Grant checked

DESPITE his best efforts today, Avram Grant remains the only Chelsea manager to have lost an FA Cup tie in the last four seasons. Kayode Odejayi’s winner for Barnsley in March 2008 created one of the great cup upsets of recent times. A Portsmouth victory at Wembley today might just have matched it.

This season has proved that the FA Cup still has the ability to produce shocks. (Leeds winning at Old Trafford in round three, anyone?) It’s just that those shocks no longer seem to happen at Wembley.

During the build-up to today’s final, ITV went into each commercial break with clips from great Wembley shocks of the past. There was Sunderland beating Leeds in 1973, Southampton beating Manchester United in 1976, West Ham beating Arsenal in 1980. A nice touch, but they ran out of final upsets after Wimbledon’s victory over Liverpool in 1988.

We might still get surprises on third-round day, but upstarts don’t get their hands on the trophy these days. The only recent exception, the only unexpected winners, were Portsmouth themselves, who charged through the field to take the cup two years ago, knocking out Manchester United at Old Trafford along the way.

Otherwise, it’s been a familiar story on cup final day in the 22 years since Wimbledon’s memorable triumph. The cup has been won, in chronological order, by: Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Everton, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Arsenal, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Portsmouth, Chelsea and Chelsea. Gets a bit repetitive after a while, doesn’t it?

Even as United fell to Leeds and Liverpool fell to Reading in round three, and Arsenal fell to Stoke in round four, it was hard not to think: Oh, it’s Chelsea’s cup, then. Watford, Preston and Cardiff never looked likely to do what Barnsley had done two years earlier. Stoke were comfortably seen off in the quarter-finals. Aston Villa were more unfortunate in the semis, before crumbling in the closing minutes.

Pompey? Troubled, cash-strapped, administration-dogged Pompey? They were meant to have no chance. And that was why ITV persisted with the dip into the video vaults. It was the only hope they had of persuading viewers this might be a contest.

Administration had forced Portsmouth to play through the latter part of the season with a nine-point penalty. After the way in which Chelsea demolished Wigan to win the Premier League last Sunday, it seemed that Grant’s side might need a nine-goal start to stand any chance of victory.

Grant was always going to be the story today. When he took charge of Chelsea for the first time, against Manchester United at Old Trafford in September 2007, the away fans unfurled a huge banner in support of the man he had just replaced, Jose Mourinho.

It wasn’t the only time Grant was compared unfavourably to Mourinho during his eight-months at the helm – with one of the many criticisms being that he lacked the charisma of Ol’ Special Chops. Yet while Grant has not been as successful, and perhaps not as tactically astute, the football Chelsea played under his watch was a hundred times more entertaining. As for the charisma thing – well, Grant is a fascinating character in his own right.

His personality has come to the fore over the last few months as Portsmouth have lurched from crisis to crisis. And his private life has come under the spotlight too, with his wife Tzofit – who once drank her own urine on Israeli TV – defending him after a Sunday newspaper revealed he had been for massage therapy.

Grant’s personality, the strength of his marriage, and the moving tale of his upbringing – his father was survivor of the Holocaust, which claimed several of his relatives – was brought home in a brilliant report by Ned Boulting, which kicked off ITV’s cup final coverage. As Boulting followed Grant around the hangouts of his youth, a more human side of the Pompey manager emerged.

That Grant has managed to come through the massage therapy episode with his dignity intact says much for the work he has put into finding solace in Pompey’s season. (It also says much for what the world of football will forgive if you do your job well, but that is an argument for another time.) If Chelsea were the favourites, Pompey had the neutral vote.

It was still a miracle that the match was goalless at half-time though. Five times in the first half, Chelsea hit what commentators continue to call ‘the woodwork’. (“Ere, Clive, I’m sure these goalposts are made out of metal.” “Nah, Jim, they’re definitely wood. You can tell by the clanging noise they make when you bang on ‘em.”)

One of those five near-misses saw Didier Drogba’s free kick turned on to the underside of the bar by David James. “That was definitely in,” yelled Jim Beglin, commentating for ITV alongside Clive Tyldesley, who chose an unfortunate moment to launch into a soliloquy about the benefits of TV replay technology.

“How long has it taken to prove it’s a goal?” asked Tyldesley. “Fifteen seconds.” It took another 15 seconds for a second replay to prove it wasn’t a goal. “Well, maybe it’s taken 30 seconds to prove it wasn’t a goal,” Tyldesley backtracked.

As gaffes go, it wasn’t quite up there with John Motson continuing to insist that Kanu’s 2008 cup final winner for Pompey against Cardiff was going to be disallowed for the best part of 20 seconds after it had clearly been given. (And it certainly wasn’t up there with missing a winning goal due to an unscheduled commercial for TicTacs.)

But Tyldesley probably won’t be referencing TV technology again in his commentaries any time soon. During the second half, he stuck to referencing Newport County and Bradford Park Avenue – who don’t get nearly enough mentions on FA Cup final day – as he discussed the possibility of Pompey folding.

Ten minutes into that second half, Pompey got their chance. Juliano Belletti brought down Aruna Dindane inside the penalty area. But Kevin-Prince Boateng’s spot-kick had about as much power and conviction as a rainbow coalition. Petr Cech saved with his legs. Within three minutes, Drogba had fired a free kick in off the post, and this time there was no doubt it was a goal, even to the naked eye.

There was still time for another fluffed penalty, as Frank Lampard was brought down by Michael Brown with less than two minutes to go, and dragged the resulting spot kick wide. “That’s only his second penalty miss of the season,” said Tyldesley. Reassuring.

Forget John Terry’s foot scare during the week. The fact that Lampard is missing penalties is the really big pre-World Cup scare for England. There’s bound to be a shoot-out at some point, you know.

And just in case you’ve forgotten, Lampard was one of the three who missed against Portugal in Gelsenkirchen four years ago. Is it a bad time to mention that Jamie Carragher – fresh out of international retirement – was another?

Despite Lampard’s miss, Chelsea retained the cup, completing the double as expected. Pompey head for an uncertain future, while Grant – likely as not – heads for West Ham. For a while today, though, he looked as if he might mastermind another great FA Cup final upset.

Knockout football is only fun if it produces the odd surprise now and then. The best team in the country won the FA Cup this season. It’s justice, but it’s not magic.


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