Interesting duel on the cards

If Cardiff, against all the odds, can do it again in May, that will be the second time they would take the FA Cup back to Wales, writes Brian Glanville.

On May 17, two surprisingly unexpected, even unfancied, teams will contest the FA Cup Final at Wembley. Yet, there are fascinating accretions of history. Portsmouth, the strong favourites, the Premier League team, won the Cup at Wembley in 1939. Cardiff City, of the so-called Championship, a grandiose name for the actual second division of today, won it way back in 1927 with one of the strangest, most freakish goals ever to win a Cup final.

It was the only time the Cup ever went out of England but if Cardiff, against all the odds, can do it again in May, that will be the second time, for of course they would take the Cup back to Wales.

You might say that both clubs are somewhat lucky to be in the final. Pompey, to give them their nickname, because the only goal they scored in a largely dull semifinal at Wembley against second division (sorry, Championship!) team West Bromwich Albion, was certainly hand assisted. Albion, playing good, brisk, intelligent football but lacking a cutting edge, had certainly had the better of the first-half. But when Pompey attacked, it looked pretty plain that their Czech international striker, Milan Baros, a star of the 2002 European Championship finals, though no great shakes since then, had handled the ball to get it under control before shooting. Kiley, in the Albion goal, blocked the ball, but was unable to scramble it away, and it was put past him by the lanky Nigerian, Nwankwo Kanu, an Albion player himself last season, released on a free transfer; once upon a time at Arsenal and Inter. It was beyond doubt a tarnished winning goal, and the veteran Albion striker, Phillips, was especially bitter and vociferous on the subject. But it stood, and Pompey were through.

The following day, again at Wembley, I saw two Championship teams compete in the other semifinal. Barnsley, astonishing conquerors of both Liverpool and Chelsea in the previous Cup games, and Cardiff City. It was 96 long years since Barnsley had won the Cup, and that was at the old Crystal Palace. As for Cardiff City, they were hovering on the brink of extinction, their former owner Sam Hammam, through his company, demanding repayment instantly of a £24 million loan. Luckily for Cardiff, when it came to court, they got a stay of execution, but it was narrow escape.

The sheer paradox, or irony if you prefer it, of soccer was shown when the massive Kayode Odejayi, the Nigerian striker whose spectacular headed goal had enabled his Barnsley team to beat hugely fancied Chelsea in the previous round, missed the simplest of chances at Wembley to equalise. At Oakwell, the Barnsley stadium, he had risen high above an earth-bound Chelsea ’keeper, Carlo Cudicini, to head his sensational goal. At Wembley, with his team 1-0 down in the second-half, a clever pass by the excellent Barnsley captain, Brian Howard, split a distracted Cardiff defence and sent him racing in alone on goal. He seemed certain to score, but, alas, he didn’t even get the ball on target. Instead, he feebly shot into the side netting, and Barnsley were out.

Not that Cardiff in any way excelled, though their goal was very well taken in the first-half by their young gifted Welsh international midfielder, Joe Ledley. Two weak headers failed to clear the ball sufficiently from the Barnsley area, and Ledley, who has been at Cardiff since he was nine years old, hooked the ball left-footed with great style and precision into the net. One of the few memorable moments of a largely dreaded game, though, when it comes to the final, Cardiff should have their injured Welsh international attacker, Paul Parry, back in the team. He was clearly missed against Barnsley. But you still worder what possessed Cardiff’s experienced Liverpudlian manager Dave Jones to line-up a strike partnership of two veterans, in the shape of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who at least is a striker by profession, and Trevor Sinclair who has never in his long career, including England international games, been anything closer to the role than winger. Neither had pace and the Barnsley central defence thus had a largely untroubled afternoon. Still, Cardiff got away with it.

Back, though, to 1927, when Cardiff took the Cup out of England. A little hard to imagine now, but in the 1920s Cardiff were a formidably effective and successful side. Yet, it was only in 1920 that, till then a non-league club, they were voted into the league; the old second division. In no time at all, they were promoted to the first division, pipped only on goal average by the second division winners, Birmingham. And Birmingham were their nemesis again when, in 1923, they finished equal top of the first division with Huddersfield Town, only to yield first place on mere goal average. They’d have won it outright had they not been held to a draw at Birmingham in their final game, when they missed a vital penalty.

In 1925, they reached their first FA Cup Final, but lost 1-0 to Sheffield United after a moment’s fatal hesitation by their right-half. Two years later, however, they were back at Wembley again, this time to face an Arsenal team which had been revitalised by their celebrated manager, Herbert Chapman. In this instance, however, you might say that Cardiff took a measure of revenge at long distance over Chapman, who had managed the Huddersfield team which so narrowly deprived them of the Championship in 1923.

Overall, in an indifferent final of a soggy pitch, Arsenal were the better team, captained by the famous inside-right, Charlie Buchan, who always claimed he had invented the third-back game, with its stopper centre-half, which revolutionised the Gunners, after the change in the offside law in 1925. Leaving Woolwich Arsenal in 1909, in a petty argument over 11 shillings’ expenses, Buchan had become a major star with Sunderland, but came back on a unique £100 a goal transfer, in 1925.

The strange and crucial moment came when Danny Lewis, Arsenal’s Welsh ’keeper, shaped to take an innocuous shot by Hugh Ferguson, the Cardiff centre-forward. But somehow, the ball rolled out of his grasp and when he turned to retrieve it, he knocked it across his own goal-line with his elbow. So the Cup went to Wales. Afterwards, Lewis was so upset that he left his runners’ up medal on the pitch, where his follow Welshman Bob John went out to retrieve it. Portsmouth will be hoping for a repeat of their last appearance in an FP Cup final. 1939, when against all expectations they thrashed the hot favourites, a young Wolves team allegedly energised on monkey glands, 4-1. The word was that Pompey knew they were on to a good thing when the official Wembley autograph book came to their dressing room and they saw the signatures of the Wolves players to be almost illegible nerve-ridden scrawls. So Pompey prevailed, in style.

Three years later, they were back at Wembley for the final of the London War Cup with most of their 1939 team. But unfancied Brentford beat them 2-0, both goals from the young England left-winger, Leslie Smith. I saw it as a 10-year-old and still recall that dramatic day.