submit.

10:28 a.m.: How does a 45-minute session of incessant picture-snapping from the ground floor of Wembley sound? We're not allowed to actually set foot on the hallowed turf, but Melvin and sidekick Tristan O'Carroll bring me and the small pack of local journalists they're hosting right to the brink of the grass to take as many pics as we want. Magic.

10:30 a.m.: I'm proud to say I had the privilege of receiving some wonderful mentoring from both Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser as a Washington Post intern in 1990. Now I'm insanely proud on their behalf -- even though I know soccer doesn't mean much to either one of them -- to see hosts Mark Chapman and Steve Bunce doing a live edition of "Pardon The Interruption UK" from an ESPN desk on the Wembley pitch. Next time I see Wilbon at an NBA function, I shall be cornering him to let him know what a tribute that really is.

11:18 a.m.: It's meet-the-talent time for our little group of Wembley tourists. First up: John Barnes. The Liverpool legend played on the 1988 team that was unforgettably trumped by Wimbledon and likewise hasn't forgotten that Beasant, Lawrie Sanchez, Vinny Jones and the rest of the Crazy Gang were a top-10 side (seventh, in fact) when they shocked the world that day. "The reality of where those teams were [in the table]," Barnes insists, "is that it wasn't much of a surprise."

11:21 a.m.: The implication from Barnes is that Wigan winning this Cup final would be the bigger surprise. Especially after Wigan threw away two leads at home to Swansea in a 3-2 defeat that essentially demands that the Lancashire upstarts win their last two league games (away to Arsenal and home to Aston Villa) to have real hope of staying in the Premiership. Barnes questions the state of Wigan's confidence in the wake of that defeat, dismisses the idea that all the mounting morning speculation about Roberto Mancini's job could somehow derail City and scoffs at the idea that winning this final would forever soften the blow for Wigan fans even if they can't avoid relegation. "If it's 20 years from now and they've won the FA Cup and they're in League Two," Barnes says, "how [historically] important is that?" 11:43 a.m.: Next up: it's former City manager Kevin Keegan. Ten years to the day that Keegan managed City in its last game at Maine Road, I get some quality time with the man who indisputably ranked as the biggest name in the game back when I fell in love with English football as an 11-year-old in 1980. "I haven't found anyone who thinks Wigan is going to win," King Kevin says. "Have you?"

11:53 a.m.: A few minutes alone with Keegan gives me the long-awaited opportunity to ask him questions that have nagged at me for decades about those glorious Patrick boots he wore in the glory days. In the '80s, even in faraway Southern California, those were the cleats that the cool kids had to have. I proceed to tell Keegan how future NBA Hall of Famer Grant Hill was as desperate as I was to wear Patricks when he was a soccer-playing teen in Virginia, and how Hill and I talk about Patricks almost every time we see each other. In short: I don't exactly know what to call the footy equivalent of a sneaker head, but those of you who fall into that category are going to love the specifics of this discussion when it airs on an upcoming edition of Soccer Today. (Had to save something special for the radio show!)

12:23 p.m.: It was inevitable that I would eventually break from the group to walk around the ground on my own for a bit to try to soak up some of the prematch atmosphere all around the stadium. That's the excuse I gave, anyway, when I wanted to sneak away to find scarves and pins to bring back home. Mrs. Stein always says she's raising three kids back home in Dallas: 9-year-old Alex, 6-year-old Aaron ... and 44-year-old me.

12:47 p.m.: An unexpected text, some four hours before kickoff, arrives from Wigan's Emmerson Boyce, whom I met last June at Steve Nash's annual charity soccer game ... and whom I figured would be unreachable until after the match. He reassured me that he'd be there after Wigan's victory to offer a consoling "unlucky" if I needed it. Not that I took that bit of banter too seriously, either.

2:08 p.m.: After a bit of a lull in proceedings and still on my own without Melvin's permission, I'm back pitchside again watching Barnes and Keegan live with host Ray Stubbs and former Wigan manager Paul Jewell. There's a much smaller crowd around the set at this hour, which enables me to clearly hear the producer's excited proclamation that the FA Cup trophy is being wheeled to the set in a massive black chest.

2:41 p.m.: A brief-but-heavy downpour forces the foursome on camera to hold ESPN-branded umbrellas on the air on live TV. Am I the only one who thinks it's strange/wrong that the trophy just sits there uncovered in the rain?

3:35 p.m.: Still at field level, hanging out adjacent to the City dugout as long as security will allow. I know that this is probably going to be the first and last time that I have a credential around my neck with pitchside access, so I'm determined to make the most of it.

3:45 p.m.: When I finally concede that it's time to walk up the famed Wembley steps, there are dozens of colleagues in the press room to see. I've been fortunate over the years, having made my annual pilgrimage to watch City pretty much every September dating to 1996, to meet several top football writers over here. So I naturally had to seek a few out before kickoff to (A) hear the latest on Sir Alex Ferguson's stunning decision to step down and (B) find out how much stock to put in all of the rumblings in the morning papers about Manuel Pellegrini replacing Mancini. The early (and unofficial) consensus: Mancini is not only headed for the exit door but knows it deep down, too.

4 p.m.: In their gray FA Cup suits, Wigan's players are walking around the pitch, some flipping through the match program, taking it all in and looking very much like the how-did-we-get-here Cup Cinderellas they are. Only now, in retrospect, you realize that it was the first and last time that they looked in any way awed by the occasion.

4:12 p.m.: It's officially announced to the crowd that Joe Hart will start in goal after Mancini vowed for days to let his Romanian deputy Costel Pantilimon retain the starting place he held in every previous round of the competition. This comes as a great relief to Hart's No. 1 fan (Aaron Jacob Stein back home in Dallas) and my Romanian-born father Reuven, who has always reminded me that his homeland isn't exactly known for producing great shot-stoppers. I remember my dad talking about only one keeper when I was a kid: Hungarian legend Gyula Grosics.

4:13 p.m.: The problem with the Hart decision is that it's inevitably interpreted as an admission by Mancini that he knows he has to win to have any hope of saving his job. And maybe not even then.

4:14 p.m.: The next announcement of note over the tannoy, for me at least, is the confirmation that Boyce -- my old friend and foe from Sara D. Roosevelt Park in Chinatown -- is captaining Wigan at Wembley. Yet I still couldn't imagine a single scenario in which the postmatch consoling words weren't being offered from me to him. Not with Wigan so seemingly vulnerable at the back in the wake of that 3-2 defeat to Swansea and with Antolin Alcaraz, Jean Beausejour, Maynor Figueroa, Ivan Ramis and Ronnie Stam all out injured.

4:49 p.m.: The seating-chart police must have been briefed on my history, because they set me up at the two-man press table farthest away from the City supporters and as close as you could possibly get to the Wigan section. Might as well have worn my Boyce No. 17 shirt.

4:53 p.m.: Minutes before the match, right on the pitch, Mancini is standing side by side next to City chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak. If Mancini is really on the brink of the sack, it's tough to pick up on any such tensions when looking at the two of them together. 5:22 p.m.: City fans sing for Mancini like they've sung for no other manager who has ever stalked the Blues' technical area. I've always believed that's more because City fans love the "He comes from It-ah-lee" song more than they actually love the manager, because Mancini is not the most successful boss in club history, falling shy of the famed Joe Mercer/Malcolm Allison partnership. Yet it comes as no surprise that the City faithful, with Mancini's job in real peril, sing even louder for the man in his time of need. Hence this unmistakable chant: "You can stick Pellegrini up your a---."

5:24 p.m.: I don't want to go overboard with the match detail because we did so much of it live in the James Tyler-moderated ESPNFC Bootroom as it was all happening. But this first glimpse of Callum McManaman turning Matija Nastasic inside and out before curling his left-footed shot way wide is worth noting as the first hint that Steve McManaman's distant relative would continue to torment City with a number of rampaging runs. "One of the diamonds of English football," Martinez would later call him.

5:46 p.m.: I've been to the DW Stadium at least five times previously and have never heard the Wigan fans sing so loudly. With good reason, too. McManaman is causing havoc with every dribble, Arouna Kone looks like the most dangerous No. 2 in Premiership history and the outstretched right boot of Spanish keeper Joel Robles denies Carlos Tevez what looks to be a certain goal after a clever pullback from David Silva in the box. It's a save that might well have changed the whole complexion of the match.

6:14 p.m.: After a scoreless first half, PaulBOT chimes in during the chat with the reminder that no FA Cup champion has ever been relegated. This is presumed to be a reminder that there's no way City can lose this, despite the fact that Martinez's tactics -- just like they did in Manchester on April 17 -- are frustrating City. Leaving two players high to force City to keep one fullback deep, combined with Wigan's determination to flood Pablo Zabaleta's side to take away City's wide options down the right, is working. Again.

6:18 p.m.: Don't see this every day. Looking zero percent nervous about this game or his managerial fate, Mancini is signing autographs near the City bench before the start of the second half. He's apparently convinced that Wigan's wasteful finishing in the first half, coupled with Wigan's recent suicidal defending, will keep City in command.

6:30 p.m.: Wrong.

6:43 p.m.: Mancini's first tactical change -- replacing Samir Nasri with James Milner and pushing Silva further out to the left -- has made little impact, so he hauls off an angry Tevez to bring on non-scoring midfielder Jack Rodwell. It's the sort of Vintage Mancini move that ultimately makes some sense if the introduction of Edin Dzeko soon follows. Dzeko, though, isn't coming right on to validate the Super Sub tag he hates. Not until it's too late. 6:53 p.m.: I have to say that all the note-taking, picture-snapping and live-chatting has made it easier than I imagined to work this match with detachment. I was almost too busy for the City fan in me to realize that after Champions League and Premiership failure, even a one-trophy season was slipping away. At this point, approaching the final 10 minutes of normal time, I find myself thinking that 30 minutes of additional soccer wouldn't be the worst thing to see in my Wembley debut, since who knows when I'll be back in this position? I never stopped to consider that City could be held scoreless by leaky Wigan all the way to the end.

Or worse.

6:59 p.m.: After a horrendously ill-advised pass by Gareth Barry sends Callum McManaman bearing down on goal yet again, Pablo Zabaleta slides through the Wigan man wildly for his second yellow card, becoming just the third player in FA Cup history to be sent off. The gravity of the situation just sank in.

7:05 p.m.: Little Ben Watson, on the field for mere minutes as a substitute, rises above Rodwell to forcefully head home Shaun Maloney's corner kick. The substitute has scored ... but it's not Mancini's. It's the other Roberto's instead -- with what appears to be Wigan's first shot on target.

7:09 p.m.: Final whistle! The 9-to-1 long shots have won the first major trophy in Wigan's 81-year history and have thus booked a place in the 2013 Community Shield against David Moyes and Manchester United. Cue Wigan players and coaches storming the pitch to celebrate what must go down as a bigger upset than what the Crazy Gang pulled off in 1988. Wigan's league position and the staggering gulf in finances between the clubs makes this one, on this scorecard, more of a shock.

7:10 p.m.: My first text from the worried missus arrives. My boys back home, having witnessed my tears of joy last May, fear the worst about Daddy but needn't worry. I'm strangely OK. Must be a combination of the figurative press fedora on my head and the postmatch media madness of interviews and writing to come. By contrast, City's openly crushed players on the field are clearly taking this hard, perhaps quickly realizing that their punchless performance is going to be remembered for what it lacked long after Mancini is gone.

7:15 p.m.: There was so much talk surrounding this FA Cup about what's gone wrong with what is supposed to be a cherished competition. How moving both semifinals to Wembley and moving the final up on the calendar -- instead of leaving it where it was for so long to be played after the end of the Premiership season -- have contributed to the FA Cup's declining stature. Yet there's nothing like a true fairy-tale Cupset to quickly restore some luster. "I've seen movies with worse scripts than this," Martinez would later say. 7:49 p.m.: Another bulletin from PaulBOT informs that Wigan, if relegated, will be the first Community Shield participant from outside of England's top flight since West Ham in 1980.

7:51 p.m.: Back down on the field now and trying to secure an interview for "SportsCenter" back home, I get my chance to congratulate a buoyant Mr. Boyce. He's draped in the flag of his native Barbados, literally chattering in the cold in his short sleeves but having too much fun on the field to go inside. He steps away for a moment, then returns with the actual trophy in his grasp, calmly agreeing to snap a few pics with a few Wigan fans who've somehow made it onto the pitch. "FA Cup, man," Boyce says more than once, trying to get used to the sound of it. "FA Cup winners." But then he quickly adds: "We earned this, man. No one can say we were lucky today."

8:17 p.m.: Roberto Martinez finally emerges for his victorious postmatch news conference -- with an apology. "Sorry for the wait," Martinez tells the assembled media. "We're not used to celebrating."

8:25 p.m.: I could do with one more Wembley souvenir to go with the pins and the scarves and the program. One more besides the unopened bottle of Wembley-branded water that I sneaked out of the press refrigerator. Did someone say it's time to tape an interview with former Scottish international Craig Burley from the edge of the players' tunnel that leads right onto the Wembley grass? I'll take it.

8:30 p.m.: Nobody is ever going to feel sorry for moneybags Manchester City. And I assure you that while every sympathy message coming in is appreciated, no one should feel sorry for me. Trips to the Bernabeu and Wembley, whatever the scoreboard says, are life-changing trips. So I'm strangely numb as I start packing up my things. A huge, huge, H-U-G-E opportunity was thrown away here, but I haven't forgotten my week-old tweets from the previous Saturday when I dug out a couple of vintage newspapers from my private collection precisely 15 years to the day of City's relegation to the third tier of English football. Translation: I've seen truly dark days and this doesn't exactly qualify.

8:45 p.m.: It's time to shuffle out of the stadium at last to find the Wembley Central station and tube my way back to the hotel for a diary all-nighter. Strewn all over the sidewalk on the way out are rain-soaked City flags, presumably discarded by distraught fans who wanted no keepsake from a defeat that instantly goes down as an all-timer for a club with no shortage of unforgettable disappointments. There was only one thing left to do.

Hit the nearest chippy on the walk to the train.

For if there's a tastier comfort food than the crispy, crunchy bliss of fish and chips, as only the English can fry them up, I'm still waiting for the red carpet ride that takes me there.

Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer from ESPN.com with extensive experience covering soccer. He co-hosts "Soccer Today" every week on ESPN Radio in Dallas (103.3 FM), had a one-week playing career with the Dallas Sidekicks of indoor soccer fame and covered the 1994 World Cup and the U.S. national team in the Bob Gansler era before becoming a full-time NBA reporter.