Is Arsenal’s Love Affair With The FA Cup Over?
The media attention turns towards Wembley this afternoon where Portsmouth chaotic season climaxes in their attempt to stop Chelsea’s double becoming reality. In the past, Wimbledon may have pooped on Liverpool’s party in similar cirmcumstances but a better indicator would be Newcastle’s failure to stop Arsenal and Manchester United completing the domestic double as the last century drew to a close.
For some, it highlights the significance of Arsène’s decision to field sides which were not the best XI available in the competition. The status of the FA Cup in the English game is unmatched in football outside of these shores, league status far more important than the cup for the bigger sides. Arsène’s comments recently about qualification being a trophy highlight that belief.
Wenger is well aware of the allure that a trip to Wembley holds yet it is not a priority, his insistence that winning the Champions and Premier League’s is more important cannot be argued with but with money so crucial to clubs, qualifying for the top competition in the following season is now his third priority in a season, indicative of the financial dominance of the two.
The FA Cup has a great history, a key pillar of English football’s rich heritage but the allure of the competition is fading. Perhaps the influence of the previous paragraph has worn down my love of the competition. Childhood days of being able to reel off the scores and scorers of finals in days gone by, knowing that Worcester City’s elimination of Liverpool in the 1950s was not as big a shock as that suffered by Arsenal in the 1930s due to the lesser status of the Merseysiders, have become edged with their own sepia tones. I used to love leaving the ground with safe passage through to the next round assured, waiting to hear Sports Report on the way home, hoping misfortune and humiliation would have befallen someone, allowing for gloating on Monday morning.
That is not to say that success in the competition is without joy. As a one-off occasion, the wins in the finals have been no less enjoyable in the last decade as watching Charlie George or Alan Sunderland find the back of the net. Simply that the FA Cup itself is becoming relatively predictable. There are still genuine shocks such as Leeds at Old Trafford this season but the impact is lessened through media excuses and overuse of the word ‘upset’. To give it some context, Stoke beating Arsenal at home on a ground where not even a league point had been garnered was considered an ‘upset’, despite the visitors being barely able to find eleven fit players.
The FA Cup’s allure stems from the time pre-European club competitions, when there were but two trophies to win. It continued through to the 1990s but with each season, its importance reduced. For fans of non-big four clubs, it represented a genuine chance to put silverware in the trophy cabinet. Even so, since 1980 only seven winners have not been from the ‘Big Four’. If that description is movable, only four sides would be considered winners outside of that description. There is a monotony about the winners that ill-serves the FA Cup.
The Football Association are aware of the diminished status; a committee is reviewing the format to keep it ‘fresh’ (their choice of word) and is considering doing away with replays and playing the rounds in midweek until the semi-finals. That the organisers are worried about the state of their premier club product indicates the diminished esteem.
Wenger has divided opinion amongst Arsenal fans over fielding a team of fringe players in the FA Cup. The question for the current squad is Wenger doing them a disservice? They want to win and since 2007 have been tantalising close to honours on a number of occasions The first competition they win is believed to be the one that will open the floodgates. Possibly but there is no guarantee.
In his first full season Wenger presided over a double, leading onto a decade or more’s service in the Champions League. From a selfish point of view, a European victory is the only thing missing from his CV and there can be no doubt that whilst he wants to win one, the opportunity to win with this squad would be more satisfying since it is his own creation.
This season he had little choice, the squad so injury riven that he struggled to get a squad together for the tie at Stoke. The policy served him well in reacing the semi-final’s last season but previous campaigns have not fared so well, defeats in the North West in consecutive seasons including the capitulation at Old Trafford.
Failure to win any trophies has polarised views as to whether or not Wenger should continue this policy. My suspicion is that had, for example, a Premier League title or two been thrown into the mix since 2005, the importance of winning the FA Cup would not be so great. Such is the desperation for silverware that it is now an issue.
For today? A Portsmouth win would defy belief and be the modern day equivalent of Sunderland’s 1973 triumph. Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.