THIS time there was no fairytale. Fortunately for the Millwall players who gathered in a weary post-match huddle, neither was there a massacre of the innocents. Manchester United dominated from start to finish without quite managing to emulate their 4 0 victories over Brighton in 1983 and Chelsea in 1994, let alone Bury's 6-0 record from 1903, which many had feared would be in jeopardy. So the 3-0 scoreline, achieved with two goals by Ruud van Nistelrooy and one from Cristiano Ronaldo, who has added real purpose to his party tricks, was respectable enough for both sides.

Millwall, with a squad acquired for some £830,000 as opposed to their opponents' £50m-plus, had hoped to emulate the tactics of West Ham and Wimbledon, the London underdogs who had provided upsets in the past 25 years by crowding the midfield and relying on set pieces.

But both those previous giant-killers, like Sunderland and Southampton before them in the 1970s, had players of far greater quality available to them.

In modern times there can hardly have been a softer route to the final than Millwall's, which after recovering to edge past Walsall, involved beating Telford United, Burnley, Tranmere and Sunderland, the latter being the only opposition higher than the First Division's bottom six. "You can only beat what's put in front of you, " the beneficiaries of such luck of the draw are apt to insist.

What stood before them yesterday was a squad cursing a season of under-achievement, yet still good enough to have dispatched Aston Villa, Manchester City, Fulham and Arsenal from the competition, finished third in the Premiership and unluckily failed to have reached the Champions League quarter-final.

Millwall's two 19-year-olds, Marvin Elliott at right-back and Peter Sweeney on the left of midfield, were given the biggest day of their young lives, while Neil Harris was left on his own in attack, hoping for support from midfield.

Dennis Wise was declared fit after having treatment in Italy on his injured hamstring, as was Roy Keane, who we can reasonably assume would have been unfazed by any of the snarling wind-ups in the tunnel that Wise and his Wimbledon teammates delivered at Wembley 16 years ago in an attempt to discomfort Liverpool's superstars.

The tackles, in the main, were tamer here, even though Robbie Ryan, the Dubliner who has turned down a oneyear contract and expects to be looking for another club, had announced that the best way to counter United's superior skills would be: "Kick them all over the place. But I haven't got a plan B."

It was not entirely clear whether he was joking, and for a long time he could not get close enough to Cristiano Ronaldo to test the theory.

The Portuguese winger's trickery enlivened the first half even before his goal, starting with a cross that Ruud van Nistelrooy headed wide from a good position.

Next came an outrageous flick from behind his standing leg that neither Ryan Giggs nor Paul Scholes could take advantage of, and then a wonderfully audacious run ended by a foul that gave him the opportunity to drive a low free-kick past a post from fully 35 yards.

Millwall had shown commendable composure on the ball without being able to make any chances, and a quarter of the game was over before Andy Marshall needed to make a save. It was a fine one with his right hand as Keane flicked the ball up for himself and volleyed towards the top corner of the net.

Ryan's poor header with the sun in his eyes allowed Van Nistelrooy to set up Ronaldo for a shot into the side-netting. Just before halftime the same combination almost brought a goal, which would not be long delayed.

On the first occasion Ronaldo's shot was beaten out by Marshall and hacked almost off the line by Darren Ward.

Two minutes later, Gary Neville, who had started that move, ventured forward again, taking an astute pass from Keane and crossing for Ronaldo to head firmly in.

From Millwall, composed or not, there was no greater threat than a shout for a penalty as Mikael Silvestre beat Tim Cahill to a low cross, and one run by Paul Ifill, who broke past John O'Shea but had his shot blocked by Silvestre.

They began the second half with the same 4-1-4-1 formation and the same lack of help for Harris, almost falling further behind as the gifted young Scot Darren Fletcher wriggled through to finish weakly with Van Nistelrooy demanding a pass. A second goal seemed likely at any time.

Scholes spun and shot wide from 20 yards, Wise scrambled one off the line with Marshall beaten following a corner, and still Millwall made no forward progress. Not until going further behind did they change personnel and tactics. That was upon them by Van Nistelrooy's successful penalty, thumped high past Marshall in his favoured fashion after David Livermore clearly tripped Giggs in the area.

Even then, Millwall felt obliged to take off Harris, who had done a lot of running, and they were soon three goals behind. Giggs created it, cutting in from the left to leave the Londoners' captain Matt Lawrence on the floor, and finding Van Nistelrooy onside at the far post for a tap-in.

With the result settled, both camps showed their softer side in late substitutions; United brought on Roy Carroll in goal in recognition of his efforts earlier in the season as one of three substitutions and Millwall's Curtis Weston at 17, became the youngest finalist in history.

He and his club will remember the day longer than anyone outside south-east London.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, two Henrik Larsson goals brought Celtic from behind Dunfermline to win the Scottish Cup. Larsson, playing in his final competitive game for the club, scored twice in the second half after Andrius Skerla had given Dunfermline a 1-0 half-time lead.

Stilian Petrov scored in the latter stages to leave it 3-1 at the end.