David taking on Goliath in FA Cup final
After three years of highs and lows, of memorable games (and some not-so memorable), this Saturday marks my final game for ESPN UK. Fortunately, the occasion in question is the biggest day in the English football calendar: the FA Cup final.
The FA Cup is a unique competition, the oldest in the world, and we have seen some incredible ties over the past few seasons. We've gone to places like Mansfield and Stevenage, had people laugh at us because it was snowing or raining, but it's been a joy to be back in some of football's forgotten places. We've been the side of the pitch right in the thick of it, close to the fans and the players. So close, in fact, that Martin Keown once got hit in the head with a ball when Arsenal played Leeds.
There have been some real highlights, for me the Liverpool v Everton semi-final last season was the pick of them. Being with the Liverpool supporters at their end with John Barnes and Liverpool winning when they were outplayed in the first half and looked like being knocked out.
One night at White Hart Lane also sticks in my memory, for very different reasons. We were covering Tottenham v Bolton when Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch after suffering cardiac arrest; going to watch a game of football and seeing that happen to a player was harrowing. We came off the air early in what was an emotional evening and there was that horrible sense of uncertainty. That Fabrice survived was a testament to the Spurs medical officials who acted swiftly.
The FA Cup final itself is a truly special occasion. It's fair to say it was a bigger deal when I was a player, but it still holds a real charm and this year's finalists Wigan and Manchester City will feel the same mix of trepidation and excitement that I did before walking out on the Wembley turf. I played in two FA Cup finals for Liverpool, beating Newcastle United in one, losing to Manchester United in the other in what were two wholly different experiences of the final.
The media hype both in the week leading up to the game and the final itself was huge; you'd get measured for your suits and record a Cup final song, it was all so exciting. Then going on to lift the trophy at Wembley was the greatest feeling in the world. Winning means everything - lifting the trophy, parading the Cup around the pitch, it's just absolutely fantastic and right up there with the very best of my football memories. Losing, on the other hand, leaves you totally flat.
For Wigan it is a reality that they are likely to face. I can remember as a kid watching Dave Whelan break his leg in the 1960 FA Cup final when he was playing for Blackburn. It will be an incredible day for Dave and he always gets emotional when talking about that day more than 50 years ago. Win or lose this time, he - along with Roberto Martinez of course - deserves huge credit for bringing Wigan this far. I remember taking a Newcastle team to their old ground at Springfield Park, in front of a handful of fans. Compare that to their stadium now, housing Premier League football. It's a tremendous achievement for a club in a small town like Wigan.
Unfortunately for Dave Whelan and the Wigan fans, I only see Cup final disappointment on Saturday. What's worse is that it could be a double whammy with relegation from the Premier League looming too. If they had beaten Swansea midweek they'd have been going into the final with lots of momentum. But they threw away the lead twice and are now hanging on for dear life; those players can't help but feel demoralised.
However, this is the FA Cup. It's been unpredictable before and it's certainly been a funny old year in the cups what with Swansea v Bradford getting to the League Cup final, which no-one would have predicted - even when the semi-final draw was made! What will encourage Wigan is that there have been a few times this season when City have been made to look pretty ordinary by teams lower down the league – defeats away at Sunderland and Southampton immediately spring to mind. City have looked more fallible this season but Wigan are clutching at straws really. Player for player, there's no comparison. They are polar opposites. Wigan's team has been put together on a shoestring, they've got smaller crowds, a smaller turnover. Up against these new kids on the block with bottomless pockets, loads of signings, a massive squad, a huge stadium. It's a real David v Goliath battle.
There have been occasions this season when Wigan have been outstanding but they have to do that on the biggest stage and for 90 minutes against a team that are desperate to win something after missing out on the Premier League title. City only have to remember the feeling of that FA Cup victory two years ago to draw some inspiration. It was a really special day for Manchester City, a club I'd been associated with and been part of the rebuilding of, moving them into the new stadium when I was manager. I knew how much it meant to those fans having waited so long, 35 years, for a major trophy.
Now Wembley is like a second home for these City players, this will be the sixth time many of them will have played at the stadium in two years – two FA Cup semi-finals, two finals and two Community Shields. Winning the FA Cup in 2011 was the turning point for this side and although they haven't won the Premier League title again this season, the opportunity to win three trophies in three years is remarkable for these fans who were deprived of silverware for so long. The next step, though, is to regularly win league titles and compete in the latter stages of European competition. With the players they have and the wages they're paying, it's not an unfair expectation.
There's been the same old tired talk about Mancini being at risk but I don't envisage him being the second managerial change in Manchester this summer. If Wigan beat them in the Cup final, the media will inevitably be on his back, but I don't think failure to win the Cup should or will cost him his job.
All the pressure is on Man City at Wembley this Saturday and it should hopefully make for a good, open final. Wigan have had injury problems and their defence has looked appalling at times – on paper there's only one winner. But stranger things have happened and that beautiful unpredictability of football has never been more prevalent over the years than in the FA Cup.