Sweet F.A.Cup

Last updated : 12 January 2005 By Bernard Azulay

Come Monday, throughout the printed media, the pundits were prognosticating in assorted post-mortems, deliberating over the cause of death of the most historic knockout tournament on the planet. According to the Times, the most obvious indication of the tournament's death-knell are witnessed in the BBC's frantic efforts to promote football's favourite dead parrot. Yet if the graveside mourners were conspicuous by their absence at many stadia around the country, it would appear that no-one has bothered to inform the corpse.

Unlike the moribund bird in the Monty Python sketch, the FA Cup once again proved it's alive and well and squawking for all it's worth. If genuine Premiership giant-killings were a bit short on the ground, there were proud performances from plenty of lower league opposition which proved that reports of the FA Cup's demise are somewhat premature. On the one hand you have hypocritical hacks complaining that cup upsets are increasingly unlikely due to the ever widening gulf in class. But the moment a manager fields an under strength side which might give the underdog some glimmer of a giant killing, they are castigated for disrespecting the competition.

Romantic results like Exeter's immense achievement at the Theatre of Dreams might be fewer and further between, but the FA Cup will retain it's magical allure so long as they remain possible. I might not have enjoyed it at the time, but for me the very essence of what makes this competition so special was encapsulated in the euphoric expression on Wayne Thomas' face as he sprinted the length of the pitch towards the Stoke supporters on Sunday and was reflected on the faces of 5,000 delirious City fans as they belted out a raucous chorus of "Delilah" . Thomas took advantage of our static defence to tap home what was about their only chance of the entire first forty-five, snatching an unexpected lead on the stroke of half-time.

36,500 meant only a few spare seats at Highbury. But there's no mystery to empty expanses of concrete seen at Bramall Lane and elsewhere. After burning the plastic at both ends over a hectic schedule of festive fixtures, there might have been a fair few more empty seats on Sunday if it wasn't for the fact that our season tickets include seven cup matches. And even if we're involved in more (which is always likely when we've already played four Champions League games at Highbury), the cost of any addtional cup matches are added on to our season ticket renewals.

Subsequent to the incessant money-grabbing of the past few weeks, the reduced attendances elsewhere, at stingy clubs that don't include cup games in the price of a season ticket, are merely a reflection that greedy hands have eventually plumbed the depths of what were previously perceived as a footie fan's bottomless pockets. However the Gunners don't exactly occupy the high moral ground considering I pay nearly 65 quid a pop for the privilege of attending 26 home games.

Róna was babysitting our granddaughter on Sunday which presented me with the dilemma of a spare ticket. I often end up taking our neighbour's lad rather than deal with the quandary of deciding how much to charge a stranger. I might not baulk at the outrageous cost, but I'd feel far too much like a tout if I tried to extort the face value from a forlorn Gooner looking for a ticket. Especially when they can only really appreciate that it's not daylight robbery when they discover what a perfect pitch we have up in the West Upper.

What's more I'm always torn between recouping some much needed readies and treating young Jamel. When we failed to score during the first-half on Sunday there was a consensus of opinion that we would have to schlep up to the Britannia Stadium for a replay. But while everyone else was bemoaning our lack of incisiveness, I was blaming myself for leaving the lad at home. Then as they all cursed Lehmann when Stoke took the lead, I was convinced it was more my fault than that of our German keeper.

After spending his entire international career in Oliver Kahn's substantial shadow, Lehmann was on the point of ousting his arch nemesis when he suddenly found himself as the unfortunate scapegoat for all the Arsenal's ills. Having spent the few weeks since he was 'rested' becoming an increasingly bitter bench warmer, I was completely baffled as to why Wenger brought him back for this odd outing in the cup. Lehmann could hardly be in a positive frame of mind as was evident in his dreadfully indecisive performance.

The wave of relief was positively palpable when Reyes popped up with an equaliser so early in the second half. The longer Stoke maintained the lead, the more chance there was of another sucker punch, as we'd have been forced to chase the game. If I was to blame for us being behind, then I also had a hand in Jose's strike, since I spent half-time surmising that I didn't think such a physical encounter was the ideal circumstance for his return from injury.

At last the goal sparked some life in the library. Up until then it had been more testimonial than fervent FA Cup 3rd Round. After Van Persie scored what proved to be the winner, the Stoke fans responded with the proverbial "Sing when you're winning". Whereas in truth, amidst such a decidedly indifferent atmosphere, the Potters would have been more accurate if they'd preceded it with "You don't even....."!

I have to admit that I didn't find the foregone conclusion of last year's final a particularly exciting prospect. Perhaps we've been far too spoilt by our success in recent seasons, or maybe our team's tepid efforts are mirrored on the terraces. Nevertheless no matter how nonchalant some Premiership sides might be, we must never forget that for the vast majority of teams involved in our illustrious knockout tournament, anything past the 3rd round has the potential to be the highlight of their season and therefore their cup final deserves all due deference.

We can only begin to imagine the excitment for debutante, Manny Eboué, As a child back on the Ivory Coast I doubt he could've dreamed of playing his first game in the FA Cup in front of a nearly full-house at Highbury. Most Gooners now view both cup competitions as an opportunity to gauge the prospects of such youngsters and some welcome respite from the unrelenting pressure of the Premiership.

It's back to the grindstone Saturday and an awkward game at the Reebok with the added spice (or comfort?) of a late kick-off, our competitors either with their feet-up in a leisurely bath and the points already in the bag, or anxiously looking over their shoulders after a slip-up, wondering if they're about to feel the warmth of Gooner breath on their necks. The heat is on from here on in, as the 7 point gap doesn't allow for any further failures. Who amongst the three challengers will be the first to exit a calorific kitchen as the media hype up each successive match to be of title deciding proportions!