The Long and Winding Road to Wembley

football boy practising kick goal

The finalists in this year’s UK FA Cup Final – soccer’s most-watched and wagered-on event – are two of the biggest clubs in the world, but this is not always the case… 

Say “Lingfield” to most sports fans in the UK, and they’ll instantly think of Lingfield Park, the racecourse that bears a striking resemblance to Epsom, where the Derby and Oaks trials are run.

But Lingfield also has a football team: it plays in the Southern Combination Division One and its ground – the Sports Pavilion – has a capacity of 2,000. On Friday, August 4 last year, “the Lingers” (in red and yellow striped shirts and red shorts) travelled to play Crowborough Athletic (the Crows) of the Southern Counties East League in one of the first games in the 2017–18 FA Cup – the most famous soccer tournament in the world.

The long and winding road to Wembley, and Saturday’s final, had begun. Sadly, for the Lingers it also ended on August 4: in front of 152 spectators, they lost 2-0 to Crowborough. Their dreams of glory were over for another season.

Through the rounds

A fortnight later, the Crows were victorious in the preliminary round, beating Holland & Blairs 4-1 (attendance 155). The first weekend in September saw them beat Sevenoaks Town 2-0 in the first qualifying round. But sadly it all ended in the second qualifying round as they lost 4-2 to Leiston of the Southern League Premier Central.

Leiston lost in the next round to Oxford City – this time on the wrong end of a 4-2 scoreline. And yes! A 1-0 win over Bognor Regis in front of 406 fans saw Oxford City progress to the first round proper, and a potentially lucrative tie against a team from the football league.

The dream came true. Drawn away to Colchester United of League Two, and playing in front of 1,775 spectators, a 46th-minute goal from Matty Patterson took Oxford through to the second round. One more win and the team would be through to the third round – and a potential tie against Manchester United or Liverpool.

It was close, but they lost 3-2 to Notts County in the second round – who then created something of a shock in the third by beating Championship side Brentford 1-0.

On to the fourth round, and Notts County, widely recognized as the oldest football club in the world, was at home to Premier League side, Swansea (the Swans). It was a 1-1 draw at Meadow Lane, but the Swans won the replay 8-1 to progress to the last 16 of a competition which had started with 737 teams.

A 2-0 replay win over Sheffield Wednesday took Swansea into the last eight – just one game away from a semi-final at Wembley. Tottenham Hotspur put paid to that with a 3-0 win at Swansea, before themselves going out in the semi-final as an Anders Herrera goal saw Manchester United through to the final in front of 84,667 fans – a far cry from the 152 who saw Lingfield lose to Crowborough eight months earlier.

Saturday’s final

So, on Saturday, May 19, Manchester United will take on Chelsea in front of a packed house at Wembley. The game kicks off at 17:15 UK time and will be shown live around the world. The FA Cup is the oldest football competition in the world – this is its 137th year – and the final attracts a global audience of millions. The final will be broadcast live in more than 100 countries, with a live audience of more than 100 million people tuning in.

And plenty of those people will have had a bet…

They will indeed. Online betting companies in the UK will have a wealth of markets available for supporters of both teams who want to have a bet – and neutrals who think they might be able to take a more dispassionate view. And with the US Supreme Court having just given the green light for legalized sports betting in the US, it will be an interesting look into the future for American sports fans.

There will be more than 100 different markets available on the Cup Final, ranging from the basic result through the correct score and first-goal scorer markets to the less obvious: to win from behind; the winning margin; and, if you fancy a goal-fest, both teams to score; and over 8.5 goals.

I am writing this on Tuesday morning, so the odds on the minor markets are not yet available. At the moment, Manchester United is the favorite to win the game in 90 minutes – and add another line to Jose Mourinho’s CV – at 7-to-4, with Chelsea at 2-to-1. And if you really do think there’ll be nine goals in the 90 minutes, you should be able to back it at 1,000-to-1.

What the world wagers

It is difficult to estimate an accurate figure, given that so much of the betting will be illegal and bookmakers are understandably reluctant to give details of individual markets. It will, however, run into billions. Right now, there is a paltry £26,000 ($35,000) traded on the result on Betfair – but by kick-off on Saturday, that figure will be approaching £10m ($13.5m) with millions more staked in the UK and around the world.

The FA Cup final is, arguably, the biggest single betting event in sport. But with sports betting now legal in the US, that title may well come under threat on Sunday, February 3, 2019, when Super Bowl LIII kicks off at Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium.

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