What’s it like to play in an FA Cup Final?
Ah, the FA Cup Final; English football’s most formal event. The players are in posh suits, an opera singer’s belting out Abide With Me and there’s a minor Royal on hand to dish out the silverware. It feels as important as a wedding, except this match is all about finding a winner.
But with all the pomp and ceremony going on, what’s it like to play in one? Downright dirty, that’s what. Former Millwall defender Matt Lawrence – who skippered his team against Manchester United in 2004 – reveals the highs and ball-crushing lows of what it takes to make it through an FA Cup Final…
THE RED BULLETIN: First of all, how did it feel to win the semi-final?
MATT LAWRENCE: Just getting to the cup final was amazing.The minute the final whistle went, it was pure elation – a huge high, like Tony Montana but without the drugs.
How do you prepare for a match like that?
You have to acclimatise. We arrived in Cardiff the day before and took a tour of the Millennium Stadium to help us get a sense of our surroundings. Even though the stadium was empty, it helped us get our heads round how it would be with 70-80,000 fans in it.
The 123rd FA Cup Final was contested between Manchester United and Millwall on 24th May 2004. It took place at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.
United, managed by Sir Alex Ferguson, had just finished third in the Premier League. Their team contained Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, and a young Cristiano Ronaldo.
Millwall, meanwhile, had finished 10th in the First Division. They also went into the game with a makeshift team, having suffered 16 – YES, SIXTEEN – injuries to their first team squad.
Manchester United went on to win the game 3-0, with goals from Ronaldo and Van Nistelrooy (2, one pen).
Drawing on experience is also hugely important. Barring [player-manager] Dennis Wise, I don’t think anyone in our squad had been in a cup final before. Before the game, he and [assistant manager] Ray Wilkins gave us a team talk. Dennis was about to play in his fourth FA Cup final, Ray played and scored in one, and both were Internationals. I remember thinking that you couldn’t wish for a better pair to give you a heads up on what to expect.
What is the atmosphere like?
The big game experience is totally overpowering. Unless you’ve been through it yourself, it’s hard to explain.
It’s not so much the crowd – even as a journeyman footballer, I was used to playing in front of big crowds – but the occasion. The FA Cup Final is beamed around the world to over 100 countries, with half a billion people watching.
When you line up in the tunnel and look across at Cristiano Ronaldo, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Sir Alex Ferguson, it’s quite surreal.
You don’t look across though, really – you’ve got your game face on.
What do you remember from the match?
On the day, you are running on adrenaline and the whole thing passes by very quickly. For instance, before the game I had to present [then-England manager] Sven-Göran Eriksson to the team and introduce them all. I don’t remember doing that!
As for the game itself, I do recall that United had a freekick and I was in the wall. The opposition players were trying to split it up. Ruud Van Nistelrooy was backing into me, so I dragged my studs down the back of his achilles.
Ten minutes later, they got a corner and I was marking him. I fronted him up – faced him up – and he ran up to me and volleyed me straight in the boll*cks! I hit the deck, but I don’t think anyone saw it. You could get away with it back then when there were less cameras at the game, but it would probably be seen on replays and he’d get a ban nowadays.
It was the first time anything like that had ever happened to me. Makes me wonder what they must have got away with in the 1974 Cup Final!
Did you speak to him about it?
Ruud came up to me at the end of the game and apologised, but it’s very easy to be apologetic when you’ve won the game 3-0…
How do you deal with losing an important game?
No two ways about it, losing is f**king horrible. It doesn’t matter if you lose to Manchester United, Real Madrid or the Dog & Duck.
What happens after the match?
We had to spend 45 mins on the pitch while the medals were handed out and they collected the trophy. We spent two hours after that just completely morose.
Obviously, there’s a party afterwards – not that you’re in the party mood – and after a few drinks you semi-forget. But it’s as much an occasion for the fans as it is for the players, so you have to get on. We ate food and hung out back at the hotel, but it’s just a horrible feeling.
How do you feel, looking back?
It’s still a day I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.