May 5, 2012
The fall of the FA Cup
By JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency
Whatever drama, skill, even passion produced by yesterday's 131st FA Cup final in which Chelsea overcame Liverpool and their passionate claims that substitute Andy Carroll's second-half header had crossed the line and should have registered as an equaliser there was a forlorn but inescapable reality.
It was that the winners had just a few hours before becoming old-hat heroes, at least until their re-appearance later this month in the Champions League final in Munich. They had been triumphant in a match which used to be a cause for national celebration, but is now ever more firmly rooted in the margins of big-time English soccer.
The classic Saturday afternoon 3 p.m. local time kick-off, which was preceded by communal singing conducted by a man in a trademarked white suit at the old Wembley stadium, marked the end of the season, the closing out of all the drama and the passions of the autumn, the winter and the spring.
Before the final, Liverpool's iconic manager Kenny Dalglish made a rather forlorn plea for the status of the game. Bruised by a bitterly disappointing league campaign, and his club's announced losses of around $100 million, he claimed that those who sought to downgrade the cup tournament were merely speaking from envy. He may only have been kidding himself.
Yesterday, for the benefit of the TV programmers, the slot was 5:15 p.m. and the final a mere canape before the collisions which really mattered: Sunday's Premier League games between Newcastle United and Manchester City plus Manchester United and Swansea.
City's victory over United last Monday means that, with a much superior goal difference, they need only beat Newcastle and win their last match to make certain of holding off United and claiming their first title in 44 years.
However, going to Newcastle is no longer to be classed among the Premier League's lighter chores. Under the superb stewardship of Alan Pardew, the North Eastern team are still challenging for a top-four place and entry into the Champions League, a revenue tonic which, despite a deeply troubled season, has brought Chelsea as much extra profit as Liverpool have lost.
Newcastle have the kind of team which could give anyone problems -- and certainly to the highly talented but not always psychologically commanding City. Newcastle have a wonderfully subtle midfielder in Yohan Cabaye and Papiss Cisse, a bargain seized in the transfer window, has emerged as the scoring sensation of English football.
If City's manager Robert Mancini needs any historical underpinning, he could do a lot worse than a peek back to the style of Malcolm Allison, the coach who last drove the club to the title in 1968.
It was a stupendous end run, bringing victories first at Tottenham, then Newcastle. City played with an unforgettable swagger and Francis Lee, Colin Bell and Mike Summerbee were forwards not only of superb talent, but a self-belief which Allison had spent several years building.
When Allison first met Lee -- in a bar in Bolton where the young player was already a demi-god -- he said, :Come to City, and I'll make you a real player." Lee recalls. "I thought to myself: 'What an arrogant bastard,' but of course he was right. He made us all better players."
Allison always remembered that collision with Lee as a pivotal moment in his controversial, brilliant career and the performance at Newcastle as the high point in his work as a coach.
"We laid siege to Newcastle," Allison once said over the inevitable glass of champagne. "We were full of confidence and we knew that a point would be no good. I was happy with Lee, Summerbee and Bell. They were still full of their work at Tottenham (when brilliant running stretched Spurs wide and ransacked the great but aging Dave Mackay.)
"We had a few defensive mistakes but the rhythm of the attack was terrific right from the start. Later back in town there was a huge party in the Cabaret Club but, strangely, I couldn't catch the mood.
"I suppose I was stunned by the strength my players had shown and then some time later when Juventus flew me to Italy and offered me their job, even saying they would have a private plane fly my friends in at the weekends to prevent homesickness, I said I just couldn't do it. Those players had become so important in my mind it would have been like leaving a part of me in Manchester."
In a different time and a different world, City will no doubt settle for somewhat less than such a ferocious sense of unity. What would do, very nicely, is a distant echo or two from that day three highly talented forwards claimed their right to be champions.
Certainly it is not so easy to think of a better cue for City's hugely expensive Sergio Arguero, David Silva and Carlos Tevez. Or a reminder that, whatever Kenny Dalglish says, the English soccer history that lives most vibrantly is, irrevocably, no longer to be found at the end of Wembley Way.
James Lawton writes for The Independent in the UK