Here's Hoping We Hang Out The Washing On Our Siegfried Line

Last updated : 22 February 2005 By Bernard Azulay

But in spite of the "sold out" signs on the windows, it was obvious from the smiles of astonishment on the faces of the punters walking away, that they'd been able to buy tickets for the game. As far as I'm concerned the sight of empty seats at several other grounds and the fact that the FA Cup fifth round presented a rare opportunity to walk up and buy tickets on the day, is incontrovertible evidence of the dwindling status of the oldest knockout tournament in the world, in the face of wall-to-wall coverage of other competitions.

Let's face it compared to the prospects of some of the tasty midweek morsels on offer in the Champions League, there was little incentive to get up early to go and freeze ones cods off watching a virtual reserve Arsenal side play Sheffield Utd. Indeed the FA Cup might offer a financial lifeline for the lower leagues but in contrast to Bayern v Arsenal, Barca v Chelsea and Man Utd v AC Milan, our progress in this year's competition against Stoke, Wolves and Sheffield hasn't exactly sent Gooner pulses racing. Aside from their overkill coverage, I think the TV companies are also guilty of watering down what used to be some of the most thrilling dates in the footballing calendar by spreading the competition out over the weekend.

Perhaps it's just me becoming blasé with age but as I walked the dog around to the ground a couple of hours before kick-off, I sensed little of that palpable buzz of excitement I recall as a kid on FA Cup day. Róna was back at home in bed, having brought nothing back from Tenerife but a suntan and a touch of bronchitis. The surplus of tickets meant that it was going to be hard to find a suitable home for her seat. Especially after stopping to shoot the footballing breeze and eventually finding myself outside the ground only an hour before kick-off, with our season tickets back at the flat.

Unable to wave tangible evidence of a spare seat in my gloved hand - which in itself is a decidedly risky business because while the old bill appear to let the touts operate with absolute impunity, unbelievably they are only too quick to nick genuine fans, even when flogging tickets below face value - it was some feat to persuade a total stranger that they'd be far better off handing me their 30 quid, instead of passing it over the counter for a pitch which would probably be right up in the gods behind the goal. To ease my conscience, I'd already found another spare ticket to give to our neighbour's lad so he could go to the game and I was about to give up on the idea of selling Ro's seat when I struck lucky with someone recognised the bargain of one of the best seats in the gaff for less than half its cost..

I sensed how dodgy it must have sounded as I explained he'd have to walk home with me to fetch the tickets. I felt obliged to offer rapid reassurance that I wasn't about to leave our monster of a mutt, Treacle, to pick over his bones after mugging him. But he turned out to be a squaddie in the RAF who, after braving the perils of suicide bombers in the Middle East, wasn't about to be scared by a bespectacled Gooner. He waited at the front door, while I fumbled around inside trying to find our season tickets. With kick-off rapidly approaching, I was hurrying to prove he wasn't on a wild goosechase with some weirdo. Naturally, according to sod's law, because I was in a bit of a flap both booklets had done a disappearing act.

Having finally dug them up, I wasn't about to let one of them out of my hands, so I made him wait while I dispensed with my dirty dog walking gear and dooned the appropriate Gooner apparel. Never mind our current goalkeeping nightmares, before accompanying my new mate to the match, I had to ensure I had on my person all the superstitious items which govern the Gunners' success.

The stewards' somewhat anxious air might have bee due to the fact that they were donning their boots that afternoon. Or so it seemed when the opposition trotted out of the tunnel in a garish fluorescent orange kit, which made it almost impossible to distinguish the players from the employees tasked with keeping the punters off the pitch. Wearing their replica away kits, it would appear that at least one half of the steel city's footie fans are in absolutely no danger of being run over!

I was beginning to wonder if I might've been better off bringing some sunglasses in place of my binoculars. The ravages of time on my eyesight and the risk of being stuck behind a goal at away games make binoculars a vital accessory. But with our brilliant view at Highbury, they often only come into their own in particularly frustrating goalless games, at that point when everyone begins to wonder who's capable of having an impact on the outcome and the shout usually goes up "Who's on the bench?"

The FA Cup's sad demise might also be partially due to the fact that so few of its Premiership participants have a genuine feel for the competition's tradition. This was evident over the course of the weekend in the absence, for the most part, of the sort of total blood & guts commitment the tournament once inspired. Nevertheless Sheff Utd's strongarm efforts to make up for in brawn what they might lack in guile ensured Highbury was no place for faint-hearted Gunners on Saturday. As I scanned our subs searching for the sort of player who might relish giving as good as he got in this roughhouse environment, certainly a slightly fey Robert Pires wouldn't have been the first player to come to mind!

I'm blessed with the benefit of hindsight, but in the position of those managers with crucial Champions League encounters coming up, I would always choose to play my strongest side from the start, especially in a tournament which might soon prove to be the Arsenal's best (hopefully not our only!) prospect of silverware. I believe it's far more beneficial to be able to rest the legs of the likes of Henry and Vieira after a confidence boosting run-out in a rapid demolition job, than to be forced to bring on your best as subs, to try and secure a win. Not only do the subs end up no less pooped than if they'd played the enitre 90, but by displaying the sort of disrespect, where on Saturday Kolo Toure was the most experienced member of our babyfaced defence, Wenger provided Warnock with the perfect ammunition to inspire his troops to test us with an energy sapping work-out.

Unlike Mourinho's mob, at least we might rectify matters in an unwanted replay. Any affinity I felt for the Chelsea manager's playful arrogance ended when he intervened in last week's xenophobic argument about Arsène's team selection. Excuse me but exactly how many players from these shores has the Portuguese manager signed, or even introduced into his squad since Ranieiri? Far be it from me to wallow in a footballer's misfortune, but I have to admit to cracking up on the sofa on Sunday as some of his haughty bluebirds limped home to roost. It's been a an age since I last had so much enjoyment watching a match which didn't involve the Arsenal.

I might marvel at Mourinho's previous exploits with Porto's limited resources. However he's yet to deserve the sort of plaudits he's currently receiving with a team, where all the most impressive talents were signed by his predecessor and in a position of absolutely unlimited resources, where there must be any number of vaguely competent managers who'd claim they were capable of doing likewise. I found myself laughing at the pundits who lauded his "brave" substitutions at the break on Sunday. To my mind, in such treacherous conditions, he was entirely reckless. Until next weekend at least, Mourinho's achievements at Chelsea amount to nothing and in the infamous words of one of his colleagues "I wud love it" if in the short space of seven days the silverware starved Blues' prospects were reduced from a quadruple to a single!

In the meantime I will be more focused on matters on the home front, or more specifically out in the freezing climes of Munich, where in the absence of Sol Campbell I sincerely hope that with Arsène's Alsatian origins, he sends out a rearguard line-up which is more Siegfried than Maginot!