The FA Cup final will be fascinating but the true magic belongs to its minnows

<span>Photograph: Allsport Uk/Allsport</span>
Photograph: Allsport Uk/Allsport

Has the FA Cup lost something? You know, something intangible. Something that made it more special all those years ago. What’s the word? Its “Tada”, its “Abracadabra”, its “Piff Paff Puff” … its magic perhaps – yes that’s it. Remember when it was magic. Ricky Villa, Norman Whiteside, the Crazy Gang, the cream suits. Bert Millichip, velvet bags, Sutton United, Tim Buzaglo, Mickey Thomas, Ronnie Radford.

How could we get it back? Did Des Lynam remember to cryogenically freeze the legendary Gerald Sinstadt before he retired? Could we reanimate him and get him on the Manchester United coach at 8am? Could we all give our TVs away so only one house on the street has one and we sit around that – or better still, all stand next to that Leicester fan who found a transistor radio from somewhere for the last day of the season? Get Mike Ingham and Alan Green on a crackly landline.

It is possible that the FA Cup hasn’t lost its magic at all, it’s just that you are no longer a child. You are a tiny bit more aware of the less appealing aspects of the game. Maybe the column “has the FA Cup lost its magic?” has lost its magic – but it’s too late to back out now. Arguably it was peak magic for children of the 1980s for whom football became their sole interest right in the middle of the European ban. Before and after, well there were/are other big shiny things that lay claim to the same thing – although that feels a stretch writing after the six-week Europa League final in Budapest.

Related: Yaya Touré: ‘After the FA Cup, we believed we could beat United’

The reality is slightly more prosaic. The FA Cup is magic if you win it. It’s magic if you’re a lower-league club who get somewhere. And it isn’t otherwise.

This final is fascinating. The plucky minnows of Manchester United v the giant petro-state Pep-oiled machine of Manchester City. Erik ten Hag was slightly disingenuous about United’s underinvestment in January. We know what you did last summer. You spent about £200m. Even still – top four and a trophy is some turnaround from those opening two defeats by Brighton and Brentford, which unbelievably took place in the same season as the one just reaching its climax.

Much like for both Milan sides in the Champions League semi-final, this FA Cup final feels less about winning and more about not losing – for United especially. For them it’s about stopping City “doing that thing we did”. United fans have been pretty quiet about it over the last 24 years, but to be one of two teams left who could stop their rivals repeating the treble is possibly the ultimate motivation.

Twenty-four years of bragging rights – now trickier working from home; a gentle nod on a Zoom call before the meeting starts: “YOU’RE ON MUTE COLIN” – ah the moment’s gone. City are so close. It’s hard to know who is under more pressure.

United are obviously underdogs. City’s run to the title was unstoppable and that first 45 minutes against Real Madrid truly breathtaking. It was magical, if you are able to divorce the football from where the money comes from – not this again? – which is an increasingly difficult job for anyone who has Google. And whether it’s the FA Cup or any other competition, once you’ve peered behind the curtain it’s hard to let it drop back down.

You can let football be the escape we all want it to be, just accept that hypocrisy is everywhere, and give yourself a pass. For City, don’t talk about the charges laid down by the same man who handed them their Premier League medals last week, nor Abu Dhabi’s record – according to Amnesty – on arbitrary detention, LGBTQ+ rights and torture. Much the same goes for all state-run clubs. Just where are the benevolent billionaires?

A lot of people don’t care. Many journalists and broadcasters ignore it or allude to it once and think their job is done. Gay allies taking money from Qatar to promote the World Cup. “Today I feel gay.” Today I care about other gay people. Sorry, how much? OK, I care about my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters but only within the nearest 4,000 miles.

To divorce the two seems the only way. Are you still listening to Michael Jackson? Do you still nostalgically remember Gordon the Gopher, even after last week? I want to love that Alexander Isak run. I want to delight in Erling Haaland’s pure massiveness. And of course similarly powerless United fans could be in the same predicament pretty soon.

And it’s not just them. Don’t mention the player on bail amid allegations of rapes bossing the [redacted] for [redacted] helping them to [redacted] place. Don’t keep highlighting corruption or gambling addiction. Forget the racism and the abuse of referees. Don’t mention the continuing sexist abuse female presenters and pundits receive. It’s a long depressing list.

And here we are, trying to find the magic within this landscape. Luton giving hope to everyone from the National League with those players who’ve worked their way up the pyramid. The all-new Roy Hodgson and his gung-ho football. Gary O’Neil proving us all wrong. The Sheffield Wednesday comeback. That World Cup final. The fans on the pitch at the Abbey. The outpouring of love for the retiring Jeff Stelling, a master of his craft. And beyond that the real magic: the charity heroes such as Stephanie Moore, the countless volunteers keeping grassroots football alive, the people manning the food banks.

Grimsby gave us magic this year in the FA Cup. As for the final, City should win. They should win the treble. But you never know, and even for a season this long – that’s the thing that keeps us coming back, even if a mini-retirement might be a good thing for everyone pretty soon. What was that? Euro 2024 qualifiers in a couple of weeks? It never ends.