The full Wembley experience, warts and all, ended well, but what a meal Arsenal made of their Championship opponents. The tone was set by a bus replacement service followed by a less than salubrious rattler into Paddington packed with exuberant Reading supporters. The tube whisked me to the next port of call. A fabulous Fullers pub where Guinness and HSB washed down a scrumptious fish finger sandwich. The sun was out, the company great. This would be a good day, yes?
Well, actually Wembley isn’t geared up to handle the number of people it was built to accommodate. Arriving half an hour before kick-off we faced the sort of queues we never experienced at Cardiff, or indeed at our own luxurious abode when turning up even later. Mercifully we ascended to the fifth tier without the aid of sherpas just in time for the start. On the way up it was evident that Wembley have not heeded the warnings about their deafening tannoy system, an atmosphere killer in those pre-match minutes.
The Arsenal team selection was something of a surprise. We knew that Wojciech Szczesny would start as the cup tie ‘keeper, but the absence of the in-form Bellerin and Monreal ahead of him baffled, as did Giroud making way for Danny Welbeck up front. Don’t get me wrong, Danny is a fine player with good qualities, but a leader of the line he is not. We had to change a winning formula to accommodate his desire to forage on the flanks, and our attack was denied options as a result.
Reading, free from the pressure of ensuring Championship survival, chased everything that moved and had a robustness that was encouraged by some very lenient officiating. One cannot blame them for that. This was their day in the sunshine and they were determined not to be rolled over. Chances were few and far between, mainly snap shots around the edge of the box, but from a corner Per Mertesacker brought out the best of Federici in the Royals goal.
Six minutes before half-time we finally broke the deadlock. Ozil, a beacon of class in a crowded midfield, picked out the run of Alexis, and the PFA Player of the Year nominee nutmegged Federici. Around 34,000 Gunners, already in good voice, erupted. Surely the floodgates would open now? Arsenal being Arsenal, they didn’t!
Reading didn’t allow themselves to be distracted from their vigorous pursuit of an unlikely shock, and made all things possible nine minutes after the break. McCleary’s shot took a deflection off Kieran Gibbs but Szczesny at his near post should have done better than help the ball over the line before a desperate attempt to claw it back. All square again.
One of many truly nasty challenges meant Per Mertesacker had to be withdrawn from the contest just after the hour. Gabriel slotted in seamlessly. What an excellent signing he is. Reading grew in confidence and finally Arsene sent on Olivier Giroud to give us an outlet, a pressure release valve if you will, up front. We were back on the front foot again, but unable to fashion a winner in normal time, Aaron Ramsey coming closest but hitting the post when it seemed a winner was inevitable.
The inevitable was only delayed, however. Once again Ozil freed Alexis with a sublime pass and the Chilean cut inside, took a snapshot, and watched on as Federici allowed the ball to squirm from his grasp and over the line. Lady Luck had bestowed her favours on Arsenal, for sure. Giroud struck the same post as Ramsey in the closing stages as Reading wilted.
Theo Walcott, on for Coquelin, seemed happy to spend much of the remainder covering the space ahead of Debuchy, but when he was freed to run at the Royals defence at the death there were those who saw the challenge that upended him as inside the box. From level five I couldn’t be sure. The free-kick that followed was the last action of the match and we were through to our second consecutive Final. The result was far more important than the performance, but the message to Arsene was clear. Go with our best team in that Final please.
There followed the interminable queues to escape the environs of the stadium. Thanks to the neighbour and Gill for persuading me to take the overground route to Marylebone. The train back out west was an interesting blend of supporters who had experienced mixed results in the capital. Sixteen hours after leaving home I was back, smiling at the prospect of another Cup Final triumph for the Gunners.