Wigan Athletic can give the FA Cup a lift – or do a Brighton

This season is offering the world's oldest football tournament a chance to re-establish itself in the nation's esteem, with the other major baubles all but accounted for

Margaret Thatcher was never a football fan but seemed to enjoy her day at Wembley to watch the 1978 FA Cup final which was won by a team in blue, Ipswich Town, who beat Arsenal 1-0.

Afterwards Mrs T was reported to have observed that Trevor Whymark had had a particularly good game, which might have been the case had he been playing when in fact he was not fit. No matter. At least the woman was taking a polite interest.

Bobby Robson recalled the reaction of the Ipswich president, Lady Blanche Cobbold, when asked if she would like to meet the leader of Her Majesty's opposition: "I'd much sooner have a gin and tonic." Obviously Lady Blanche knew where her priorities lay.

Being on the guest list at FA Cup finals may not carry so much kudos these days. The event is no longer the significant landmark in the sporting year, along with the Derby, Wimbledon and the Lord's Test, that it once was, while winning the trophy has tended to become a consolation prize for missing out in the Premier or Champions Leagues, or both.

Even the semi-finals are not what they were. Those nerve-racked, tensed-up occasions when players hardly dared put one foot in front of the other for fear of making the mistake that would cost their team the place at Wembley which every footballer treasured have become just another set of cup-ties hidden awkwardly among the TV schedules.

Of course something of the old competition's appeal lingers on and any temptation to regard the semi-final between Chelsea and Manchester City as the final in all but name, since the winners will be facing struggling Wigan Athletic or a Millwall team lying below halfway in the Championship, should, even now, be resisted. No side takes the field on Cup final day without some hope.

In fact this season is offering the world's oldest football tournament a chance to re-establish itself in the nation's esteem. With no lingering English presence in the Champions League to upstage the occasion and the contest for the Premier League title all but over, the FA Cup should hold more of the public's attention than usual, if it does not actually hold them in thrall.

Yet the Cup will surely never regain the appeal it had when Ipswich were at times outplaying Arsenal on a sunny spring day at Wembley 35 years ago. Looking back, the 70s and 80s now appear rich in drama and tales of the unexpected.

Don Revie's Leeds United were strong favourites to defeat Bob Stokoe's Sunderland in the 1973 final only to be frustrated by Ian Porterfield's goal and Jim Montgomery's double save. Three years later a goal from pint‑sized Bobby Stokes enabled Southampton to beat Manchester United and Lawrie McMenemy's players were cheered from the flyovers as their coach headed back down the M3.

Even now Brighton supporters of a certain age must still wince at the memory of Gordon Smith bearing down on the Manchester United goal at the end of extra time at Wembley in 1983 with only Gary Bailey barring the way to one of the greatest upsets of all time. But Smith's tame shot was easily saved, the match ended 2-2 and United won the replay 4-0.

The seriousness with which clubs then took the FA Cup was evident in the efforts taken by Brighton to get their captain, Steve Foster, released from suspension so he could play in the final. A booking had taken him above the number of disciplinary points that then brought an automatic ban. The club sought an injunction at the high court to get the suspension set aside but to no avail.

Brighton were already relegated from the old First Division when they faced United in the final but did not play like it. If Wigan beat Millwall they could find themselves in a similar situation. Had Smith scored Brighton would probably have gone down with a smile. For Wigan, appearing at Wembley would be a poor consolation for the loss of the Premier League place they have fought so hard to preserve.

Chelsea and Manchester City are hardly in the same category but even winning the FA Cup would barely make up for the failure to defend their respective titles in the Champions League and Premier League. Not worth hiring an open-top bus for, anyway.

comments powered by Disqus