I turned to Liz about twenty minutes before kick off and remarked on what a good day I’d had. First decent day in about two months in fact. Those who know me beyond the world of football will be aware things have been, of late, somewhat bumpy Chez Stew. Yesterday however we had seen a glimmer of light pierce the dark clouds and I was basking, just a little bit. It was about then I glanced at the clock and realised what time it was, what was about to happen and what I’d just said. How could I possibly describe Monday as a good day when there was such a potential game changer still to come? I tried to remember the lofty words I’ve often used to others. That old flim-flam about rising above the fray, employing some perspective and realising that in the grand scheme of things an FA Cup quarter final at Old Trafford was not really the most important thing in my life right now. It was merely a side show, a theatrical distraction to our real life drama, and regardless of the result I would still have had a good day. I forget the poet’s name but I think the quote I’m looking for is what a load of old bollocks. A defeat last night and my warm glow would have been swiftly translated into permafrost. Silly really to let the antics of a bunch of millionaire footballers undo all the good I’d worked for but in the end that is precisely what we sign up to isn’t it?
As it happened I need not have worried. Far from the dreaded and frankly unwelcome turd in the swimming pool, last night proved to be icing on an already tasty cake. We all saw it so I’ll spare you a blow by blow but for what it’s worth here are my impressions of the thrills and spills. Firstly, as George observed in the immediate aftermath, what a difference a decent performance from a referee makes. The players may have worked hard, really hard in fact throughout a tough match and eventually got their reward but the man in black was rivalled only by de Gea for his individual quality. We all know that back in the era of Ferguson and his horribly unhealthy relationship with the football establishment none of the yellow cards never mind the red would have happened. So credit where it’s due to Mr Oliver, and in a world of inept and probably corrupt officiating it is quite a joy to be able to say that. I have to add however that the final result had far more to do with resolute defending and a one dimensional approach from the home team than Di Maria’s stupidity. Per was back to his imperious best, Coquelin and Koscielny snuffed out Fellaini’s lumpen threat and the full backs, properly supported by the wide forwards stuck to their task impeccably.
Once again Arsène’s tactics were flawless, and it was good to see the players employ them effectively. Sent out to press and harass defenders who are drilled never to hoof away possession but always pass the ball even if that means going back to square one they did just that. This was surely the reason he opted for raw speed over assured insouciance by starting with Olivier on the bench. Eventually of course it was the pace and poaching skills of Daniel Nii Tackie Mensah Welbeck which made the difference. Just as the manager must have suspected it would. His substitutions were perfectly timed, even if one was forced, this being the only real blot on Arsenal’s otherwise pristine evening; yet another injury for Chamberlain. I am beginning to worry about that young man. The silver lining however was Aaron’s introduction to the fray. Some people have put forward the frankly ludicrous proposition that being injured for much of the season and not scoring ten goals a game means our Welsh maestro has somehow been a disappointment. Last night his calm assurance on the ball, his defensive work rate and his clever movement were vital in preventing United building a head of steam. I honestly thought they’d give us more of a headache towards the end of the match. I was bracing myself in my lonely room, waiting for the traditional United onslaught, but it never really came.
The pundits, pub bores to a man, all tried to say it was a poor Manchester side that lost the game, but we know they would rather be buggered on live television by Carlton Palmer’s Doberman than give us any credit. The fact is their new manager has spent this entire season drumming into his charges the style in which he wants them to play and, most footballers not being conspicuously over endowed in the cerebrum, they’ve just about got the idea now. The problem was when they needed something different all they came up with was to stick their filthy Belgian fouling machine down the middle, bang it up high in his general direction and when that didn’t work then it was dive, dive dive. Sadly and unusually for the men in red the Das Boot routine failed them last night. What a glorious sight it was to see them finally get their comeuppance after years of cheating impunity. Still, it doesn’t do to gloat does it? Well, perhaps just a little.
So what of the future? The planets seem to be aligning to produce a repeat of the first ever cup final I watched as an Arsenal fan. Back in 1970 when I elected to follow the red and white having dallied with, bizarrely as it seems now, both Celtic and Chelsea, a perfect first season culminated with Bob Wilson in his green cap and Charlie George lying prostrate on the Wembley turf. It may not be so. Blackburn could do everyone a favour and cancel the Stevie G media love in, Reading or Bradford could prevent us getting to the ultimate game of the tournament. Never forget how close Wigan pushed us last year. There is indeed many a slip twixt the FA cup and the lips of our captain upon it. But given the form and stature of the teams left in the hat I bet you’d get great odds for a Villa versus Reading final.
I apologise for the somewhat breathless ill conditioned tone of today’s blog. I am perhaps a little emotional still. Apart from anything else I detest watching us play at Old Trafford. It is literally the only fixture where I subscribe to the mantra of the nonsensical i.e. the only thing that matters is the result. Football is of course about so much more but I’ve become so conditioned to us losing there that I could have happily pressed fast forward to the final minute and just absorbed the score. Last night however things were different. As I said before the game I had a curious presentiment that we were due a change in fortune. I may not have expected it to be so dramatic with them missing from point blank range and their cheating ways telling on them so profoundly, but even though the match lacked free flowing sparkling football it had the right mix of tension and excitement to leave me restlessly unable to get to sleep. In short I’m glad I watched it, and you’ll seldom hear any football lover say that after ninety minutes in the company of Rooney, Fellaini and Young.
My final thoughts go to my mate Steve. You may think that the journey home from Greater Manchester would have been one of unbridled celebration but it wasn’t so for everyone. Steve is a coach driver. He drove all the way from Midsomer Norton to Old Trafford and spent the entire evening in the car park outside of the ground being so close that he could hear the game but not see one kick of the action. That’s not why I felt for him though. It was more the prospect of him then having to endure a four and a half hour drive in the company of fifty six miserable, disgruntled, moaning West Country Man United fans. Actually, thinking about it, that sounds like fun.