I didn’t bother going out for my usual ride yesterday. The west of England was suffocated under a bleak grey cloud. An unseasonably cold wind drove the rain remorselessly down deserted streets and across the sodden green fields. The mountain bike remained in the shed and I remained in front of my computer intending to add a chapter to my book but actually watching reruns of season three of Game Of Thrones. You remember that series, it was back when stuff actually happened.
I wasn’t concerned by the elements. In fact I sat, quite complacent, as Machiavellian schemes unfolded and throats were sliced open, because, you see, I knew the weather would be fine today. I knew this because today, for the benefit of those of you just awaking from a coma or arriving from a previously undiscovered planet, is the day of the FA Cup final.
We may not know which coloured ribbons will go unused until this evening but we do know one thing – the sun must shine. It’s a tradition. Before you go scampering for your almanac in order to find the proof with which to refute this bold assertion, let me just stop you. The FA Cup is theatre. It transcends ordinary football, goes beyond the mundane because it is a part of a wonderful tradition. This is why people of a certain age get so bent out of shape about semi finals being held at Wembley and kick off being anything other than three pm. You shouldn’t mess with the very fabric of that which makes a thing special.
You should have replays and not penalties, goalies should wear caps, hymns should be sung, marching bands should march, royalty should attend in all their splendour and sullen boredom and the game should be broadcast simultaneously on all available TV channels. High streets should resemble ghost towns, agitated uncles should curse ill timed wedding invitations and small boys should run onto the streets at five pm clutching case balls and proceed to re-enact the highlights as soon the cup has been presented. Oh and while I’m at it the trophy should be handed to the winning captain in the moments immediately following the final whistle, not twenty minutes later. The winners should go up first with the runners up dragging disconsolately behind them.
And the sun must shine.
So don’t bother checking the weather for previous cup finals because in the only place which matters, in our folk memory, in the place where tradition is king, the sun always, always shines on Cup Final Saturday.
The FA Cup was the first trophy I watched Arsenal win. I read about winning the league in the newspaper but the final was actually broadcast live on television and what’s more it was in colour. We won in the glorious sunshine after going behind to a Steve Heighway goal, Charlie George instantly cemented his place as one of my favourite people ever and I argued with Steve Collins at school on Monday as to whether Eddie Kelly or George Graham had scored the equaliser.
Arsenal would appear in no less than five finals in my first ten years as an Arsenal fan somehow contriving only to win two of them. I remember each and every one of those games with quite startling clarity, startling when you consider how I struggle to remember where I put my glasses each and every morning these days. The fallow seasons which followed saw us go thirteen years without a sniff of the Wembley turf. This barren spell was at last relieved by a monotonous draw with Sheffield Wednesday in 1993, a game we eventually won in the last ever FA Cup final replay thanks to an Andy Linighan header in the dying moments of extra time. Five years later Arsène began his run of six finals, soon to be seven of course, all of which he won apart from one notorious robbery back 2001 upon which I shall not dwell. Suffice it to say Henchoz should have been off after sixteen minutes and had we scored the resultant penalty justice would surely have been done. But I’m not bitter.
Finals involving Arsenal aren’t my only favourites. I really enjoyed Coventry against Spurs in 1987 when Ogrizovic and Clemence competed for worst ever keeper in a cup final and Houchen scored with a diving header. Honestly, isn’t a diving header just the best way to score a goal? We don’t see anywhere near enough diving headers in the modern game. Sunderland and Southampton winning against Leeds and Man United take some beating and I’d have to put Wimbledon’s triumph over Liverpool in a similar bracket. More recently I enjoyed seeing Everton’s victory over Man United even if it was tainted by the sight of Anders Limpar in anything other than an Arsenal shirt.
So much for past finals, what might today hold for us? How will this afternoon’s match sit in this long and wonderful tradition? According to all the blogs I’ve read lots of people know lots about an event that hasn’t actually happened yet. I shall try to avoid pretending to be able to see into the future, neither will I be so bold as to tell Arsène Wenger what side he ought to pick nor which tactics to employ. Others of course are less shy of setting themselves up as oracles and seers, football mystics, tactical gnostics and world leading experts on formations and players. I’ve read that Arsène must start with Theo up front. Not should, not might or could but must. I’ve learned that despite formations having failed and players being out of form the manager will be too stubborn to change them for the final. I’ve heard that because we have two great keepers and because nobody knows which one will start we therefore have no choice but to buy Petr Čech from Chelsea. Pomposity, arrogance, idiocy and ignorance jostling for supremacy alongside an apparent ability to foresee the outcome of unpredictable events days before they come to pass.
Arsène couldn’t have been clearer in his comments about the line up. Those who start seldom have the biggest influence on the outcome. The modern game is a squad game. Football changed entirely when three substitutes were allowed to be chosen from a group of seven and as such the bleating and howling which accompanies the release of the team sheets before every match is staggeringly moronic. Which blogger or tweeter accurately predicted that swapping Podolski for Sanogo would be the game changer in last year’s final? Maybe somebody did but if so I’ve yet to made aware of their existence. If Theo doesn’t start it is because that doesn’t fit Arsène’s game plan, but it doesn’t mean Theo isn’t still an important part of that plan. If Ospina starts it means Arsène is confident he’s the best choice. This stuff isn’t complicated and just like our transfer policy is best left to those who know more than we do. I’m content to wait and see what the great man decides and then see how his plan unfolds. Why others are incapable of doing the same escapes me.
So what of our opponents today? The only thing we know for sure is they start every season below us in second place. If they end their FA Cup campaign in a similar position I shall be a happy man. Trophies tend not to be decided by alphabetical order, however. A shame really, as we would be in a pretty strong position every year, although we’d struggle to overcome Araz-Naxçıvan PFK in European competition, not to mention the unassailable Aalborg BK.
Villa have had a poor season. There’s no way of dressing that up. They ended up one defeat away from relegation despite a fantastic start to their campaign. Their early results proved to be a false dawn and it was Arsenal’s 3 – 0 victory which started the rot. They went on to lose their next six games in succession and although they briefly steadied the ship they did not end the season well. Today, of course, is an FA Cup final. Today that league form might prove a complete irrelevance.
They have a match winner in Christian Benteke, a hugely experienced keeper, and Delph and Grealish are both promising players. Would you swap any of their guys or indeed their manager for any of ours though? That’s the key question and my answer is an unsurprising and resounding no. Quite simply we have enough to win this. I’m not saying we will, I’m not predicting a walk over – I may not be a superstitious man but even I have my limits. Ipswich and West Ham taught me the dangers of hubris way back in the nineteen seventies and it’s a lesson I’ve heeded ever since.
Wherever you are watching and however the events unfold, I hope the game lives up to your expectations and unless you are a Villa fan I sincerely hope the result goes the way of your dreams. One day this match too will be bathed in the May sunshine of cup final nostalgia. In forty years time some grouchy old blogger will probably reminiscence about today and tell how an Arsenal legend entered his memories and his life in a way never to be forgotten. I doubt I’ll be around to read his thoughts but I shall be here today to bear witness as the stories and the traditions of both this venerable competition and of our great club are entwined once again. Who knows, we may even make history today. I certainly hope so.