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Football nostalgia is not what it used to be but there were times on Saturday when the Champions League, 120,000 pounds-a-week contracts and “the business of the game” were forgotten in a return to the days when the FA Cup was the only thing that mattered.
As I walked down Wembley Way towards the stadium, the massed Everton fans out to squeeze every last drop from the day brought back memories of countless other sunny Saturdays in May, when everything stopped for the Cup final.
For generations of fans, players and managers, getting to the final was often the pinnacle of their season if not their lives.
For those not lucky enough or too young to attend there was the consolation of hours of build-up and the rarity of a live TV match, followed by hours of re-enacting it all outside with friends.
There is not much romantic about Everton’s current lineup, especially now they are operating without injured Spaniard Mikel Arteta, but the unceasingly honest boys in blue certainly injected some desperately-needed colour to this season’s FA Cup with their penalty-shootout win over Manchester United on Sunday.
Yes it was an awful semi-final, with neither team really testing the opposing goalkeeper, but at least Everton, and their fans, took it seriously.
So, it will be an all-Blue FA Cup final this year, after Everton set up a date with Chelsea thanks to the penalty shoot-out heroics of goalkeeper Tim Howard in the semi-final against Manchester United.
Howard, a former United keeper, you may remember, saved the first two penalties from Dimitar Berbatov and Rio Ferdinand and Everton didn’t look back.
Speaking as someone who once sat in a brick-built outhouse at the bottom of the garden for five years writing a book about the FA Cup, I have rather a soft spot for the old pot.And so, it seems, after all these years, do Arsene Wenger, Alex Ferguson, David Moyes and many other managers, some of whom have not always treated the competition with the respect I still think it deserves.It seems almost every year at about this time, the same stories are run about how the FA Cup has lost its magic and the competition is now a mere end-of pier show compared to the Champions League and Premier League.The doomsayers point to dwindling attendances at grounds and dipping TV viewing figures to prove the FA Cup is not what it was.Last season the jump-on-a-bandwagon team proclaimed the cup “was back” because of all the upsets along the way that meant that just one Premier League team — Portsmouth — reached the semi-finals. Portsmouth v Cardiff was an “old-fashioned” final, a throwback to the 1920s and 1930s.This season the same voices are proclaiming the cup is dead again because Manchester United, Chelsea and Everton are all in the last four with Arsenal set to join them, although Hull City are still involved, and can still of course win it for the first time in their history.But the critics can’t have it both ways. Some years there are upsets, some years there aren’t — and irrespective of the outcome, an FA Cup match does have a different atmosphere, a different tempo and a different level of excitement to a league match, even if both teams are in the same division and regularly play each other.I was at Fulham v Manchester United on Saturday and saw a magical performance from Michael Carrick, Carlos Tevez and their team mates as United crushed the home side 4-0.Despite modern improvements there is still a timeless feel about watching matches at Craven Cottage next to the River Thames, just as there is still a timeless feel about the FA Cup.Sometimes it ebbs, sometimes it flows. I still believe that for most fans, nurtured on just a little history who still appreciate the romance of the game, you can’t miss it for a moment.PHOTO: Everton’s Marouane Fellaini (R) challenges Middlesbrough’s Justin Hoyte during their FA Cup quarter-final at Goodison Park, March 8, 2009. REUTERS/Phil Noble
from Left field:
Split seconds count in sports photography. Reuters Sports Pictures editor Greg Bos thinks London-based photographer Eddie Keogh captured the moment perfectly when former Arsenal captain William Gallas went head over heels to the ground during an FA Cup match.
CAPTION: Arsenal's William Gallas (top) challenges Cardiff City's Jay Bothroyd during their FA Cup fourth round replay soccer match at the Emirates Stadium in London February 16, 2009. REUTERS/ Eddie Keogh (BRITAIN)
The (almost complete) lack of Premier League action at the weekend saw thumbs being sucked all over the place, and the Reuters Soccer Blog is no exception. While some were predicting the end of the Big Four, and others picked over Rafa Benitez’s latest contract comments, we found ourselves enthralled by the silky football displayed by Championship side Swansea City in their FA Cup game against Fulham.
Here, Padraic Halpin waxes ornithological about The Swans, while in the post below Neil Maidment bemoans the lack of on-field drama this season. Are they right? Is it just an overreaction? I’ll turn the comments off on Neil’s piece, just to keep things tidy, but they’re on here as usual. For now, over to Padraic:
For all its great crowd noise, emotion and late drama, Wednesday night’s FA Cup replay between Everton and Liverpool was an shocking indictment of modern football, where stopping the other side scoring has become so important that teams have almost forgotten that there is another, more decisive and infinitely more entertaining way to achieve success.
Throughout the TV commentary there were references to the 4-4 draw when the teams met in the the competition in 1991, and Liverpool’s 3-2 aet final win 20 years ago, but we were never going to get a repeat after an excruciating first hour where both penalty areas might as well have been sealed off with barbed wire.
Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp’s frank admission that he will send a “mish-mash” side to face Manchester United in Saturday’s FA Cup tie adds to concerns that the competition has lost its elite status.
Speaking after sneaking through their League Cup semi-final second leg 6-4 on aggregate against Championship (second division) Burnley on Wednesday, Redknapp moaned:
The crushing 3-0 defeat to rivals Manchester United recently was just one of a string of lacklustre performances and while their struggles may come as a shock to many, United boss Alex Ferguson saw this coming some time ago.