Watford haven’t made an FA Cup final since 1984. Wolves have had to wait even longer to make English football’s showpiece event, with their last FA Cup final appearance coming all the way back in 1960. Indeed, these are two clubs to whom the stakes of Sunday’s clash at Wembley will be somewhat unfamiliar.
And yet Watford and Wolves deserve their place. Liverpool and Manchester City might be providing the 2018/19 season’s headline act, but just below the Premier League’s top six these two clubs have served up compelling storylines of their own, scrapping to earn the unofficial accolade that comes with being best of the rest.
Wolves currently occupy seventh place while Watford are just a single point behind them in eighth place. They are prime examples of clubs fighting well above their weight and there is a temptation to label their success as a footballing fairytale, such is the typical narrative applied to teams that find themselves at unfamiliar heights.
No matter what happens at Wembley on Sunday, though, Watford and Wolves cannot be taken as footballing fairytales. It would be something of a novelty to see either side in an FA Cup final, but the two clubs are instead examples of how English football has changed. How the game has been warped beyond all recognition.
Watford, for instance, have spent close to £100 million on players over the past two seasons. Propped up by the Pozzo family who have used their links across the sport to artificially boost the transfer market of the club, the Hornets can hardly be classed as footballing Davids taking on Goliath.
The same can be said of Wolves. While Nuno Espirito Santo’s side have lit up the Premier League with their brand of exciting, dynamic football this season, claiming wins over Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, they have done so having blurred the lines of what is and what isn’t acceptable at the elite level.
Much has been said and written about the role of Jorge Mendes, the Portuguese super-agent who represents Cristiano Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho and several of the Wolves squad in the club’s rise. While Mendes doesn’t hold an official role at Molineux, he has turned the West Midlands outfit into a personal footballing stable facilitated by his friendship with Wolves’ Chinese owners, Fosun.
Just like Watford, Wolves have spent their way to their current, lofty position, splurging over £120 million splurged on players over the past two seasons, with £45 million worth of signings already committed to for the summer. Footballing fairytales, the kind the FA Cup is famous for, don’t usually involve so much money.
Of course, teams have spent their way to lifting the FA Cup before. Portsmouth did it in 2008 while Manchester City announced themselves as a force, inflated by the oil billions of Abu Dhabi, by winning the competition in 2011. Far from being an archetypal FA Cup upset, a win for either Watford or Wolves would actually be par for the course.
“I’ve never played as a coach in a final,” said Watford boss Javi Gracia when asked what winning on Sunday would mean to him. “Semi-finals I played in Russia, but a final I’ve never played. It will be the best achievement in this competition for sure. If I win it I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Gracia’s remarks are a reflection of a fanbase that must be pinching themselves. Wolves’ supporters have been pinching themselves all season long. Neither Watford nor Wolves have been in this sort of position for decades. Seeing them there, at the top of the English game, is somewhat jarring, but the way they got there is nothing new.