Monday, 26 April 2010

No More Taking The Cup For Granted

Mention of the legendary romance of the FA Cup throws up some interesting memories. Remember when Arsene Wenger stole a longing glance along the touchline, to find Sir Alex Ferguson’s normally angry eyes gazing back at him? And when that customary post-match glass of wine turned into a hot and steamy night, never to be forgotten? Wait, not that kind of romance.

Apologies for that unfortunate mental image I have given you, as in reality the romance of the cup brings to mind the steely determination that sides like this season’s Portsmouth outfit have showcased, against all odds. Their 2-0 victory over Spurs, despite looming relegation, and their financial ruin, is the very definition of ‘cup romance’. While their economic mismanagement certainly merited administration, and the subsequent nine-point deduction, no one can fault the effort of the players this season, or the managers, particularly Avram Grant. As a group of individuals, their lack of Premier League quality is clear, being made up of players few others wanted. However, they have never been embarrassed on the pitch, and the team spirit they have shown in the face of impending doom surely warrants some reward. This is where the FA Cup comes in - to remind us that the winners in football are not always decided by money.

Should this same Portsmouth go on to defeat Chelsea in the approaching final, then it would be the biggest such cup upset since 1988. Not since then would a championship-challenging team have been defeated so close to the trophy by a so comparatively unfancied team. I am of course talking about the self-styled ‘Crazy Gang’ of Wimbledon, and their heroic 1-0 win against the league champions of Liverpool. It is the sort of stuff that would have had you laughed out of a publisher’s office if you were asked to write a fairytale. Within 15 years the club had moved grounds, changed names, and dropped down the divisions. Even before this, for Wimbledon to win the Cup was something tremendously unexpected at the time.

There have been other triumphs this year, to show that the Golaith-slaying (sorry for such a tired analogy) spirit of the FA Cup is well and truly alive. In the 3rd round, Leeds’ 1-0 win over Man United, their old rivals, was perhaps an even bigger shock than Pompey’s elimination of Spurs (if not as headline-grabbing), purely for the fact that two leagues still separate the two, and that fortress Old Trafford was breached. If only someone other than Jermaine Beckford (who somehow manages to exhibit all the traits of an overpaid Premier League superstar playing in a League One side) had scored the winner.

So let’s go back to the days before the Premier League, the days we probably all secretly long for. It’s probably fair to say that the whole notion of ‘cup romance’ was a throwback to days of a more even financial playing field. While it is hard to argue that players like Ronaldo, Bergkamp, and Zola have not improved the quality of the English game, the likelihood of the elite being disturbed in league competition is certainly lessened, and so we turn to the Cup for satisfaction of our underdog-rooting tendencies. Sutton vs. Coventry anyone? The Conference side knocked the Old First Division side out at the third round stage in 1989, making a mockery of the 4 leagues that separated them. Over 20 years on, they remain the last non-league side to dump out top-flight opposition.

As a Newcastle fan, you would forgive me for glossing over probably this most obvious example of ‘cup romance’. Somewhere in the offices of the BBC, there is a severely worn down tape containing footage of Hereford’s 2-1 win over the Magpies in 1972. You may not realise this, but Ronnie Radford’s famous 30-yard strike was not a match-winner, merely an equaliser that took the game into extra-time. Ricky George must harbour more than a little resentment that his winner, if not quite as easy on the eye, has been somewhat airbrushed out of history. Who knows, perhaps Portsmouth will beat Chelsea this spring, and finally eliminate the humiliation of Newcastle from every David vs. Goliath (there it is again…) confrontation shown on the BBC. I would certainly not be disappointed.

Avram Grant will tell you the romance of the cup still exists today. His infamously dour exterior betrays a passionate footballing man, whose passions of injustice have been stirred repeatedly since his arrival in English football. As a successor to Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, he never stood a chance at building his own legacy. Despite keeping the Blues in a title race while the management structure tore itself apart, and coming one kick away from the holy grail of an elusive Champions League trophy, he was ruthlessly pushed aside. This season, he has railed against the Premier League’s treatment of Portsmouth, and succeeded in creating an effective siege mentality among the squad, with some heartening performances, if not the best results. Despite this, he has a relegation on his CV. How’s that for hard luck.

With victory at Wembley against Chelsea, Grant can strike a satisfying blow - both against his harsh sacking from the Stamford Bridge hotseat, and against the Premier League, who obviously weren’t banking on the still raging romance of the Cup to provide a welcome respite to the twin terrors of administration and relegation. Before you get too caught up in the idealistic image of Pompey lifting the trophy, let me remind you of my opening paragraph. Fergie and Wenger up a tree…

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