It’s that time of year again when I allow myself to go all misty-eyed about the FA Cup while the less sentimental (and perhaps younger) among us tut-tut and denounce the old jug as a busted flush.
The Champions League is bigger, bolder, more watched, more important and above all more lucrative than the FA Cup, this we all know. Well, actually one of those is open to debate: last year’s Champions League final between Man Utd and Barcelona was watched by 9 million in the UK, but the FA Cup final, between two teams with much smaller national followings than Utd, got 8.5 million. There’s life in the old dog yet.
I’ve always loved it, and I may as well wheel out the reasons why again. Firstly, I grew up with it, and that counts for a lot. I can’t remember the ’79 final for some reason but I remember cup final day in ’80 (though not the match – you’ll forgive me for that). I remember Grimsby 3-4 Arsenal in 1986, I’ll never forget beating Man Utd 2-1 at Highbury in 1988, when McClair missed a last-minute penalty and Winterburn goaded him royally for it. The multi-man points-deducting brawl at Old Trafford in 1990 was merely a continutation of the bad blood between the two sides.
I was giving away free newspapers at Wembley in 1991 as a holiday job (fortunately outside the Arsenal end) and heard both the Spurs goals go in: I was on my way home in the back of a minibus when Alan Smith halved the deficit but it was too little too late. We got our revenge two years later though. Then there was 1993, the FA and League Cup double against Sheffield Wednesday.
Latterly, perhaps success bred a bit of complacency – or at least expectancy. Between 1998 and 2005 – eight seasons – we reached the FA Cup final an astonishing five times, winning it on four occasions. As Vieira rocketed in the winning penalty in 2005 in Cardiff, I’d never have thought, had you told me then, that I’d be sitting here seven years hence with no more FA Cup finals in the memory banks. They seemed like a bit of a birth right at the time but the intervening years have once again proved how cyclical these things are. If we were cup fatigued back then, we’re certainly not now.
Secondly, I love the fact that it’s a knockout (and not the kind where you clonk one another with giant ear buds beneath the Atomium in Brussels or dress up as giant penguins). It’s fair where the Champions League is not (at least in the group stages, which can be very sterile). You can be drawn against anyone, home or away, at any point. If you don’t perform on the day, you’re gone. I love that.
Thirdly, there is nothing quite like the cup, and particularly cup final day, as a fan. In many ways I preferred it during the Cardiff years [not least because we were in it – Ed]. Back then the semi-finals were in Birmingham or Manchester, and the finals in Cardiff, so we got the whole scarf-out-the-window road trip thrown in. Such occasions always heralded a new Arsenal mixtape from @feverpitch – the poor swine’s tape-to-tape machine has been dusty for too long now. Proper banter and nervous excitement. As someone who no longer travels away, I do miss that.
So yes, I love the old trophy and I’m as desperate as I have ever been to go somewhere in it this year. Not least because it really does represent our best chance of silverware. Coming 4th is an achievement of sorts (that fact alone I resent), but the FA Cup is what winning is all about.
So to Leeds on Monday night. A Cultured Left Foot has some memories of Leeds ties of old to chew on, but if the cup is not enough for you, then the return of a certain Mr T Henry, once formerly of this parish, now back for a sojourn, should get your juices flowing. What’s he got left in the tank? We shall see.
Yes, I’m excited already.