“A memorable end to a poor cup final”
Those were the words of the legendary Barry Davies as Eric Cantona’s volley five minutes from time won the FA Cup for Manchester United.
This was the moment when an out-swinging corner by David Beckham was tamely slapped away by David James before he clattered into several players, allowing Cantona to win the cup for Manchester United amidst chaos in the Liverpool six-yard box.
In what was widely considered a dull match, James’ ungainly attempt to collect a corner has become the one lasting symbol of that cup final.
However, thanks to the magic of YouTube, I recently watched this cup final and made an interesting discovery; David James was one of the best players on the pitch for 85 minutes of the match.
It seems at best impertinent for such a belated review but these, to put it rather bluntly, duller cup finals struggle to get even a passing mention in modern FA Cup retrospectives. Due to this, when most people are asked to name what they remember from that final, it will be the David James clanger, if that is they remember the match at all.
In fact, the only other thing from that cup final which has stood the test of time is the infamous white suits the Liverpool players wore during their pre-match inspection of the Wembley turf.
This makes games like the ‘96 cup final somewhat of an enigma; there are some cup finals which many supporters know of intimately regardless of whether or not they were around to experience them at the time and yet some like these that are quickly forgotten and swiftly filed into the FA Cup archives.
To put this into some context, David James had just finished his fourth season at Liverpool and, although he was still a year away from making his England debut. He had been more or less an ever-present for Liverpool in the 1995/96 season and showed why in the cup final.
The game was barely 90 seconds old when a long Schmeichel punt forward was left by Mark Wright setting Andy Cole in on a one-on-one situation but James intervened to punch the ball away before Cole could get a shot away.
James was forced into action again after five minutes when a David Beckham pile-driver from the edge of the area was acrobatically beaten away by the ex-Watford stopper.
That wasn’t the only piece of acrobatics from James, in the opening few minutes of the 2nd half Cantona and McAteer jumped up for a header, the ball bounced free and the enigmatic Frenchman swung as the loose ball forcing a superb near-post save by David James.
Indeed, his kicking and catching was almost impeccable throughout the match, his good distribution setting up promising counter attacks and his commitment to collecting every corner or cross possible relieving pressure on the defence.
And yet, no one remembers that. The only abiding memory football fans have of the ‘96 final is James charging out to flap at a cross and crashing into Mark Wright and David May before Cantona tucked away a volley that somehow sailed past the cluster of four Liverpool players in the six-yard box.
Of course, that is the life of a goalkeeper; they are always remembered more for their mistakes than their highlights. David James amassed over fifty England caps and earned 169 clean sheets in the Premier League, but he is more remembered for his errors not only in this cup final but the one in the 2000 FA Cup Final which almost sinisterly mirrored the one four years earlier.
The more I think about that final, the more I think about the fine lines in football; the Cantona goal was the only real chance in what was a drab last half-hour of the match and so, if one of the plethora of Liverpool players in the area had blocked the Frenchman’s volley, there was a strong chance that the game would’ve ended up going to a replay (this was two years before FA Cup final replays were scrapped).
If you believe in alternate universes, surely there is one where David James was the hero of the 1996 FA Cup or, in a slightly less drastic interpretation of the concept, David James’ performance is not even remarked upon.
And yet, in reality the ‘96 Cup final is remembered for that one moment which has itself become a symbol for Manchester United’s domestic dominance in the 1990s.
However, unlike many of those who have made mistakes in big games, James would eventually redeem himself by winning the FA Cup with Portsmouth in 2008, this time with no white suits in sight.
Follow Henry on Twitter @Fleetontoast