The FA Cup final is still one of the most unique events on the English football calendar.
Alright, the world’s oldest cup competition doesn’t have the lustre it used to, being surpassed by the immense prestige and financial boon of winning the Premier League, the Champions League and even qualification for the Champions League.
But there’s still something special about winning the cup, especially because it often gives rise to some spectacular individual displays. These men of the match stand apart from their peers, but how do they compare against each other? We’ve had a look at all 22 Man of the Match winners this century and ranked them.
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22. Wayne Rooney
Club: Manchester United
Key stat: Man Utd had 20 shots on goal against Arsenal without scoring.
Of all the men of the match in this century’s FA Cup finals, Rooney in 2005 is the only loser. It made sense to award a player from United, so dominant were the Red Devils. In fact, either Rooney or Cristiano Ronaldo, the side’s young mavericks, would have done. Rooney got the nod, but he didn’t win the trophy (even though he did score in the shootout), so he has to be 22nd.
21. Dennis Wise
Key moment: Wise controversially had a goal ruled out for offside while the scoreline was level in the second half.
The last FA Cup final to be played at the Old Wembley was a bit of a stinker as Chelsea just about beat Aston Villa. There was nothing wrong with Wise’s display. It was just high on effort but short on quality (one wonders why goalscorer Roberto Di Matteo wasn’t awarded it, or even Frank LeBoeuf, whose goal-line clearance preserved Chelsea’s lead).
20. Ashley Cole
Key moment: A surging run into the box by Cole just before half-time saw him shoot wide but summed up the drive he gave the Blues.
The dynamic left-back became the first player to win five FA Cups when he helped Chelsea lift the trophy in 2009. Didier Drogba (assisted by Florent Malouda) and Frank Lampard did the damage, but Cole’s tireless running up and down the left-flank, as well as his history-making achievement, were rewarded.
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19. Antonio Rudiger
Key stat: Antonio Rudiger made more clearances (8) than any other player on the pitch.
Antonio Conte beat Jose Mourinho in 2018 and bid farewell to England with a trophy, and although the game-winner was a result of Eden Hazard’s trickery and Phil Jones’ blunder, the rampart keeping United out at the other end was an awesome Antonio Rudiger. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Alexis Sanchez and even Romelu Lukaku couldn’t get past the giant German.
18. Thierry Henry
Key stat: Arsenal became the first side to retain the FA Cup in 21 years.
How do you explain a final like 2003? Arsenal had just thrown away the league title but had also just defeated Southampton 6-1 weeks earlier. The Gunners weren’t at their best with Thierry Henry missing plenty of chances. Yet, it was his excellent movement and ceaseless drive which kept the Gunners on the front foot.
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17. Frank Lampard
Key moment: Lampard’s deft return pass to set up Didier Drogba’s cup-winning goal in extra-time.
The first FA Cup final at the new Wembley was another dour affair between two excellent but exhausted sides. Chelsea triumphed thanks to an incredible Didier Drogba goal, and Petr Cech was superb to keep Premier League champions Man Utd out, yet it was midfield engine Frank Lampard who walked away with the award.
16. Mario Balotelli
Club: Manchester City
Key moment: Balotelli’s superb backheel and blocked shot in the build-up to City’s winner.
The last of the “wait, why him?” wins on our list is Mario Balotelli, an excellent performer as Manchester City won their first trophy for half a century and began what ended up being a decade of dominance. He did so ahead of the clearly superior goalscorer Yaya Toure. One wonders what more the Ivorian needed to do for recognition.
15. Juan Mata
Key moment: A superb slide-rule pass to put Ramires through to score the opening goal of the match.
The second in our “Petr Cech was robbed!” series, the 2012 cup final did at least see a worthy winner in Juan Mata. The Spaniard was the hub of the majority Chelsea’s attacks, directly assisting Ramires for the opening goal. Mata would go on to be similarly creative in the Champions League final weeks later.
14. Wayne Rooney
Club: Manchester United
Key stat: Wayne Rooney completed more dribbles (5) than the rest of the Manchester United side put together (4).
When Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United were 0-1 down to Crystal Palace, many expected the humiliations of the side post-Ferguson were to continue, but Wayne Rooney had other ideas. The captain picked up the ball 40 yards from goal and dribbled by four opponents, avoided a fifth and sent in a beautiful cross that led to United’s equaliser. True captain stuff.
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13. Nwankwo Kanu
Key stat: Kanu became the first-ever Nigerian to score in an FA Cup final.
Kanu helped secure a historic cup win for Portsmouth. Pompey were the better side and Kanu hit the post after some mazy dribbling early on, but his actual goal, the cup-winner, was a scruffy tap-in that was overshadowed by his wonderful celebration.
12. Ruud van Nistelrooy
Club: Manchester United
Key moment: A stunning penalty shot high into the net to ensure United’s dominance led to a comfortable two-goal lead.
Cristiano Ronaldo was the most electric player on the field as Man Utd trounced Wigan in 2004, but Ruud van Nistelrooy was awarded Man of the Match for his brace. Both goals were well-taken and killed the game off. A dominant goalscoring display from United’s Dutchman.
11. Alexis Sanchez
Key stat: Sanchez’s goal (three minutes 49 seconds) was the fastest Arsenal have ever scored in an FA Cup final
Arsene Wenger proved he still had what it takes as he masterminded an incredible FA Cup win over that season’s runaway league winners. The Gunners’ big day owed much to Alexis Sanchez, whose superbly focused play saw him open the scoring. It was also his incredible pass that led to Olivier Giroud setting up the Gunners’ game-winner late on.
10. Didier Drogba
Key stat: Didier Drogba scored his third FA Cup final goal in his third FA Cup final appearance.
The final entry in our “Petr Cech was robbed” series saw the Chelsea shot-stopper save a Portsmouth penalty. That probably would have been enough to win Man of the Match but unluckily for him Drogba scored a storming free-kick minutes later to win it for Chelsea.
9. Santi Cazorla
Key moment: Cazorla’s curling corner led to Per Mertesacker thumping the Gunners into a 3-0 lead.
Arsenal absolutely demolished Aston Villa at Wembley and Santi Cazorla was the man at the hub of everything. The Spaniard’s passing was absolutely sublime and kept the Gunners on the front foot while Villa were grasping at straws.
8. Youri Tielemans
Club: Leicester City
Key stat: Leicester had just one shot on target against Leicester in the 2021 FA Cup final: Youri Tielemans’ goal.
If the Foxes thought the 2010s would go down as the most illustrious period in the club’s fabled history books, then the 2020s certainly made them take stock. Under the guidance of Brendan Rodgers, the club lifted its first FA Cup last year at the expense of Chelsea, with Youri Tielemans scoring a wonder strike that will live long in Leicester folklore, up there with the ‘Battle of Stamford Bridge’, Claudio Ranieri’s pizza promise and Wes Morgan’s trophy lift. That Thomas Tuchel’s men would go and and become European champions just a fortnight later only adds a retrospective gloss to this tale of triumph for Leicester.
7. Kevin De Bruyne
Club: Manchester City
Key stat: Kevin De Bruyne picked up a goal and an assist in just 38 minutes of action.
After a season plagued by injury, Kevin De Bruyne started the 2019 FA Cup final on the bench. He came on with Man City 2-0 up and it was like someone had just taken their foot off a fire hose. A torrent of unstoppable football washed over Watford with City’s brilliant Belgian at the heart of it. A 2-0 scoreline became 6-0 and the biggest win in modern cup final history.
6. Aaron Ramsey
Key stat: Aaron Ramsey’s game-winner ended Arsenal’s nine-year spell without a trophy.
This game was intense. First Arsenal went 0-2 down, but then Santi Cazorla pulled them back into it with a stunning free-kick. Then Ramsey shone, equalising with a brave effort that saw him get clattered by Allan McGregor before winning the day in extra time by racing onto Olivier Giroud’s backheel and connecting with a rasping drive. The stuff dreams are made of.
5. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Key stat: At 31 years and 44 days, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang became the oldest player to score for Arsenal in an FA Cup final
Arsenal came into their tie against Chelsea outgunned, but even though they went down they never gave up. Aubameyang scorched the Chelsea defence to win and score an equalising penalty, but that wasn’t the end of it. Halfway through the second-half ‘Auba’ lit Chelsea on fire with a stunning strike, putting Kurt Zouma on the ground and then lifting the ball over Willy Caballero with absurd ease. A brace in the final to go with a brace in the semi: this was Auba’s FA Cup.
4. Freddie Ljungberg
Key stat: Ljungberg’s goal made it two in two consecutive FA Cup finals, having netted in the previous season’s showpiece against Liverpool.
You have to feel for Ray Parlour. He scores what is arguably the goal of his career to break open an FA Cup final only to be upstaged 10 minutes later as Freddie Ljungberg ran from inside his own half, held off John Terry like one would a hyperactive child, and then curled a sensational effort into the net. That wondrous strike completely and utterly stole Parlour’s thunder, and his Man of the Match award.
3. Callum McManaman
Club: Wigan Athletic
Key moment: Callum McManaman skinning the entire Man City defence, including Joe Hart, before seeing his shot blocked on the line.
The FA Cup is always touted as a romantic competition where underdogs can triumph, but this century has been full of Goliaths stomping Davids. Not so in 2013, however, as relegation-threatened Wigan upset Premier League champions Man City at Wembley. Every Wigan player was immense, but none more so than Callum McManaman.
The winger was a one-man attack, carrying the ball past any and every defender that City could put in front of him, while allowing Wigan to be a constant threat in attack no matter how often City pushed them back. Watching the youngster lead City’s defence a merry dance was a genuine thrill and led to one of the FA Cup’s greatest upsets.
2. Michael Owen
Key stat: Owen’s exploits that year saw him become the first English winner of the European Footballer of the Year award since Kevin Keegan in 1979.
Liverpool don’t win many FA Cups, but when they do, they do it in style. Back in 2001 the Reds were one third of the way to a cup treble, and they sealed the second step thanks to Michael Owen.
Arsenal took the lead with just 11 minutes to go but that left enough time for Owen to strike with two goals in five minutes, sealing a phenomenal comeback win for the Reds in Cardiff (they would go on to seal that cup treble four days later against Alaves).
The striker was in the middle of a phenomenal year that saw him win the Ballon d’Or, but even still, who could forget his cup final heroics? This is as good as it gets, right?
1. Steven Gerrard
Key moment: Steven Gerrard thundering the ball into the back of the net from 40 yards out in stoppage time.
Unfortunately for Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard exists. The miracle man himself has made a career of defying probability and pulling off incredible against-the-odds victories. The 2006 FA Cup final doesn’t quite match the 2005 Champions League final as an achievement but this was Gerrard at the peak of his game-winning powers.
Liverpool went 0-2 down against West Ham. Djibril Cisse made it 1-2 but in the second-half Steven Gerrard and his cannon of a right-foot went to work. Less than 10 minutes into the second half, Peter Crouch knocked the ball down into space 12 yards from goal and Gerrard showed up to hit that thing like it owed him money. 2-2.
West Ham then went 2-3 up when Paul Konchesky’s cross somehow swooped into the back of the net. That looked to be that, until the 91st minute of the match. The ball was headed clear by West Ham but it was falling to Gerrard, who has since admitted he was exhausted and just wanted to hit the ball as hard as he could, and what followed was perhaps the most violent moment in FA Cup final history (since Nat Lofthouse anyway), as Gerrard uncorked a bullet strike that sent it hurtling like a rocket through the atmosphere so fast you swear you saw it break the sound barrier. This thing picked up speed in the air!
This was an impossible goal, but then what else was Steven Gerrard but Mr. Impossible? The match finished 3-3, Gerrard scored in the shootout and Liverpool won the FA Cup. Pepe Reina saved three West Ham penalties in the shootout and no one even thought of awarding him Man of the Match, such was Gerrard’s dominance. Most definitely the mightiest Man of the Match the FA Cup has seen this century.