Sunday April 6th 2008
Kick Off 4:00pm
Weather: Cold and sunny, melting snow
Distance travelled: 58 miles
"Men of Harlech on to glory
This will ever be your story
Keep these burning words before ye
Welshmen will not yield"
At the final whistle yesterday I witnessed scenes at a football game that I have not seen for a long, long time. A tide of emotion, jubilation, ecstasy, joy - words fail to express. Cardiff City had beaten Barnsley 1-0 to reach the FA Cup Final for the first time since 1927 and one half of Wembley erupted as referee Alan Wiley put the whistle to his lips. A mass of blue and white and a cacophony of celebration. Wembley's new foundations shook as over 33,000 danced like they've never danced before and sang like they've never sang before, belting out "Men of Harlech" that simply made the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. Grown men, women and children all around me were crying their eyes out. This was something quite magnificent. This was something I will never forget. I would be lying if I said there wasn't a tear in my eye nor a lump in my throat.
And in stark contrast, the lonely figure of Kayode Odejayi stood head bowed framed only by the vastness of the Wembley pitch. The Barnsley striker had unwittingly provided one of the biggest talking points of the game when, clean through on goal and with only the Cardiff goalkeeper to beat, contrived to miss the target. A guilt edged chance that would have pulled the Yorkshire side level. At the final whistle Odejayi stood alone, fighting back tears of a different kind.
My day had started with a shock. Not the normal early morning shock when I look in the mirror, but the shock of opening the curtains to a winter wonderland picture postcard scene. A seriously large amount of the white stuff had dumped itself over Chertsey and snow several centimetres thick blanketed the ground. It took me a while for this to register. Hold on, snow on FA Cup Semi Final day? It did not compute. Shock soon turned to a small amount of concern. Would the game still be on? But then I snapped back to my senses and realised that this was the south of England. Snow down here only stays around for a couple of hours. No need to fret.
There were many highlights about the day yesterday. The ease of the journey for one. I picked up my "Road to Wembley" mate PB and then drove to Hillingdon tube station and we were at Wembley Park before one could say "are we there yet?". A piece of cake. Also the fans. I couldn't believe how busy it was, arriving a full two hours before kick off. It was a joy to walk down the Olympic Way and mingle with both Barnsley and Cardiff City fans. One could sense that both sets of supporters were out to make a day of it, no matter what. The losers of the game may not get the chance to play at Wembley again for a long time and the friendly, party mood atmosphere enhanced the occasion. I also met another "Road to Wembley" bod, Timm Rutland, purely by chance as we strolled to the stadium. I had met Timm briefly at Middlesbrough and he made it to yesterday's game with his son. I hope they enjoyed the day as much as we did.
Although I have to say that the game itself was not brilliant. Sat in with the Cardiff fans more than made up for it however. Wembley stadium is an impressive venue and the atmosphere and a fair degree of tension made the whole event highly absorbing and thoroughly entertaining, to the point that I felt quite drained by the time I arrived home.
Cardiff City had started the game as slight favourites. Barnsley had seen off Liverpool and Chelsea en route to the semi, but their league form is poor and are currently involved in a relegation battle. Cardiff meanwhile had hit good form and had been playing some attractive football. All of which is, of course, totally irrelevant for a Wembley FA Cup Semi Final.
Cardiff started in their trademark FA Cup fashion. An early goal, this time by Joe Ledley. And once again, it was a very good Cardiff goal. With a mere nine minutes of play elapsed, a long throw from Capaldi into the box was half cleared for Ledley to strike a sweet volley over Luke Steele into the back of the net. It really was an impressive effort, Ledley almost steering the ball over a crowd of players. The Barnsley fans were stunned. The Cardiff fans went ballistic. Heart pounding stuff.
The first half then belonged to Barnsley in terms of possession. They responded better than Cardiff to the goal and won a series of corners that always provided an aerial threat. But the Cardiff back line held strong and it was impressive performances from Loovens and particularly Roger Johnson that thwarted the Barnsley offensive. Souza headed just wide from one of the corners and Brian Howard wasted a good chance. Odejayi also got in front of his marker only to shoot weakly at Enckelman in the Cardiff goal. Barnsley also had a shout for a penalty when Kevin McNaughton appeared to control the ball with his forearm as he shepherded the ball back to his keeper. Up at the other end Sinclair had a golden opportunity to nudge the ball past the advancing Luke Steele but Sinclair's first touch was too heavy; Steele did well to block the shot. Then back with Barnsley and the Hungarian Ferenczi headed just wide and soon after had a shot cleared off the line. All in all, Barnsley on top.
In the second half Cardiff started to control the game, putting their foot on the ball and making use of the Wembley space. The Cardiff midfield started to dominate and possession swung back to the team from Wales. Barnsley were now starting to visibly tire with the chase becoming more and more sapping. The experienced Hasselbaink began to influence proceedings, holding up play well thus allowing Whittingham, Rae and substitute Thompson to exploit some of the gaps that were starting to appear in all areas of the pitch. Rae had a great chance to close the game off on the hour mark when he met an excellent cross from Ledley but headed straight at the keeper.
And then on the 66th minute, the pivotal moment of the game. That miss from Odejayi. An uncharacteristic error from the Cardiff's centre back pairing saw them step up too soon on the half way line and a through ball found Odejayi alone in acres of space in the Cardiff half. Bearing down on goal, with only Enckleman to beat, the equaliser seemed inevitable. It was a just a matter of waiting for the back of the net to ripple. But amazingly the striker, who has scored only one goal in twenty four games, pushed his shot wide. The Cardiff fans went wild, celebrating as one would celebrate a missed penalty, whilst the Barnsley fans to a man held their heads in utter disbelief.
Odejayi stood with his face buried in his hands. I know what it feels like to miss a sitter like that. I have absolutely no idea what it feels like to miss a sitter like that at Wembley in front of 33,000 expectant fans. Poor guy, football can be cruel at times.
One more long range effort from Whittingham and a chance for Rae to seal it when through on goal (but let down by a tired first touch) and that really was it. A case of Cardiff playing out time for the remainder of the game. The last twenty minutes went very slowly, Barnsley fans must have sensed that the game was now beyond them whilst the Cardiff fans had long since bitten off any remaining finger nails.
And then that final whistle. And those truly unbelievable scenes. Cue the hugs. Cue the tears. It was fitting that it was Joe Ledley, a local Cardiff lad, who had scored the only goal of the match. Aged only twenty one, welcome to the land of dreams.
This morning, I have had a little time to reflect. What a day. I really have run out of superlatives. This FA Cup run just gets better and better and better. There is no doubt in my mind that this remains football's greatest cup competition. The English FA Cup. Yesterday it belonged to Wales and I feel extremely privileged to have been part of it all. I left Wembley yesterday with "Men of Harlech" reverberating around the stadium, through the concourses and coursing through my body. I (and PB) hummed and whistled the tune all the way home. It is in my head still this morning.
Just one more game to complete the run. Back at Wembley on Saturday 17th May? Will I be there? Who can tell. The one certainty is that the 2007/2008 FA Cup Final will be an all blue and white affair between Cardiff City and Portsmouth.
Yes, you read that right. Cardiff City and Portsmouth. Quite remarkable.