As a Palace supporter I find it difficult to contain the thrill of going to Wembley this weekend for the club’s fifth appearance in an FA Cup semi-final. While for the fans of our opponents Chelsea and the other semi-finalists, Liverpool and Manchester City, this is much more routine. It is all part and parcel of being one of the Big Six. Over the last few weeks the other three clubs have been preoccupied with progressing in the Champions League, the FA Cup being an afterthought. Conversely in a certain quarter of South London the excitement has been building and will reach a crescendo over the coming days.
I have been fortunate enough to see Palace at Wembley seven times in three Play-Off finals, three FA Cup Finals (including the replay in 1990) and one FA Cup semi-final but the novelty has never worn off. That feels like a pretty glorious period over the last thirty odd years but pales into insignificance compared to the other three semi-finalists. Our last Wembley appearance was in 2016 for the FA Cup Final against Manchester United, and since then Chelsea have been there eleven times and City ten, excluding the Community Shield. Visits to the national stadium are part of their regular diet. Liverpool are returning to Wembley after winning the EFL Cup in February although this will be their first FA cup semi-final under Jürgen Klopp. But the Reds have picked up a few glittering prizes along the way under the German’s guidance with the Champions League and the Premier League triumphs of the last few years.
Chelsea, City and Liverpool have amassed 21 FA Cup wins out of 40 Cup Finals. Such a surfeit of success inevitably leads to a certain blasé attitude on behalf of the bigger clubs with a ‘been there, done that’ attitude diluting the levels of excitement. Whatever happens on Sunday, the Palace fans will revel in the occasion with an immense sense of pride in having got this far. Nearly £10,000 has been raised by the Holmesdale Fanatics to arrange a tifo display that will dominate the Western end of the stadium accompanied by quite a few raucous renditions of “We’ve got super Pat Vieira…” It is great to see what the FA Cup means to the manager, who enjoyed it so much as a player.
After many years when the competition was treated as a minor inconvenience rather than a huge opportunity for glory, Vieira has embraced it with gusto as you can judge from his pre-match statement – “Your support that day (in quarter-final against Everton) was magical. We could really feel the excitement in the stands, and the communion between the fans and the players for the passion that we showed on the field. There is a real connection. I’m really looking forward to seeing more than 30,000 of you turn Wembley stadium red and blue on Sunday. The atmosphere that we’ve had so far in the cup, both home and away, has been fantastic. Now I want to see it at Wembley. Wembley is a theatre of the game, one of the best stadiums in the world. I can’t wait to see you all there, and to experience the atmosphere I know you can create.”
It is difficult to anticipate what would happen if Palace won the FA Cup but I can guarantee you that whoever the manager is at the time he would last a little longer than two days. After the 2016 Final when we were beaten 2-1 by Manchester United, rather than an explosion of joy there was a sense of ennui from the club, which was then reflected in the dismissal of Louis van Gaal on the Monday after lifting the Cup. The Dutchman’s statement, which reads more like the departure of a corporate chief executive than a football manager, reeked of disappointment mixed with a touch of incredulity that this was his fate after their triumph:
“It has been an honour to manage such a magnificent club as Manchester United FC, and in doing so, I have fulfilled a long-held ambition. I am immensely proud to have helped United win the FA Cup for the 12th time in the club’s history. I have been privileged during my management career to have won 20 trophies but winning the FA Cup, which is steeped in so much history, will always be one of the most special achievements of my career.
I am very disappointed to be unable to complete our intended three-year plan. I believe that the foundations are firmly in place to enable the club to move forward and achieve even greater success. I hope that winning the FA Cup will give the club a platform to build upon next season to restore the success that this passionate set of fans desire.”
Realistically, our chances of success are pretty slim as our recent record against Chelsea does not augur well. The last nine matches have ended in nine defeats with an aggregate score of 6-23. And while it feels as though Palace are almost intruding on a private party, we will be making the most of every single second of Sunday’s match, come rain or shine. After all, we’ve got super Pat Vieira.