I've never been to a Cup Final before, so I thought I'd go this year. Not to support either of the two teams, you understand, because I'm not a fan of deep-pocketed megalomaniacs or bankrupt seasiders. And not to actually go inside the stadium to watch the match, because that costs money and wastes valuable weekend time. But I did go to the Cup Final, along with 89 thousand other folk, just to see what the experience of going there was like.
I'm glad I planned ahead and wore blue. Not the same polycotton blue that most of the other supporters were wearing, but it helped me blend into the seething throng heading Wembley-ward. They emerged from various pubs several tube stops away. Best to arrive in the general vicinity early and get tanked up on beer, just in case, especially if you've travelled all the way up from Portsmouth. Then spill down onto the nearest platform, bubbling and fizzing, and pile into the first stuffed carriage that arrives. Swing from the grabpoles, mutter excitedly, yell like a madman. Ole Ole Ole Ole!
It wasn't easy telling the two tribes apart. Some of the Pompey supporters were wearing pink scarves, and one identified himself by a tricorn hat which I didn't think felt particularly Chelsea. At Wembley Park we emerged and lolloped through the station under the beady eyes of rather a lot of policemen. No pressure. The station's been re-engineered with crowd control in mind, directing stadium-goers down a broad flight of steps into the concrete canyon of Olympic Way. [photo]
It's only half a mile long, but no opportunity to hawk goods and services was wasted. Get your programmes here, only a tenner. Blue wigs anyone? Need a ticket, need a ticket? Several kiosks were open for the serving of very fast food, although majorly rebranded since the revamped stadium opened a few years back. Heavenly Hotdogs has gone, replaced by Divine Sausages, along with its culinary stablemates Divine Burger and Divine Fish & Chips [photo]. Here too the final opportunity to buy a blue and white flag, especially for those who were over-overexcited by this stage.
The crowd were generally of a certain testosterone-fuelled type. Blokey blokes of all ages, on the beefier side the older they were. This was no place for beards or facial hair, nor indeed for anyone who looked like they might ever have attended a rugby match. Beer buddies, fervent supporters, start-at-the-back tabloid readers. The sort who, whenever someone up the road started chanting "Championes!", launched into the refrain with a gleeful swagger. Two herds were forming - Pompey to the left, Chelsea to the right - ready to ascend the long ramp to podium level. [photo]
Slow progress towards the arched arena, past police horses on a rare day out. To one side a tethered balloon rose a few feet into the air, adding its hot air to England's campaign to bring the World Cup here in 2018 [photo]. More chanting, more noise, more rampant expectation. With the glass wall at last in sight, the crowds split up in search of the appropriate lettered turnstiles. Some were fortunate with not too far to go, others still had half the stadium's perimeter to traverse. Patience now, and maybe another song.
The nice lady on the public address system warned that the national anthem would be sung in five minutes, with kickoff soon after. Nobody rushed for the former, neither was a single note audible from outside. I watched as the queueing supporters flashed their tickets to enter, then climbed aboard the escalators and rose slowly towards their seats. The sound of chanting echoed around the stairwells, before merging with the general roar within. A few Chelsea turnstiles had far longer queues than elsewhere so hundreds of stragglers missed the first kick, but as it turned out they missed nothing.
So I went to my first Cup Final, but I never went inside. After a becalmed circuit of the post-3pm stadium, which I told you about yesterday, I left the true supporters to it. And I doubt the best team won.