Football’s relishable League Cup final at Cardiff tomorrow has Arsenal and Chelsea, the big guns from London, intriguingly squaring up for what is, officially, the last time English clubs play a showpiece event in a ‘foreign’ country. Well, that’s the plan anyway. Personally, I wouldn’t bet on it. I fancy it is still anyone’s guess whether the rebuilt Wembley will host either 2007’s FA Cup final on 19 May or the league’s play-off finals the following week. I’m told Cardiff’s Millennium stadium continues to tell other promoters enquiring about possible bookings that English football remains ‘pencilled in’ at the top of the queue for those two early summer weekends.
Ongoing legal matters between subcontractors and Wembley’s main builders Multiplex still drag on apparently, enough to delay the official handover of the keys to the FA in time for a number of trial matches planned to test all the necessarily stringent health and safety regulations. The original Wembley may have been deemed ‘fit for purpose’ to host its first (in the event chaotic) Cup final in 1923 after a battalion of infantrymen from Windsor barracks had spent four hours the day before tramping up and down the terracing and grandstands in heavy boots, but that is not, mercifully I suppose, the way of the world these days. In 2007, the first of these planned ‘rehearsal’ days is next Saturday’s ‘community day’ when 35,000 local residents are due to inspect the new colosseum by passing through; followed, on 11 March, by England’s under-21 fixture with Italy in front of a paying crowd of (unlikely, I’d say) 60,000. We shall see what we shall see. What is certain is that just 12 months and one week ago the FA announced that the proposed match for its gala Wembley opening — the 2006 FA Cup final — would, after all, be switched to Cardiff because the London stadium was deemed ‘not quite ready’. It has been a lamentable saga all round. Time gallops, doesn’t it, and all those involved with London’s 2012 Olympics must quake every time they hear the word Wembley.
Many will be relieved if tomorrow is indeed the last big English final at Cardiff; the Millennium stadium is a handsome and welcoming city-centre cathedral all right, but the traffic, railway and accommodation problems have been generally excruciating for those from across the border. Since 2001, when Wembley’s makeover began, one or two of England’s Cardiff cup finals have been passingly thrilling, even memorable — and on the face of it London’s heavyweight match-up tomorrow could be the most ravishing of all. Both sides may be playing ‘away’ but the local needle will remain dagger-sharp for the two armies of followers in red and blue. The makeup of the two teams which initially take the field holds almost as much interest as the outcome of the contest itself — for Chelsea, sponsored by its owner’s zillions of Russian roubles, has pioneered a squad system in which players contracted at tens of thousands of pounds a week do nothing to earn such fortunes except watch glumly from the substitutes’ bench for week after week as their confreres actually kick the ball; while Arsenal, more cutely communal and certainly less expensively so, have been fielding, almost for alternate games it seems, a strutters’ all-star 1st XI, a keener and more appealing 2nd XI and, for the League Cup at least, a glitteringly gifted, often breathtaking 3rd team of tyro youngsters. All of them, it goes without saying, foreign youngsters.