Anyone who buys into the oft repeated media convention that the FA Cup no longer means anything in the modern game needs to take a look at the scenes which took place in Villa Park on Saturday evening. The explosion of emotion from the Villa fans which spilled from the stands and onto the pitch served to remind the old and infirm among us of a bygone era. Not always a better era I hasten to add. Running battles along concrete terraces, ploughed pitches that made Selhurst Park look like the newly laid baize on a snooker table, up and under cloggers sending the ball skywards, racist chanting and mounted police. Age provides us with a curious telescope through which to gaze at the past. I know all of those things to be true and yet still experience a serene, fuzzy contentment when I allow myself to wallow in the warm waters of my nostalgia. There was an electricity in a football stadium whether it was a European Cup night between giants of the modern game or an early round of the Sherpa Van Trophy against Wallsall on a wet Wednesday evening at Twerton Park.
The raw, visceral excitement contorting the faces of those Villa fans as their team moved to within sight of a trip to Wembley – even if it was only for a semi final – had that same lightning running through it. This wasn’t generated by the magic of the FA Cup per se, it had more to do with the way football manages to connect with some primitive ferocity within us, encapsulating fear, anticipation, loathing, love, release, relief, joy and exultation all in an adrenaline fuelled ninety minutes of savage nail biting tension. It does help that there was a chance of glory at the end of the game, that the opposition were local rivals and that their side had endured a very poor season thus far, but it did me good to see that people still cared enough to get so carried away.
The BBC commentators were of course appalled by the pitch invasion and even those of us less feeble minded than Mark Lawrenson (and I am not excluding much of the human race in that statement) were concerned as the fans streamed onto the pitch. I ought to point out that I wasn’t overly worried about public safety more that Villa might see the result overturned if their own fans caused the match to be abandoned. No one wanted to see Pulis get a second chance to stink up the semi finals with his twisted, smug little grin did they? I didn’t particularly fear for the safety of the inept referee or the players as it looked as if most fans crossed the invisible barrier simply to congratulate their heroes, take a selfie or just to express the rapture of the moment. The debate which followed however, stirred some memories.
The last time I went onto the pitch during a game was, I think, about nineteen ninety six. It was Ashton Gate, Rovers were destroying City by two goals to nil and many City fans spent the match locked out of the ground due to a sell out crowd. Some of these started trying to come in through the back of the stand in which the away fans were corralled. Made a deuce of a row tearing off hoardings and banging on the walls as I recall. We decided to wander onto the pitch to avoid becoming embroiled in any potential disorder and thereby alert the authorities to the fact that a bunch of fans were wrecking their own stadium to try to get at us. It was a frightfully genteel pitch invasion with people helping elderly supporters over the barrier and those with children being shepherded to the front of the queue. Later on however the home fans raced onto the turf intent on chasing the players and officials from the pitch. In the main they succeeded, but the Rovers centre forward Peter Beadle not only stood his ground but actually stepped forward towards the baying mob which then broke about him like water around a rock. It was quite a sight. Put it this way, if I had stood in an infantry square on the field of Waterloo as the French Cuirassiers bore down upon us I’d have hoped to find Peter Beadle stood next to me. Mounted police cleared the pitch and if memory serves the result stood.
I don’t anticipate any such scenes at Old Trafford tonight. There is still passion in the game, Villa park provides ample evidence of that, but I suspect the stewarding and policing when Man United host Arsenal is pretty slick. Evidence the fact that the only real problems in recent fixtures between the two clubs have involved the management and or playing staff rather than the supporters. The match means no less to either side than it did to Pulis and Sherwood’s teams, it represents a very real chance of a trophy to a United ensemble which looked to have lost its way for much of the last couple of years. The pessimistic among our fan base probably feel the same about us. Personally, I think Liverpool are the team to beat this year and I don’t mean to belittle the challenge of overcoming United when I say that. It’s just they are the ones in form right now, whereas United, like us, have got results without always looking a hundred percent convincing.
My optimism before kick off is of course irrelevant. You all know by now that I expect to win every game and am always bewildered when we lose. This doesn’t grow out of any blind faith or inability to acknowledge potential pitfalls. It stems from the simple fact that on our day, when everything falls into place and our best players play to their potential we can absolutely stuff anybody you care to put in front of us. It is impossible to know in advance if today will be one of those perfect days, but faced with the simple fact that it could be I choose to think it might. Why not? The self harm brigade don’t have a monopoly on guessing the future. Today though my usual Leonard Nimoy style of logical, clear thinking has been invaded by what might almost pass for superstition. You see I just feel we’re due a bit of a break against Man United. I think we’ve been unlucky against them too often in too many ways. Drawn when we should have won, lost when we could consider ourselves unfortunate had we only drawn, been the victims of injustice too many times to count. If you ask me it’s time to lay a bit of a diabolic red ghost to rest. I don’t underestimate United and I don’t underestimate the passion of the FA Cup but I don’t believe Arsenal should be underestimated either.
The fervour on display at Villa Park has given me much pause for thought. Seeing just how strong is the power of football, how it still has the ability to galvanise the emotions of its adherents made me realise something I’ve perhaps overlooked. In the age of isolated support, when folk sit alone all over the world watching the game with those same emotions tearing through their veins, they have no outlet for their feelings. We can’t all run onto the pitch or be humiliated by Peter Beadle when passion overcomes us but that same passion is there nonetheless. Is it any surprise then that some people may be prone to rash and injudicious outbursts? Perhaps I should be more understanding when some folk rush to judgement on twitter if things go against their team. Maybe I’ve been a little harsh in the past when some supporters simply fail to master their feelings and their reactions lack a desirable discernment. I shall endeavour to be more forgiving in future and especially this evening. It is after all the FA Cup quarter final. I think we’re allowed to get a little carried away aren’t we?