Date: 11th March 2008 at 1:54pm
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Removing my red tinted specs for a second and concentrating on a wider issue for the beautiful game at large, does anybody else feel that this year`s F.A. Cup is the best in years? (Of course not better than 2005, 2003, 2002, 1998, 1993, 1979, 1971, 1950, 1936 or 1930, but you get my point right?) Now, most football fans love a giant killing. It provides a romance that appeals to even the most hard nosed football fan, even hardened cynics like myself. Yes, I hate the fact that these David v Goliath clashes pull out a huge amount of fair-weather fans from the lower leagues, seemingly impervious to their team`s desperation for high attendances in the face of financial meltdown until Arsenal or Manchester United come along. And yes, I hate the “Premiership, you`re having a laugh” chants when the score is 0-0 after forty five seconds. It infuriates me that Barnsley can surmount the effort to look like world beaters when they play Liverpool and Chelsea, it makes me wonder how far a club like that could go if the players applied themselves as zealously in the more humdrum reality of league fixtures.

But who else whooped with delight when Barnsley`s misfiring striker Odejayi beat Carlo Cudicini? Giant killings appeal to our better nature as sports fans, as people who crave the unpredictability and seeing the short, fat guy floor the bronzed, toned athlete. Since the shock has evaporated as the remaining four teams, the unillustrious West Brom, Portsmouth, Cardiff City and Barnsley, contest the Semi Final, many have offered a seemingly sobering dictum. Many have pontificated that the lack of a “big club” present in the Semi Finals simply illustrates how the F.A. Cup has fallen from grace as a low prestige competition. Many quip that is has become a Carling Cup mark II. (Personally, I have a lot of time for the Carling Cup; most of Arsenal`s first team squad have been bled into the team and emerged through that competition). The most severe of the doom and gloom merchants have offered that they seriously would not consider watching Barnsley play Bristol Rovers in an F.A. Cup semi final. It is this arrogance that I rally against in this piece.

Let us examine recent Cup encounters between members of the Big Three and Liverpool, as much as the result was utterly satisfactory, the Arsenal versus United Final of 2005 was hardly absorbing theatre for the neutral. Last year`s final between Chelsea and United was one of the most moribund affairs the old competition has ever seen. And seriously, do I need to start on Liverpool v Chelsea? Often sides of extraordinary ability as the aforementioned serve to cancel each other out, particularly in edgy encounters when trophies are at stake (And particularly when those teams serve up mind numbingly, wrist slittingly awful, turgid football like Chelsea and Liverpool). Recent history suggests that the David v Goliath clashes aren`t much cop either. The Arsenal v Southampton and Manchester United v Millwall finals were entirely predictable, one sided affairs. But this year sees a different proposition entirely. Four sides intoxicated by the grandeur of the competition, with little to lose, going hell for leather at each other for a chance to make history for their respective clubs. Let`s be honest, in recent years, as Arsenal have geared up for Cup Semi Finals, it has been as a sideshow to the latter stages of a league campaign, or played with one eye loping irreverently towards a Champions` League encounter. Much the same can be said for Manchester United, I don`t lament Ferguson or Wenger for that, but with my club`s interest in the competition over, I love the fact that I would be delighted for any of the eventual winners of the tournament. (Though the ex Gooner colony on the South Coast means my loyalties are somewhat with the Pompey boys).

Usually when Arsenal`s interest in the F.A. Cup is prematurely curtailed, I find myself more concerned with who I don`t want to win the trophy. I spent much of last year`s final praying for a punch up which would see both clubs severely censured in the vague hope that maybe, just maybe, Ronaldo and Drogba would be suspended for the first five games of next season. This year, I don`t have to engage in such Machiavellian dialogue with the devil on my shoulder. The arrogance of some football fans infuriates me at times, maybe the showmanship and technical ability of the Fabregas`, Rooney`s or Torres` will be on offer. But exciting matches exist outside of the stratosphere of the Big Four. Back in December, I went to watch Millwall play Oldham with a friend of mine and it was one of the most tense, exciting matches I`ve seen all season. I won`t pretend that footballing caviar was spoon fed me on a china plate, but the match was a highly engaging, high octane affair. I am incredibly confident that this year`s semi finals will throw up something similar (particularly the WBA v Pompey match, both sides play very attractive football). Maybe the misty eyed romantic in me has invaded my better judgement, but as a neutral, I very much look forward to this year`s Semi Finals. I haven`t felt like that for years. (Though I won`t see the Saturday game because I`ll be watching Arsenal play Liverpool. Did that just defeat the entire purpose of this article?).LD.