Welcome to the 130th FA Cup final, contested at Wembley Stadium between Manchester City and Stoke City. Now, don't listen to the haters talking the big match down. It's the Cup Final. The Cup Final!!! THE CUP FINAL. No matter what indignities the clowns at the FA have visited upon this event over the years - the abolition of replays, the imposition of penalty shoot-outs, exclusive terrestrial transmission rights for ITV - the old trophy's lustre lingers on. And there's the proof, in that burning you're feeling right now, wishing for all the world that your team was competing today.
But a new snook to tradition appears to have been cocked this year, with the match being played on the same day as regular league fixtures. This shouldn't cause too much heartache to traditionalists, however: back in the pre-war era, it used to happen all the time. When Manchester City were getting spanked 3-0 by Dixie Dean's Everton in 1933, for example, in the first-ever cup final to feature numbered shirts (Everton wore 1-11, City 12-22), the First Division classifieds read:
Arsenal 2-2 Huddersfield Town
Birmingham City 0-4 Leicester City
Blackburn Rovers 0-5 Aston Villa
Blackpool 2-2 Wolverhampton Wanderers
Derby County 3-2 Newcastle United
Leeds United 0-1 Middlesbrough
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Bolton Wanderers
Sunderland 0-3 Portsmouth
West Bromwich Albion 2-1 Liverpool
Man City fans may like to note that, in the Second Division, Manchester United lost 3-2 away at Lincoln City. Stoke's rivals Port Vale won 4-1 at home to Plymouth Argyle. I've gone well off piste here already.
Anyway, one thing that remains traditional (for now at least) is the kick-off time: 3pm.
Manchester City's previous FA Cup finals: There have been eight of them. City beat Bolton Wanderers in 1904, Portsmouth in 1934, Birmingham City in 1956, and Leicester City in 1969. They lost to Bolton in 1926, Everton in 1933, Newcastle in 1955, and Tottenham Hotspur in 1981.
Stoke City's previous FA Cup finals: None; this is their first. Before this season's romp to the final, their roll of honour in the competition amounted to three semi-final defeats: to Derby County in 1899, and to Arsenal in 1971 and 1972. The 1971 run was perhaps their most famous: only a last-minute Peter Storey penalty denied them a place at Wembley, they lost the replay, but beat Everton 3-2 in a third/fourth place play-off in front of a whopping Selhurst Park crowd of 5,031.
Today's final promises to be: A cracker, as both teams are desperate to end their major trophy drought. Not for them the snooty attitude of the big clubs. It's the FA Cup Final!
Carlos Tevez starts for Manchester City: Hart, Richards, Kolarov, Kompany, Lescott, De Jong, Barry, Yaya, Silva, Balotelli, Tevez.
Matthew Etherington starts for Stoke City: Sorensen, Wilkinson, Shawcross, Huth, Wilson, Pennant, Whelan, Delap, Etherington, Walters, Jones.
2.15pm: In the Premier League (and yes I know I said I wouldn't mention it) Blackpool are currently leading Bolton Wanderers 4-3. It's a facsimile scoreline of arguably the greatest FA Cup final of them all, the 1953 Matthews final. Could this be a sign that we're in for a classic today? Well, no, obviously it has no bearing on events whatsoever. But to hell with logic! Could this be a sign that we're in for a classic today? All signs point to yes!
2.30pm: "Has anyone named Rory ever won a trophy?" wonders Tony Campisi. Of course, if we're looking for ridiculous omens, it's not good news for Mr Delap and pals, 2011 not having been the best of years so far for Rories chasing glory. I don't know why I keep talking about these preposterous omens. Oh yes, that's right: it's because I've got nothing else to say. Don't worry, teams are out soon.
2.45pm: The atmosphere at Wembley is fantastic. Half of the stadium a sea of powder blue, the other bathed in red and white. There are a lot of flags floating around. These are two sets of fans who are really grabbing the opportunity to enjoy themselves with both hands, and are squeezing every drop out of it. Of course, for one of them it won't last, with bitter misery awaiting, but at the moment that's not the point.
2.50pm: Time for the traditional FA Cup final hymn:
Nice to abide with him, to abide with him, nice. And tonight's the night the darkness deepens.
2.55pm: The teams wait in the tunnel, Manchester City zipped up in their retro tracksuit tops, Stoke City in their red-and-white-striped shirts, a sign maybe that they're not planning to fanny about. Like anybody expects Tony Pulis's Stoke City to fanny about. And then, with spectacular jets of fire blasting at them from pitchside, and wild cheering rolling down from the stands, the teams take to the pitch. It is on!
2.58pm: Shakety hands, swappity pennants.
3pm, a traditional kick-off time for the FA Cup final which the suits in charge would be STUPID BASTARDS to change: Tony Pulis has changed out of his fancy suit, and is now sporting his usual tracksuit-and-cap ned combo. And we're off! Stoke set the ball rolling, Walters bombing down the inside-right channel and into the box, but Hart is out quickly to pluck the long ball the striker's chasing from the air.
2 min: All at bit scrappy at the moment, both on pitch and off. Both sets of fans suddenly sound a bit nervous, and the volume's dropped dramatically. You can't blame them. They'll get their gamefaces on again soon. "Here in Scotland we don't even get the FA Cup final live on telly, being saddled with a Kevin Costner movie instead," reports poor Ryan Dunne. "Given that people play excessive TV coverage for the decline in the FA Cup's prestige, will this mean a resurgence in its popularity north of the border?"
3 min: Manchester City earn the first corner down the left. The ball's swung into the box towards Richards at the near post, but the defender fails to connect properly.
5 min: Manchester City enjoying the lion's share of the possession. Tevez tucks inside from the left and takes this final's first shot in anger, sending a very decent effort from the edge of the area sailing towards the right-hand side of the goal. It's at a good height for the keeper, though, and Sorensen palms confidently out. The ball's hacked clear. "All this talk of how the FA Cup has lost it's shine, ruined by money, blah-der-dee-blah - you English are just spoiled with an embarrassment of riches, yearning for the past and not seeing how fantastic it is that you can't throw a rock without hitting a fantastic football match," opines Linda Howard. "There. I said it."
7 min: Stoke haven't put a thing together up front yet. I'm not sure they'll be too bothered about that, the team look happy enough to find their feet, while snapping repeatedly at Manchester City's heels. "I wonder: will Man City have the Sheiks here today?" asks Mark Judd. "I'll get my coat." And there, in one fell swoop, ends the stand-up boom.
9 min: Nigel de Jong visualises Xabi Alonso's breastplate and puts his foot through the ball, 25 yards out. The ball sails 25 yards over the bar.
10 min: Oof, this was nearly an own-goal opener. Kolarov diddles down the left, and smashes a low cross into the six-yard area. Shawcross slides in to intercept, and billows the side netting with the ball. He was inches of finding the bottom-left corner there. Wow.
11 min: The resulting corner's wasted, but soon enough Yaya Toure is launching a magnificent rising drive goalwards. Again, the ball's inches from finding the target, flying just wide right of the top-right corner. Sorensen wouldn't have got to that. Stoke need to put a few passes together, because Manchester City have started very well and are beginning to threaten.
13 min: A couple of long throws by Delap come to naught. "Does it not annoy anybody else that the camera angle in the new bigger Wembley is piss poor?" asks Andrew Bunyan. "Why is it so low? I just bought a 42inch TV and half of it is crowd." Have you tried hitting the top of the set with your clenched fist? That used to work with the old-style sets. If it doesn't fix it, get out a hammer.
14 min: Huth deliberately sticks his elbow into Balotelli's face as the two chase a long ball down the middle. It's not a hard whack by any means, but it's a sending off offence if the referee claps eyes on it. Luckily for Stoke, the referee and linesman miss Huth's act of stupidity.
17 min: A free kick for Stoke, and a chance to load the box with players. Which they do, but Pennant's delivery, from out wide on the right, 40 yards out, is aimless and straight down the throat of Hart.
19 min: Yaya Toure sprays a lovely ball into space down the inside-left channel, allowing Tevez to scoot towards the area. Sorensen is off his line quickly to challenge the striker on the edge of the area. If Tevez is fly, he'd tap the ball to the left and go over the keeper, looking for the penalty. Luckily for the keeper, he's playing it straight, and knocks the ball wide, staying on his feet. Trouble for Tevez is, he knocks it miles wide left, and can't keep the move going, never mind get a shot on goal.
21 min: Walters gives the ball to Jones on the right-hand edge of the Manchester City area. The big man looks to get a shot away, but is quickly closed down by Kompany. It's not a classic yet by any stretch, but it's ... er ... intriguing.
23 min: From 30 yards out, Wilson belts a free kick miles into the crowd behind Joe Hart's goal.
24 min: Brilliant play all round here. On the left-hand edge of the Stoke area, Balotelli opens up his body and sends a delicious curling shot towards the top-right corner. That's flying into the net, but Sorensen, at full stretch, fingertips round the post. Then claims the corner. Superb stuff. "Please tell Andrew Bunyan that the FA adjusted the camera angle to include more crowd so that the match more closely resembled FIFA 98 on the Playstation," reports Sean Boiling. "Oh hang on, it's 2011 isn't it?"
28 min: A bit of a lull now. If ever there's a game requiring a goal, it's this one. "Re Mr Bunyan's point about the camera position at the new Wembley being no good," begins Gary Naylor. "Is there anything good about the new Wembley? Or the old Wembley? (I'm betting without intangible stuff like history.)" The new Wembley certainly is awful. It's like a giant Pride Park or St Mary's. Nothing wrong with that for a club stadium, of course, but Wembley should have a sense of other, which this monstrosity doesn't have. The old running track helped, giving the pitch a haughty grandeur as it sat out there in no-man's land, the players stepping out into uncharted territory. Who cares about a perfect view when the stadium looked as dramatic as it did? This new place is a total hole, and what's worse, boring with it. The old place was a dump too, but at least that hole had charm.
30 min: Jones tries to round Kompany in the Manchester City area. The ball springs up and hits the top of the defender's arm. No decision. That would have been tight. Manchester City swoosh down the other end, Kompany looking to rub salt in the wound by scoring from 25 yards. His low sidefooted effort, towards the bottom right, is easily dealt with by Sorensen.
32 min: A free kick for Stoke, lamely shot goalwards by Pennant. Hart could have been excused a jaunty whistle, incorporating elaborate trill, as he collected the ball.
35 min: What a miss by David Silva. Tevez slips a ball into the Stoke six-yard box for Balotelli. Sorensen won't let the Italian turn to get a shot on goal, so Balotelli lays off for Silva, coming in centrally from the edge of the area. The ball's at an awkward height, but hardly difficult to poke home with Sorensen out of position. However, from eight yards, Silva hammers the ball into the ground, and back up over the bar. "You mentioned the 'suits in charge' at the FA," writes Mark Dougherty. "I thought the FA wore blazers? Maybe suits are their away strip."
38 min: Balotelli is causing Stoke a lot of problems. Again Tevez feeds him in the box, and he twists and turns down the inside-left channel. The ball's cleared by Stoke for a corner, which is a waste of time. "I tried hitting the screen (with a clenched fist) to get the little humans to play football for the last 15 minutes of the Man U v Blackburn match," replies Andrew Bunyan. "It didn't work."
40 min: Huth, who could easily have walked for his earlier elbow on Balotelli, is booked for a poor lunge on Richards, 25 yards from goal, just on the right. That was a simple decision for the referee. Kolarov wastes the free kick, sending the ball sailing into the top-left corner of the stand behind the goal.
43 min: De Jong sidefoots a lame effort wide left of goal from the edge of the Stoke area. Perhaps he should have visualised Xabi Alonso's breastplate.
44 min: Now Kolarov tries to lash home an effort from nigh on 40 yards. Oh now come on, show your fellow professionals some respect. "Robert Huth: He is that sort of player," notes Sean Welch.
45 min: Stoke load the Manchester City box for another free kick. Pennant can't get it past the first man. Very poor. It could be his last contribution to the game, too, because when play continues, he badly twists his right knee and ankle when his studs catch in the turf. Ooyah oof. He's back up and about after a couple of minutes of treatment, but limping around in real distress.
HALF TIME: Manchester City 0-0 Stoke City. And that's that for the half. Second-half classic, please. Meanwhile, here's the latest from Stoke-born, and Stoke-supporting, ex Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash, direct from Tom Bryant's colleague at Kerrang!: "I'm gonna watch the match from France but I can't make it over in person," says the guitarist. "I'm a football fan and I always root for Stoke because they're the underdog. They're a great team but they never quite make it."
A blast of sun from 1970s California. Cocaine? No, no cocaine.
And we're off again! Pennant continues, he walks out confidently, but time will tell. With Etherington very quiet, having just come back from injury, Stoke are looking a bit tatty at the moment. Manchester City get the ball rolling again. "Slash wasn't Stoke born," corrects Tom Bryant. "He just lived there as an axe-wielding nipper. He was actually born in Hampstead, which should probably make him an Arsenal fan. Clearly he's just another one of the millions of bandwagon-jumping Stoke glory hunters."
46 min: Kolarov can be a total idiot sometimes. He's released into the area down the inside-left by a lovely rolled pass from De Jong, but with Balotelli and Silva waiting in the middle, he puts his boot through the ball, hoping to beat Sorensen from a tight angle. The effort flies straight into the side netting, an appalling waste.
47 min: First sighting of Pennant in this half is a promising one for Stoke fans: he skidaddles down the right and sends a deep cross into the Manchester City area. Nothing comes of it, but his right peg is holding up well if that's anything to go by. "Aaaaah, Chuck Barris," sighs Linda Howard, entertained thoroughly at half time. "That would've been a perfect half-time clip for Los Clasicos, in honour of Jose Mourinho's slightly neurotic conspiracy mania."
50 min: More hot Pennant action. A long throw from Delap down the left eventually ends up at the feet of Pennant on the right-hand edge of the Manchester City area, after a few seconds of pandemonium. He's got time to set the ball up for a lash, but still manages to slice his effort horribly into a thicket of players.
53 min: Pennant turns sharply down the right and goes over that ankle again. He looks jiggered, to be honest. But he's hobbling on for the moment.
54 min: Yaya Toure should have been sent off for a disgraceful rake on the back of Wilkinson's leg. That's one lucky escape apiece, then.
55 min: Temperatures rising a bit here, as now Balotelli gets involved in a brouhaha near the right-hand corner flag by his own box. He's told to calm down by the referee. From the set piece, Etherington finds a bit of space to the right of goal, but instead of shooting tries to cut the ball back; it's cleared.
56 min: Manchester City fly straight up the other end. Tevez draws Whelan and Wilson out right, spins and sends Silva clear into the Stoke area. The Spaniard takes far too much time to set himself up for a shot, though, and the ball's spirited away from his toe. What a chance spurned. He's been very profligate, the wee man.
60 min: It's much more open now, this game. A real sense that there's a goal coming along soon. "If a stadium with a sense of other is what you're looking for," writes Ryan Dunne, "you can't do better than Pripyiat stadium. Who wouldn't love to see Sepp Blatter there?"
62 min: A long pass by Etherington down the inside-left channel from inside his own half. Lescott faffs around under it, allowing Jones to nip in ahead of him and scoot clear into the area. He's one on one with Hart, but hammers his shot straight at the star-jumping keeper. Has that belted his front tail? For the poor man's sake, I do hope I was seeing things there. But either way, what a save!
63 min: That's the last - and indeed only - meaningful thing Etherington will do in this cup final. That hamstring injury was just too much for him to recover properly from, and he makes way for Whitehead.
66 min: A free kick for Manchester City, 30 yards out, right in the centre. Balotelli wants a piece of the action. So too does Tevez. But it's Balotelli who wins that argument. He slams a poor effort straight into the wall, but after a melee it breaks in the area to Richards, who really should have taken a first-time shot from 12 yards out just to the right of goal. But he checks back, and the chance is gone.
69 min: It's all a bit scrappy again.
71 min: Stoke apply a bit of pressure. Delap flings a throw into the area from the right. A mini mêlée. Then Pennant, working on the left, buys a free kick by running into Richards. Stoke load the box, but Pennant can't clear the first man. It's not much pressure, admittedly, but I'm paid to work so there's no point me keeping totally quiet.
73 min: A first change for Manchester City: Barry is replaced by Adam Johnson.
74 min: GOAL!!! Manchester City 1-0 Stoke City. Yaya Toure - who arguably shouldn't be on the pitch after that tackle on Wilkinson - repeats his heroics of the semi-final against Manchester United, scoring at the same end. Silva turns on a sixpence to the left of the goal, laying the ball back for Balotelli. The Italian's shot is blocked, but the loose ball eventually finds its way to Toure, who lashes home past Sorensen from the penalty spot. What a power strike. No keeper could have stopped that.
76 min: Not long after the restart, Wilkinson is booked for a high lunge on Balotelli. Wembley is rocking in the wake of that goal.
78 min: Stoke look a bit shellshocked. They can't string anything together, giving the ball away repeatedly in midfield. Johnson scampers down the right, reaches the byline, and cuts the ball back for Silva, but a Stoke boot gets in the way just before the striker can pull the trigger from six yards.
80 min: A change for Stoke. Delap goes off, Carew coming on in his stead.
82 min: Kolarov zips down the left and wins a corner of Pennant. It's wasted. City are containing Stoke very well since scoring their goal.
84 min: Silva drops a shoulder on the left-hand edge of the box and hammers a low shot towards the bottom-right corner. Sorensen parries the ball out, but there's nobody there for City. Huth lashes clear.
85 min: A final change by Stoke, Whelan making way for Pugh.
86 min: Carew robs Kompany down the left, but just as it looks like he'll scamper into the box, De Jong is there to whisk the ball away. City are yet to look nervous. Their supporters, I'm hazarding a guess, will be taking up that slack for them.
88 min: Carlos Tevez, who is looking to become the third Argentinian player to win the FA Cup after Ricky Villa and Ossie Ardiles, is replaced by a man looking to become the fourth, Pablo Zabaleta. Well, joint third. But you know what I mean.
89 min: Yaya Toure bombs goalwards. The ball breaks to Balotelli, whose shot is deflected well wide left for a corner. City faff around down there for a while, eating up plenty of time. They're running down the clock very calmly indeed.
90 min: There will be three added minutes of this.
90 min +1: Manchester City are 120 seconds away from their first major trophy since 1976, and their first FA Cup since 1969.
90 min +2: A ball's sent through the City area from the left. Pennant makes a nuisance of himself on the right, and wins a corner. Before it's taken, City make a change, Silva going off for Vieira.
90 min +3: The corner's too long, but the ball is sent back into the Manchester City area from the left. There's a real old bar-room brouhaha, Vieira eventually putting the ball behind on the left for another corner. From which...
90 min +4: ... Shawcross sends a weak header wide right. And then ...
MANCHESTER CITY WIN THE FA CUP!!! The final whistle goes. Roberto Mancini punches the air with both fists. That was a deserved win for Manchester City, who were by far the better team today. Stoke didn't really turn up, and yet they'll be looking ruefully back at Kenwyne Jones' chance midway through the second half. It won't go down as a classic, but then nobody involved with Manchester City will give half a hoot, having won nothing of note since the 1976 League Cup. It's a fitting tribute to Neil Young, hero of Manchester City's last FA Cup win in 1969, who died earlier this year.
Mario Balotelli: a genuine eccentric. "Was that your best performance in a Manchester City shirt?" he is asked by ITV? The response is a blow of the lips and a shrug. Eventually he makes an admission: "My season was shit." Then he's given his man-of-the-match champagne, and finally a wide smile. He's an incredibly entertaining man.
Stoke City: Almost to a man, their fans have stayed to watch their team pick up their runners-up medals. You don't see that too often from the losing fans at the end of cup finals these days. A warm round of applause as they pick up their medals. Let's hope Slash isn't taking it too badly. In other rock news, Liam Gallacher is spotted in the crowd swilling pink champagne.
And now the 2011 FA Cup winners, Manchester City: A couple of City players have, when being pestered by ITV, insisted that the interview is wound up so they can go and cavort with their team-mates. This really means something to a club that has waited so long for major success. They climb the Wembley steps, and Carlos Tevez lifts their first major trophy for 35 years. They won't have to wait another 35 years for the next one, surely?