Sunday, November 27, 2022

FA Cup a test for Arsenal’s Hearts of Glass

It’s fair to say that the reputation of the FA Cup has taken a battering over the years. The trophy has lost its lustre in the eyes of many because, on the most fundamental level, it’s not as financially lucrative as promotion / survival / Champions League qualification. To an extent, time and effort have always been predicated by money. However, one can’t help but feel that the old cup has become something of a victim of the zero hours culture we have cultivated.

Meanwhile, the Football Association have actively encouraged the FA Cup’s metamorphosis into an ugly corporate duckling. Even the unthinkably romantic prospect of Wigan slaying Manchester City in last year’s final failed to fire the popular imagination. We were too busy wringing the acid from our tongues after the FA’s risible dismissal of the concerns of both sets of supporters prior to the match.

The repeat insistence on calling it the “FA Cup with pigswill lager” Final, the meagre allocations to fans in favour of corporates, the booking of trussed up pop tarts to tunelessly murder the quiet awe of ‘Abide With Me’ all rankle. One can’t help feeling that the F.A. missed a trick here. The cup never stood a chance of going toe to toe in the money bullpit with the Champions League and Premier League cash cows. It had a chance stand apart from the mucky mire of those twin behemoths.

The League Cup for instance, seems to have increased in popularity over the last 5 years or so because, though it still carries the name of some nefarious sponsor or other, nobody pretends it’s something it isn’t. The insistence on relentlessly marketing ‘The Magic of the Cup’ has turned it into a widely mocked cliché. Instead of letting the cup’s history speak for itself, it’s been smeared in lipstick and mascara and nudged onto the catwalk like an uncomfortable toddler at a child beauty pageant.

And yet. And yet. And yet. Somehow it still has a hold on my heartstrings. It always has and I suspect it always will. Like Debbie Harry, it’s not quite as attractive as it used to be, but somehow its former glory still beckons you from behind the skin creases. You can still see the sass. Though nostalgia is a misleading lens through which to view life, it’s true that I have never totally divorced myself from the childlike prism through which I view the game. I’m still that 7 year old that wanted to be Anders Limpar or David Rocastle in the school playground.

Few things were more prominent in formulating that adolescent view than the FA Cup. It gave me my first true dose of agony in 1991 when a hitherto all conquering Gunners side fell to Tottenham in the semi-final at Wembley. It was a formidable introduction into the immediacy and numbness of a cup exit. League losses can be atoned for the next weekend. Like a bruise that can heal. A cup defeat was like being hit by a stray bullet.

My first season as a season ticket holder at Arsenal was the 1992-93 season. The Gunners played at Wembley four times in that campaign and at the tender age of 9, I was incredibly fortunate to be in attendance each time. I will never forget that late April morning when I was getting ready for school and my mum came into my room brandishing an envelope. “Some post for you,” she remarked casually. Nine year olds don’t tend to receive much mail, so I took the package with suspicion. “It has your name on it?” I enquired. “Open it anyway,” she said, unable to conceal the smile at this point.

It seems unthinkably quaint that I don’t think I ever really considered whether we would get final tickets or not, even though we were season ticket holders. I don’t think the admin process for obtaining them was as big a deal as it is now. Or maybe it was and I was just blissfully unaware. But I remember opening the envelope to find two tickets for the FA Cup Final against Sheffield Wednesday and how that made me feel. I didn’t get much done at school that day as I suspect I won’t get much done at work this week.

Even if you are only a single string in the concerto that is the cup final, being a part of it is something very special. I don’t know why but I recall that my Mum and I left for that final at around 10am from South London that year and I asked her at Penge East station, “Will there be people at the ground now do you think?” I knew there would be because I had always seen as much on TV when I’d watched the finals in previous years. “Of course, that’s what the final is all about,” she answered faithfully.

That sense of belonging to this occasion in the football calendar is still as strong as it was too. This year, a friend booked my ticket on my behalf as part of a group. I told myself I would leave it until a good hour after they had gone on sale before I would bother him for a progress report. I lasted 25 minutes before I sent the first text message. “All done?” I asked, trying and failing to seem as nonchalant as possible about the whole thing.

I seem to recall entering the stadium for that final in 1993 and seeing an audible film of mist and/or smoke that enveloped the ground. I don’t know if this was owed to pre-match pyrotechnics or maybe it was just the first time I had ever been in a place where so many adults were smoking cigarettes. I’m not even sure if I have imagined that image as a complete trick of memory. If I have, that I’ve never let it go is perhaps telling.

Of course it’d be dishonest to deny that Arsenal’s trophy drought of sorts hasn’t added to the anticipation building up to this final. When you haven’t had your oats for 9 years, Debbie Harry begins to look considerably out of your league (more so). That this is our first Wembley FA Cup Final for 16 years also adds to that sense of excitement. There are a few million Arsenal fans who have probably never seen us play a Wembley FA Cup Final and that makes it special too.

Driving back from Cardiff in 2003, the cup admittedly felt like a bit of a consolation prize having blown the league that year. It was more relief than joy. I recall a car full of Southampton fans beeping their horns at us on the M4 and imploring us to smile. There again, I think the 2001 Final was probably one of the most sickening journeys back from a match that I can ever remember. I remember vividly my head sinking into my hands when Owen’s second goal went in and my stepdad’s hands immediately rubbing the back of my neck in consolation.

It’s those memories that burn even brighter this week and inform the sense of excitement (‘my word, if we win it? If we win it! I’ll drink for a week!’) and the nausea (‘but what if we lose? How will I get over it? I’ll have to drink for a week!’) until Saturday comes. Like the rest of you, I’ve had at least three cup final dreams in the last month. The lost ticket on the way to the match. The last minute Huddlestone header. The train to Wembley Central that inexplicably turns into a flying saucer and leaves you stranded on Jupiter at 4.55pm.

So on Saturday, even when the Blazin’ Squad or some other such shite assaults our ears with a gauche version of ‘Abide With Me’ or when I’m force-fed Budweiser through a funnel by some corporate shill, I won’t become cynical. I’ll meditate and see Linighan’s header, Anelka’s seamless takedown and shot, Ljungberg putting John Terry on his arse and Patrick Vieira’s penalty. I’ll see my mum handing the 9 year old me that envelope. But most of all, I will think, “Please, please don’t fuck this up Arsenal.” LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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