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Aston Villa's dream dies at Wembley but the dream of the FA Cup lives on

Iain Macintosh returns to Wembley for the final of Aston Villa vs. Arsenal as the Wembley Dreams series comes to a close.

And so ends a journey that began on Aug. 16, 2014, when 368 of England's smallest clubs kicked off in an extra preliminary round. A journey that would eventually involve 736 clubs in total, clashing over 14 rounds, came to an end at Wembley on Saturday when Arsenal lifted the FA Cup trophy. There was no question that they were worthy winners.

After nail-biting finals in the previous two years -- one won by Wigan Athletic in the dying moments, another won by the Gunners after a spirited comeback against Hull -- this one was never in doubt. Arsenal started well, improved rapidly and then blew poor Aston Villa away. It was an emphatic end to a competition that ESPN FC has seen from close quarters since the first round began in November.

Battle commenced long before that, of course. One of the enduring beauties of the FA Cup is that, technically at least, anyone can win it. In the summer, the unpaid amateurs fought for the right to play the semi-professionals of non-league who in turn would attempt to take on the professionals of the lower leagues in autumn and hope to survive for the arrival of the big boys from the Premier League in January.

The FA Cup is the oldest competition in association football, the first incarnation of which was won in 1872 by the peripatetic Wanderers and the 134th by Arsenal here at Wembley. Yet the competition has been much maligned of late. The enormous revenues on offer from the Premier League and the Champions League have left the FA Cup looking like the poor relation. Arsenal received £1.8 million for winning the final, but clubs in the Premier League receive approximately £1.2 million for every place they finish up the table.

In an era when money doesn't just talk, it bellows and drowns out the conversation, it's hardly surprising that so many clubs are ambivalent about the cup. The top half of the Premier League have ideas of European football, the bottom half just want to survive and the top half of the Championship don't want anything to interfere with their promotion campaign.

For a time, the old trophy wasn't just a poor relation, it was an elderly and slightly senile relation, turning up once a year and telling you the same old stories about Ronnie Radford and Keith Houchen. Now it's had a makeover, turning it into something bolder yet altogether more ridiculous. The competition that defines itself with history, tradition and all that is noble about English football is sponsored by a foreign airline, kicks off in a TV-friendly early evening slot, diminishes its own magic by staging its semifinals at Wembley and opens with fireworks, brightly dressed children dancing with ribbons and a Muse single played so loudly that the supporters can't sing their songs.

Arsene Wenger would eventually lift the FA Cup trophy for a second consecutive season.

There are other issues, too. Only 25,000 tickets were made available for each team, with more than 40,000 going to "the football family," by which they mean Club Wembley members who pay a large fee to watch a set number of events, regional administrators, match officials, club representatives and corporate sponsors. Unsurprisingly, many of these tickets end up in the hands of touts, sold on to desperate fans at extraordinary mark-ups.

But in spite of all that, some of the old magic still remains. You could certainly feel it down in Kent in November where Maidstone took on Stevenage in the replay of their first-round clash. The Stones were a league club once, for a very brief period before bankruptcy obliterated them in 1992. From the ashes came a new club, slowly working its way back up the pyramid. More than that, Maidstone 2.0 are a genuine community club, using high-quality third-generation artificial turf to provide a playing surface that can be used by the senior side, ladies' side, youth teams and disabled teams, and that can bring in vital funds by being made available for hire.

In front of their own fans and the TV cameras, they fought league side Stevenage tooth and nail and came out victorious, celebrating with their supporters as they flooded onto the pitch at full time. Later that night, they drank with them, too, the players and fans mixing freely in the club bar next to the pitch. They were promoted at the end of the season and are now just two promotions from returning to the league.

Eight hundred of their supporters made the long journey to north Wales for the second round, but there were no celebrations for them this time. Instead, it was Wrexham who were victorious, but again, the fans had special reason to smile. As Nick Ames discovered, the club has been in the hands of a supporters trust since 2011, fighting financial fires and trying to work their way back into the Football League. The victors in the cup, they would not be so fortunate in the league, finishing in the middle of the Conference after a disappointing campaign.

But Wrexham did at least give Premier League Stoke City a scare in the third round. Mark Carrington's header gave the Welsh side a stunning lead for all of six minutes, but it served only to enrage their hosts, who returned fire with devastating effect to run out 3-1 winners. Manager Mark Hughes was distinctly unimpressed afterward, admitting that he thought his side were going to be the victims of a classic cup giant-killing.

Stoke were a fascinating club to watch at close quarters. Having clawed their way back into the top flight after decades in exile, they had been brave enough to ask for more than the stagnant stability that characterised their final season under Tony Pulis. Neither European contenders nor relegation candidates, their fans and their manager looked to the FA Cup as an achievable aim. And rightly so. With tiny Spanish ace Bojan Krkic offering the sort of inspiration that had been deemed surplus to requirements in the past, they had every chance of going all the way.

They certainly weren't hampered by Rochdale in the fourth round. It took Krkic just four minutes to break the third-flight club's resistance, and Stoke scored another three before the night was out. But this was an opportunity to see one of football's most mundane clubs, a team that had spent 36 years marooned in the basement division. Yet there was nothing mundane about them, least of all in the DJ booth.

While most football clubs bafflingly bombard their supporters with the kind of music you'd find on a 12-year-old girl's iPhone, Rochdale's DJ plays cult indie hits from the 1980s and 1990s. Rochdale were hard, but played ambitious football that wasn't reflected by the scoreline. Never mind the basement division. They ended the season just outside the playoffs, narrowly missing out on the chance of Championship football.

Stoke's victory meant that they were heading to Blackburn Rovers for the fifth round and what looked like a straightforward route to the last eight. But this FA Cup was determined to be anything but straightforward. There was no warning for what would happen at Ewood Park.

Blackburn had been entirely mediocre in the league, which was admittedly a vast improvement on what their fans had been accustomed to in recent years. Twenty years ago, they were Premier League champions, but so much has changed since then. The disastrous takeover by Indian chicken magnates Venky's saw them plunge out of the top flight and almost straight into the third division. Only the unspectacularly solid management of Gary Bowyer had stopped the rot. Outside Ewood Park, the supporters expected little and were happy just to have ceased spiralling. But a surprising kind of compensation was in the post.

Stoke took the lead after 10 minutes and settled into their stride. It all seemed so simple. But then Josh King equalised against the run of play. Moments before half-time, Geoff Cameron brought the Norwegian down in the box, gave away a penalty and was dismissed for his trouble. Rudy Gestede stepped up and fired Blackburn into an unexpected lead. Even with 10 men, Stoke should have been able to salvage the game. Instead, they capitulated, conceding two identikit goals and crashing out of the competition.

Blackburn's reward was a trip to Anfield, where a resurgent Liverpool were making up for their dreadful start to the season, laying waste to all that stood before them. Seven days beforehand, they had beaten champions Manchester City in the league. They were expected to make short work of Blackburn before setting up outgoing captain Steven Gerrard with a birthday trip to the FA Cup final.

Arsenal paraded the FA Cup around north London via open-top bus for the second time in the past 12 months.

But this was not short work. In front of an increasingly irritated home crowd, they failed to break down the second-flight side down and would have lost had it not been for an outstanding save from Simon Mignolet. They would prevail in the replay, but in the league their recovery was over. They would lose five Premier League games before the season's end, winding up sixth.

Aston Villa awaited in the semifinal and again, it should have been simple for Liverpool. Under the ebullient Tim Sherwood, the Villans were clambering out of the relegation zone, but they could hardly be considered favourites. Liverpool, by now all but out of Champions League contention, had everything to play for. This would be the game that saved their season. Wouldn't it? Well, no.

Despite taking an early lead, they were second best from the first whistle, outwitted by Sherwood, which was not a line that many people were expecting to write that day. As for Gerrard, he was anonymous throughout. In the stands, the Villa fans could hardly believe what they'd seen. Neither could the Liverpool fans, but in a far less positive way.

For Villa, of course, this was as good as it got. Their fans travelled to Wembley in high spirits, comfortable in their underdog status, suspecting that the renewed form of Christian Benteke and the hitherto unheralded tactical acumen of Sherwood would be enough to give them a good chance of success. But it was clear from the opening exchanges that this trip to Wembley was not going to end as happily as the last one. They were beaten, soundly and firmly. And so it was that Arsenal, once again, that lifted the trophy.

The FA Cup might never regain its former position as an honour almost as prestigious as the league itself. Too much money has passed under the bridge for that. But it remains a strangely pleasing anachronism, a tournament mercifully free of seedings or coefficients, a competition without a structure contrived to ensure a clash of the titans. It is random, it is chaotic and it still provides us with new stories every year.

For all that we saw on our road, there was plenty happening on roads elsewhere. Blyth Spartans leading Birmingham. Cambridge holding Manchester United. Middlesbrough beating Manchester City. Bradford humiliating Chelsea. For all that it has been diminished and disregarded, the FA Cup is not going anywhere just yet.

Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.

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