Rafael Benitez has proved impervious to most of the old sentimentality of English football, a pragmatist who deals in the core disciplines of Premiership and Champions' League - or at least he was until the FA Cup finally took a grip of his imagination against Chelsea last month. Since then he has been giving that old speech about how he never understood the Cup's significance in our national psyche until now, like a newcomer to England who finally gets accustomed to the food and the weather.
It is an FA Cup final to savour today, between two clubs who cherish its place in their history, and two managers who deserve our attention. It took English football a while to convert Benitez to the awkward charm of a competition that kicks off, for the top clubs, in January and coincided last year with a bothersome period in his first Premiership season. As his under-strength team threw it away then on a dank third-round night in Burnley you had to wonder if he would ever learn. Against Chelsea in April's semi-final, you knew that he had.
Alan Pardew, on the other hand, does not need teaching about the FA Cup. The clubs for whom Pardew has played in the FA Cup's humble preliminary rounds were so obscure, you had to check the spelling. He is a veteran of teams like Banstead and Whyteleafe and when he walks out at the Millennium Stadium today he will be one of the few in the ground who has seen this competition from the other, distant end, from the qualifiers played around this country in August, nine months and four seasons away from the May final.
Pardew's attitude towards the FA Cup has proved one of the most admirable aspects of his approach to the season. At last, a young English manager who actually seems to want to win the thing. Instead of obsessing about creeping one place up the Premiership, or worrying about whether 50 points will be enough for a top-10 finish, Pardew has set his sights on something much more tangible: a cup final, maybe a trophy and possibly a day the supporters will never forget.
Pardew has realised that you do not get an open-top bus ride and streets full of flag-waving fans for clinching the Premiership's last Uefa Cup place (although West Ham have already qualified for that competition). Real glory in football is day s like these. In the topsy-turvy new world of English football, where the fourth- placed side can be the European champions and even the Carling Cup is suddenly back in vogue, so the FA Cup appears to have risen again.
Benitez earned his FA Cup spurs with the victory over Chelsea in the semi-final at Old Trafford, a Cup tie played in all the best traditions. Frenetic, and with bad blood on both sides, even a player as detached as Xabi Alonso managed to lose his cool at times. The Spanish midfielder looks like he will, after all, be fit for the game, despite spraining ankle ligaments against Portsmouth last Sunday.
Liverpool reach the FA Cup final with 11 successive wins in all competitions, a club record, and yet this team is not expected to survive the summer intact. Benitez looks likely to bid for Charlton's Darren Bent, whose suitability the Liverpool manager has already checked with some of his senior players. So, too, Daniel Alves, Seville's ruthlessly efficient Brazilian right-back and possibly Jermain Defoe. …