Oh, to be in Wembley!

Redeveloped at a cost of nearly GBP800M, The new Wembley, with its 90,000 seats, excellent sightlines and good legroom, is a shining symbol of what top-flight English football has become over the past 10 years.-AP

Its signature arch, 133m high, with a span of 315m, is already as instantly recognisable as the old Twin Towers. Approaching the stadium, I watched as fans paused, again and again, to look up at the arch in awe and wonder, says Jason Cowley.

After seven years of delays, feuds and broken promises, the FA Cup finally came back to Wembley. Yet while the new stadium, with its copious space and awe-inspiring arch, is unforgettable, the same could not be said of much of the FA Cup final, which Chelsea eventually won 1-0.

You knew as Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho emerged from the tunnel on May 19 to lead their teams on to the brilliantly green turf that, at last, the waiting was at an end. The construction delays, broken budgets, feuds, disputes and false promises were all destined to be forgotten on a radiant afternoon when, after an absence of seven years, the FA Cup returned to Wembley, surely the most technologically sophisticated and thrilling purpose-built football stadium in the world.

Its signature arch, 133m high, with a span of 315m, is already as instantly recognisable as the old Twin Towers. Approaching the stadium, I watched as fans paused, again and again, to look up at the arch in awe and wonder.

It had promised to be a final of contrasting styles: the speed, and attacking fluency of United, with their many British players, against the muscular resilience and pragmatism of Chelsea, with their three African players in the starting line-up.

Before the game, Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho had spoken of the need for his side to play `with happiness', and in expansive style. In the event, the match began slowly; more than that, it was flat, as if both sides rather than being inspired by the grandeur of the occasion were inhibited by it.

The second half was much better: faster, more urgent, as if the players had belatedly accepted that they were here... well, to play, and that there was a game to be won. Early in the half, United's Wayne Rooney went on one long, rampaging, wounded rhino's run, and from there the whole tempo changed. Now, with both sides committed increasingly to attack, a goal seemed inevitable. But it never came, though each had chances to score. And so on to the drama of Didier Drogba's late goal after a smartly worked move in extra-time.

Redeveloped at a cost of nearly GBP800m, the new Wembley, with its 90,000 seats, excellent sightlines and good legroom, is a shining symbol of what top-flight English football has become over the past 10 years, in all its preposterous affluence, ambition and swagger. It can be hard for those who don't know or can't recall what the English game was like in the late Seventies or much of the Eighties to understand not only how different from today it seemed then but also how insoluble its problems were believed to be.

Back then, English football was not exactly a dying game, but it was horribly beleaguered, a source of national shame and international disgrace. It was a game at a critical threshold; its decline and attitudes were an embarrassment to a nation that had throughout the Eighties been seeking to remake itself, economically and culturally. And yet football remained unreformed and unreconstructed, stubbornly apart from so much of the rest of society.

Wembley itself represented all that had gone wrong: once grand, it was becoming ever more decrepit. In truth, it was not even a proper football stadium: it was built for the 1923 Empire Exhibition, and the pitch was enclosed by a dog track, distancing the fans from the pitch. I remember how on my first visit to Wembley, in the late Seventies, I could scarcely see what was happening so far, behind one of the goals, was I from the action. Today, the Premiership is the most admired, envied, and imitated league in the world: an engine of cash generation and of globalisation. How appropriate, then, that the two best teams from that league, the two teams that for so much of the season have been locked in intense and remorseless competition, should have been there for the grand opening of the new Wembley.

In the run-up to the final there had been much grumbling from fans' associations not only about high ticket prices (the cheapest was GBP35), but also about how expensive were the incidentals, such as the programme, at GBP10, as well as food and drink. Steve Powell, head of development for the Football Supporters' Federation, said: "Football fans are fed up of being treated as turnstile fodder, who will pay whatever they are asked, so we are asking fans to boycott the catering outlets inside the stadium."

But those fans to whom I spoke were less indignant. Or perhaps they were simply more resigned to the hard economic reality of modern football. "We paid GBP60 each for our tickets," one father and his daughter told me. They were United fans, Manchester-born but living in Newcastle. "It's a lot to pay for a ticket, but worth it, especially when you consider we would have had to pay GBP190 each for the train down from Newcastle." They ended driving to Grantham, and picking up a train from there.

No one can visit the new Wembley without thinking of the old stadium, and of so much of what happened within its enclosed spaces: the drama, the triumph, and the despair. The new stadium naturally has a powerful sense of its own history — even the bars are named after great Wembley events or heroes.

The pre-match entertainment had included a parade of champion players, past FA Cup winners and the singing of the traditional hymn `Abide With Me', led by Sarah Brightman and Lesley Garrett. On the two big screens, at either end of the ground, highlights from earlier finals were continuously replayed. The message was clear: this was at once a new beginning and the continuation of something much older, a celebration of newness and an exercise in nostalgia.

Outside the stadium not much had changed. The surrounding streets, with their tatty parades of low-rent shops and old-style pubs, rancid with cigarette smoke and the stench of stale booze, seemed very much as they ever did, as oddly did the fans themselves. To mingle with them before the game, dressed in the blue and red of their teams' colours, was to be returned to my early boyhood visits to Wembley with my father.

Like every football fan, I have my own cherished Wembley moments, real or imagined. I sometimes used to feel as if I had lived through some of the greatest Wembley occasions of all, because as a young boy I used to listen to my father and his father's football stories — most of which were Wembley stories.

They would speak of the white police horse that emerged as if from some imaginary wonderland to help bring order as fans swarmed on to the pitch at the first FA Cup final held at Wembley in 1923. Of how the Hungarians, inspired by Ferenc Puskas, had thrashed England 6-3 in 1953, destroying forever our sense of footballing superiority. Of how on that late July afternoon in 1966 Bobby Moore had paused, deferentially, to wipe his hands before accepting the Jules Rimet trophy from the Queen and lifting it high into the air when it must have seemed to the young Eastender as if the whole world was watching and admiring him.

In time, I began to visit Wembley myself and had the good fortune to be there on that early summer afternoon in 1996 when Paul Gascoigne scored an extravagant volley, having first audaciously flipped the ball over the head of Scotland captain Colin Hendry, as England beat their oldest rivals during Euro '96, the last time a major international football tournament was held in these islands. That was the year, according to the Baddiel and Skinner song, when football came home.

And so it came home again on that Saturday when, on a bright and breezy afternoon, 90,000 people inside the stadium, and so many millions more watching on television around the world, saw Chelsea win the FA Cup for the first time under Jose Mourinho.

@ Guradian Newspapers Limited 2007