The pyrotechnics must now be considered part of that ritual. They are present every year — always slightly bigger, slightly more spectacular — to welcome the teams to the field. Later, they are wheeled out again to provide the picture-perfect backdrop to the victors’ joy.
Their presence, though, is supported by no tradition, justified by no history. Indeed, their purpose is precisely the opposite. There are now gigantic machines shooting fire on Cup final day because there have not always been gigantic machines shooting fire on Cup final day.
That the lure of the F.A. Cup has faded in recent years need hardly be stated. The riches on offer in the Premier League — combined with the elite’s focus on the Champions League — have reduced the competition to an afterthought for many.
Managers regularly field weakened teams in the early rounds. Many are happy to sacrifice the competition altogether. Fans see it as an unnecessary distraction from more serious matters. At least one club has indulged a policy that borders on an expectation of being eliminated as soon as possible.
That has been a cause of no little sorrow to fans who remember the years — before the mid-1990s — when winning this competition conferred as much prestige as winning the league, if not more. The days when the Cup final, practically the only televised domestic game of the season, brought the country to a standstill.
Something, to many, has been lost.
Not least, of course, to the Football Association, its organizers and those broadcasters who pay handsomely to televise it. Understandably, they have searched for ways to make the competition feel glamorous, important, modern — to captivate younger people the same way this event once captivated their parents.
They have settled, it seems, on one simple idea: People like gigantic machines shooting fire.
It does not work. The pyrotechnics feel cheap, confected, gauche. They are overly didactic, telling viewers how to feel, how to interpret, how to respond.
Significance and emotion are acquired, not imposed. The fireworks, the razzmatazz, the artifice do not add to the sense of occasion. Instead of augmenting the competition’s charm, they detract from it.
Far better to let the F.A. Cup speak for itself. It will, in truth, never be what it once was; the landscape in which it exists has changed too much, too fast, for it to recover its former glory. But that does not mean abandoning the idea that it can still be enthralling and relevant.
This season has proved as much. Indeed, this has been a vintage edition of the tournament, a campaign that has done more for the Cup’s reputation than any number of fireworks might.
It has had stories in abundance, as the F.A. Cup must: the remarkable journey of Lincoln City, from English soccer’s fifth tier, all the way to the quarterfinals, as well as the high farce of Piegate — linking gamblers to the televised spectacle of Sutton United’s Wayne Shaw eating a meat pie on the bench.
It has had, as the F.A. Cup must, a series of giant-killings, days on which underdogs roared and the high and mighty fell: Wolverhampton Wanderers beating Liverpool; Sutton beating Leeds United; Millwall overcoming Leicester City, then the reigning Premier League champion.
And it has had, as the F.A. Cup needed, a denouement of the very highest quality. The semifinals matched up four of England’s best six teams. The final, between two old rivals, was fraught and breathless and tense, decided by two goals in as many minutes.
It was the finest final in a decade, at least, and it made history — as did Manager Arsène Wenger’s seventh F.A. Cup win, a record, and Arsenal’s 13th, another. It may also represent the end of an era, if Wenger’s gnomic comments on his future in the aftermath are anything to go by.
This season has been a case study in how to reinvigorate a competition: not with fireworks and showmanship but with genuine, compelling drama. Nobody at Wembley will remember all those flames that spurted into the sky. They will remember the game.
That, after all, is what they came for.