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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
It is a testament to David James' resilience that he has worked so hard to overcome his injury in time for today's FA Cup Final, but the lure of the big game is only part of his motivation. James, for all of his heroics this season, is more aware than most that when it comes to the FA Cup Final, he has as bad a record as anyone in the game. Today isn't just about winning the cup, it's about laying some ghosts to rest.

James has walked out at Wembley twice to contest the trophy and on both occasions it has been his failure to claim a cross that has cost his team the match. The first mistake came in 1996 as Manchester United and Liverpool played out a forgettable final. With extra-time, in the words of the commentator, "looming large," James charged off his line to punch away a corner, but only succeeded in slapping it straight to Eric Cantona. Game over. Then while playing for Aston Villa in 2000, the last Final at the old Wembley, history repeated itself. This time Chelsea's Roberto di Matteo crept in to score the decisive goal.

Now 37, he is arguably in the best form of his career. He was shortlisted for the PFA Player of the Year Award, a rare achievement for a goalkeeper, and his importance to the cause was highlighted in the closing stage of the season as Portsmouth lost all three of the games he missed through injury. As a footballer, he is an oddity. The reckless days of his 'spice boy' youth have been left behind, he's knocked smoking on the head and he now campaigns for environmental causes through his very well-written Sunday broadsheet column. He is a man who thinks deeply about the game and, when he does eventually retire, it will be interesting to see which path his career takes.

There is no doubt whatsoever that James is the best English goalkeeper of his generation. There are doubts about his mentality, sewn over the last fifteen years by a back catalogue of hideous high-profile mistakes. He is a superb shot-stopper, has the reactions of a panther and is almost indecently agile for a chap approaching his forties. It's just such a shame that he is so prone to allowing a curtain of madness to obscure his vision. Even this season, his finest so far, has been littered with howlers or near-misses. The sight of James, galloping out of his penalty area like a cat who's just met next-door's dog, is a regular one at Fratton Park.

Portsmouth go into this game as favourites, up against a second-rate side who finished slap bang in the middle of the second flight. Seasoned watchers of the FA Cup, especially this season, will know that that can only mean one thing. Portsmouth will have to be at their very best to make sure that nothing horrible goes wrong. Today's game will be more about focus and concentration than skill and flair. The former are not two of James' strengths.

Who though, barring the Cardiff fans, would begrudge James a chance of serious silverware at this late stage of his career? As eager as the neutrals always are for an upset, it would be warming to see this great player finally being able to enjoy his day at Wembley. Let's just hope that he picks and chooses which crosses to try and catch, and that he remembers to stay in the confines of his own penalty area. With the exception of 2006, recent FA Cup Finals have been appallingly boring football matches. James will be alone in hoping that that trend is continued today.