Page last updated at 17:16 GMT, Saturday, 17 May 2008 18:16 UK

Dry eyes at final Wembley whistle

By Nick Horton
BBC News, at Wembley

Fans from Cardiff were unhappy at the defeat
Cardiff fans try to take in the harsh reality that their dream is over

Well, it sure was fun while it lasted.

Hang on a minute. It wasn't just fun: it was fantastic. Utterly fantastic...

If you think I've lost my senses, and should be weeping into my replica shirt, you clearly have no concept what it's like to be a Cardiff City fan.

Cardiff just don't play at Wembley or reach FA Cup finals. Actually, they do, every 81 years or so. Which was good news for my son and me today, and will be again for my great-grandchildren, circa 2089.

Ever since we won the semi-final, people have been asking me whether I would cry if we lost on the big day.

Don't be daft. I'm a Cardiff fan. I'm used to losing. And so today's defeat was just another day at the office, albeit a bigger and posher one.

Strangely, nobody thought to ask if I would cry if we won. Perhaps it's because nobody believed we actually would.

But if you must shed a tear or two in public, there would have been no better place than on a Saturday afternoon after an unrepeatable adventure at - and apologies here to Cardiff's Millennium Stadium - the finest sport venue in the land.

Terry Burton, assistant manager of Cardiff City, consoles player Trevor Sinclair
Brave effort: Ultimate FA Cup glory didn't quite happen for Cardiff City

Sadly, of course, the waterworks stayed dry in my corner of Wembley as the final whistle blew. I'm the sort of fan who hates - literally hates - almost every moment of big, crucial games, and I was in agony throughout the 90 minutes.

But once the pain fades, you look back and realise there was much more pleasure than could ever be expected.

It's difficult to explain why a grown man would even contemplate weeping like a desolate child without getting all Nick Hornby-esque.

Although I may have none of the writing skill of the author of Fever Pitch - the archetypal fan's eye-view book - I can claim half Hornby's name, and all his hairstyle, so let's have a stab.

There is a problem, though, with trying to compare the Cardiff fan's experience to that of Hornby's club, Arsenal. City may have beaten the Gunners in 1927 to claim our first FA Cup, but since then the clubs have not so much trodden separate paths as occupied different universes.

Arsenal are genuine giants of the game, the aristocrats of English football who have never been out of the top division, with trophies galore and a string of world-class players.

Portsmouth's Sol Campbell, left, lifts the trophy as he celebrates with teammates after beating Cardiff City 1-0 to win the FA Cup final
The ecstatic Portsmouth captain Sol Campbell lifts the trophy

We Bluebirds like to tell ourselves we are sleeping giants, but if that's true we have been deep in Rip Van Winkle territory for decades.

For a few brief years in the 1920s, Cardiff and Huddersfield - yes, Cardiff and Huddersfield - were the equivalent of Manchester United and Chelsea. It didn't last, and Cardiff's history since then has been the occasional high - a Welsh Cup here, a victory over more illustrious opposition there - interspersed with many lows.

We also like to claim that we are the aristocrats of Welsh football, although Swansea, our not-always-loved neighbours, will have plenty to say about that when they join us in the Championship next season.

The truth, though it hurts to admit it, is that we are nowhere near a big club. The fact is that while we have potential, we have rarely fulfilled it.

Attrractive games

And despite the euphoria of reaching Wembley, there is no guarantee that we will build upon it. Anyone examining the club's recent history will see that.

Of course, it would be fantastic if this FA Cup run was the building block for a rocket-like ascent to the Premiership. Even if the City fan inside me dangles Derby County's miserable Premiership season as a grim reminder of what happens to a club which gets ideas above its station.

Cardiff fan
Maybe next year: It was so close and yet so far for City fans

Sometimes, I must admit I wonder if many City followers even want the club to get bigger. They are the blokes who complain on the online message boards about the fairweather fans who turn up only for the more attractive games, and ask where they were when City were playing Mansfield on grim Tuesday nights in November in Division Four.

Well, I must qualify as a semi-fairweather fan myself, because, just like thousands of other sensible folk, I often found something better to do in those days. Such as, quite possibly, having a glass of something red while watching the telly.

These "ultras" don't seem to realise that the only way we will ever be anything approaching a big club is by attracting the fairweather fans. They exercise rational consumer choice by preferring to watch attractive teams playing decent football.

It only takes a little success to bring fairweathers back. And when they do return, I'm convinced that fans of clubs like ours get infinitely more pleasure out of days like this than your Man United and Chelsea hordes ever will.

They expect to pick up cups every season. At best, we hope to avoid relegation, maybe have a push at promotion, or a victory over local rivals.

They can keep their Premierships and their Champions Leagues. How can they imagine what it would have felt like to win only your second serious trophy in 81 years?

When my wife used to pack my son and me off to football, she would say: "Enjoy yourself."

"Enjoy myself?" I'd say. "Don't be ridiculous. I'm going to watch Cardiff City."

Despite her glazed expression and fixed smile, I could tell it was one of the long-running gags she never tired of hearing me tell down the years.

After this, however, I might have to find a new punchline. Because, despite the result here, who would have ever thought watching the City would be so enjoyable?


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