If I hear one more person bang on about the “romance of the cup” I’ll be forced to grind my teeth and shake a clenched fist in rage, God help you all.
I do all-action-no-plot, not romance. My favourite romantic film is Die Hard (the whole Ms Holly Genaro/Mrs Holly McClane sub-plot has me choking back the tears). Come FA Cup 3rd/4th round weekend each year I’m forced to chop down the nearest tree, turn it into a paper bag and vomit into it, as pundits, commentators, ex-pros and even ex-blinking-amateurs go all dewey-eyed at memories of Tesco AFC of the Salted Peanuts Division South knocking out the mighty Aldershot on a muddy bog in January 1972, accompanied by Motty’s tedious screeching.
I guess it’s nice if you’re the lad who scored the winner for the non-league lot back in the days when Martin Jol (blessed be his name) had hair – and a kick-ass beard as it happens - but I’m not that lad. Nor am I a member of his family, or anyone else who cares.I’m a Spurs fan. Therefore, come the FA Cup I want to see all the big teams knocked out, thus smoothing our progress so that we play Burnley in the semi-final, rather than Man Utd in the 4th round. However, if Spurs have already been knocked out I want to see all the big teams left in to play each other in the final stages, free and accessible on terrestrial. Last year’s semi-final line-up comprised Pompey, Cardiff, West Brom and Barnsely, and was consequently watched by eight people across the country. I watched the final between Pompey and Cardiff, and it left me yearning for a flux capacitor which would enable me to go back to my settee at 2.59pm and stick on a dvd of 5-1 vs Germany instead.
The Champs League final between Man Utd and Chelski, by contrast, was a game of cracking quality. I realise that two top teams can play each other and produce a rubbish game, and having caught the Gillingham-Villa game on Sunday I realise that lower-league-vs-Premiership can provide some excitement. I realise too that the windfalls from such glamour ties can keep the rubbish teams going, and that I sincerely support.Indeed, if I were trying to construct a logical, scientific proof that the romance of the cup is worthless and moribund, such counter-claims would be pretty damning – but I’m not trying to do that. I’m just venting my spleen, in a fit of uncontrollable rage, and communicating to the all-action-no-plot world my hatred of the sickening notion of the “romance of the cup”. I’m rallying against those who seem to assume that I should go weak at the knees at its mention, in much the same way as it’s assumed that I should love Nelson Mandela purely on account of my membership of the human race. To quote Rodney Trotter, no way Pedro. Read my lips - I LOATHE THE ROMANCE OF THE CUP, AND MR T IS MILES BETTER THAN NELSON MANDELA.
I feel a little sorry for Paul Ince. Admittedly the multi-millionaire side of things will probably soften the blow for him, but the guy was a legend for England, and the sort of midfielder I yearned for Spurs to buy. When England were at one of their best periods (Euro 96, le Tournoi 97, France 98) he was at the hub of it.
Still, there’s no escaping the fact that Blackburn were in freefall, and weren’t about to improve under him. It’s all very well to hear ex-pros say he should have been given more time - I think the Blackburn faithful would beg to differ. More time would have seen them exit the league. As Wendy Ramos - and indeed the wondrous Martin Jol - found out, time is a commodity a Premiership manager simply does not have. The Premiership doesn’t work like that. There’s so much money flying around that relegation is an absolute disaster - as is failure to qualify for the Champs League, if the team is that way inclined. This is no secret, so Ince really ought not to use that as an excuse. No Prem manager ought to - if he’s so dense that he thinks that his club will wait to be relegated, just to suit his personal career prospects, he ought not to have been hired in the first place.
Time waits for no manager, but Heurelho Gomes might just have been saved by it. With no transfers until Jan, and no obvious replacement in goal, Gomes has had the chance to redeem himself and restore his reputation, and he’s fairly literally grabbed it with both hands. He’s certainly turned in some top-notch performances - his ability to pull off the spectacular saves has never really been in doubt, and he now looks a lot more assured coming for crosses, even if he does annoyingly tend to punch every time. However, it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to convince ‘Arry to stick with him until the season’s end. Bless him, I fear that Gomes could have another 29 consecutive faultless games, but if number 30 features another clanger that’ll be the one we all remember. Call it David James syndrome.
Christmas approacheth. Lights are being lit in shopping centres, adverts are being aired on broadcasting stations and pundits are getting over-excited by the performance of Arsene Wenger’s latest crop of youngsters in the Carling Cup – all sure signs of the imminent commemoration of the birth of our Lord. So how good are l’Arse’s latest crop of young gunners? I’d better make clear right now – I haven’t seen them in action (I hate that lot, why would I see them?), so this isn’t really a debate about their quality. I caught the goals in their 3-0 win over Wigan, as I did their 6-0 win over Sheff Utd in the previous round. Well done, very pretty, not particularly impressed. Casting my mind back a few years, Arsene’s kids are regularly trotted out in domestic cup competitions, invariably destroying lesser-rate opponents, but they came a cropper (4-0) vs Man Utd in the FA Cup, and were rather gloriously destroyed 5-1 by my lot in the Carling Cup. Furthermore, lest anyone has forgotten, the 6-0 demolition of Sheff Utd earlier this season was promptly followed by a defeat at home to Hull, or someone similarly nondescript, three days later.
However, there are many (not least the whinger-in-chief himself) who insist that this year’s crop really is something special. I suspect that that Vela character is indeed a bit of a talent, as he’s had the odd cameo in the Premiership, with some degree of success. I’ve also heard particularly good things about Wilshere, and as he is an Englishman with a left foot, there is a sense in which I temper my innate hatred of l’Arse, and watch his career with interest. There may well be a couple of others who make it at the other lot, one or two who go on to the international stage. On the whole however, I’m happy to laugh cynically in the face of all those bleating about what a golden generation this is. Yes, admittedly a sizeable proportion of such guffawing can be attributed to my white-hot anti-l’arse bias - I can admit that my perspective on the red half of north London might occasionally be influenced by two decades of bile and hatred.
However, more broadly, it seems to be a footballing fact, quite possibly supported by the law of averages, that of the plethora of teenagers who debut amidst a blaze of optimistic publicity at a given club, only one or two, if any, go on to establish themselves at that club or a better one. Inevitably, the media fanfare which accompanies the entrance of said youths onto the scene includes the phrases “precocious”, “wonder-kid” and “the boy’s got a big future ahead of him”. But look more closely, my action-indulging chum, and you shall see also phrases synonymous with “shows great potential”, “one for the future” “destined for great things”. And there’s the rub. It’s not sufficient for these whippersnappers simply to break into the first team at 16 or 17. Andy Turner did that at Spurs. (To answer your question – exactly). They need not only to make an instant impact, they need then to progress and improve. Fabregas did it. Rooney did it (although some even dare to question whether, really, he has improved that much, the heretics). But for every Fabregas who made it at 16, nailed his place in the team and carried on improving, there are a bucketload who had their 15 mins of under-age precocity and disappeared into the footballing equivalent of that flat glass thing which whisked away the baddies in Superman II. If a player is at the same level at 22 as he was at 16, or even the same at 26 as he was at 21, he’s not really going to make it. I’m thinking of Caskey, Turner, Austin, Edinburgh, Marney, Gardner, Davies and Etherington - all apparently “wonderkids” from Spurs teams gone by. I fear Lennon is going the same way, as is, less depressingly, Jamie “three-touch” O’Hara. They might make it as good honest pros, maybe even win a medal and a handful of international caps along their journeymen careers. But the hype surrounding Wenger’s latest hoarde of ear-studded, excessively-gelled and already cliché-spouting kids would have you believe that a fair number of them will rise to the very heights of the game. I make no attempt to disguise my scepticism.
Within the last 24 hours there have been bizarre rants from both Wenger and Ferguson, seemingly unprovoked, angry digs at imaginary deviants who have been laying into their innocent, virtuous, maltreated players. No-one takes these seriously, and the few who can be bothered to react do so by laughing at their blinkeredness (nb, surely there’s a better word?).
I guess I’ll never know with certainty what they’re thinking, but I’m pretty convinced that this – and indeed, every absurd whinge they’ve had over the past decade and more – is all part of a masterplan. As with East 17’s finest numbers, I trust that they’re not taking themselves seriously, and that what ostensibly appears to be sheer lunacy (ski hats as tall as top hats?) is just an ironic façade, designed to elicit mild hysteria amongst gormless punters who will take the bait and plaster them over the newspapers. Behind closed doors, I’m convinced that Arsene, Sir Alex and East 17 are all sniggering to themselves, whilst giving themselves pats on the back for the straight-faced manner in which they repeatedly deliver these performances.
In the cases of both Wenger and Ferguson, I can only presume that the repeated refusals to accept publicly that their own team and players are to blame for any setbacks are part of their winning mentality. In football it seems that nice guys come last. Wenger and Ferguson only want to win, and that typically means engendering a them-against-us mentality, attempting to pressurise officials and shielding their players from any external negativity. Within the privacy of the dressing-room I doubt that Wenger shrugged off the defeat against Stoke by advising his players that the naughty ruffians were being nasty. He probably went mad at them. Ferguson has probably had stern words with Rooney and possibly given him a slap just to reinforce the point that he’d damn well better not lose it with the refs any more. But in public, they trot out their whinges and rants, deflecting attention from the shortcomings of the players, all in the name of winning, winning, winning.
Mind you, if this isn’t the case, and Wenger, Ferguson and East 17 truly believe in the balderdash they spout, then I despair.