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Just why the FA Cup will always be a Major Trophy for Arsenal and me

The FA Cup’s most successful manager

After two successive FA Cups in 2014 and 2015, Arsene Wenger became the manager who had won the famous old trophy the most. For me this was hugely gratifying after a long period of him deciding to disrespect the world’s oldest football knockout competition. I could just about handle Arsenal using the League Cup to blood youngsters, but for those of my generation fielding weaker teams in The FA Cup was simply not acceptable.  I am aware that for many younger fans or perhaps fans from overseas not brought up with its tradition, the FA Cup is a poor third relation to the Premier League and the Champions League and of course, we are all entitled to our own view. However, for me and I suspect, many like me the FA Cup is and always will be a major trophy and will have a place in my heart, where the Champions League will not. Perhaps when Arsenal actually have a realistic chance of winning Europe’s elite competition my feelings will change but to play uncompetitive sides in a competition we can win just to rest players for the next game, in a competition in which we are ill-equipped to progress has never sat well with me.

10 changes from Premier League side to be knocked out by Stoke Jan 2010

Therefore, whilst I readily accept that the fans’ priorities have changed, perhaps some background will help those who consider the oldest club competition a poor relation, appreciate why many do not share that outlook. I am of a generation that grew up when there were NO league games live on the television, not just a few, NONE. Saturday afternoons in the 1970s were spent, with footie mad friends either playing the game or perhaps in the woods, in a den, with a transistor radio, listening to a match commentary and getting score updates from the BBC. Sometimes we would even forget the radio, dodge final score and wait for Match of the Day. However watching live football was something else entirely, simply because you couldn’t. In fact, barring the occasional England match, perhaps the ‘Home Internationals’ there was only one live club match to enjoy all season.

That match was the last game of the domestic club season, and was of course the FA Cup Final. It was not as it is today though, just another live match, it was something entirely different, indeed, unique. The FA Cup Final was simply special, it was an occasion and it was a television extravaganza. The BBC and ITV programming would start at about 10am for a five hour build up to the big kick off at 3pm.  I was a BBC boy as it was FA Cup Final Grandstand for me.

The players of the two finalists would have taken a full and active part in the show. They would have been filmed doing something silly; a snooker competition between individuals from each squad, a player’s Mastermind, being interviewed with their families and without question, we would be treated to both squads performing their FA Cup final record.

Image result for fa cup final mastermind

All the players, coaches and managers were accessible and all entered enthusiastically into the biggest day in the domestic football calendar. We followed both teams from their respective hotels, having watched them eat breakfast or an early lunch, to Wembley and there would be a camera on each coach. We witnessed them climb, smiling or nervous, off the coach, into the changing rooms and we saw their kits all laid out. We were then treated to the highlights of each side’s ‘Road to Wembley’ before watching the presenters chat to our heroes, if it was our team, in the new Cup Final suits on the hallowed turf. Hallowed turf that they or course had not already played on in the Semi-Final!

For me it was double pocket money on that special day. Down to the sweet shop at about 9am and back into the armchair for the slow and fabulous build up, Trying, whilst almost certainly failing to make the huge paper bag filled with shrimps, cola bottles, jelly snakes, white chocolate mice and the like to last until kick off. You need to understand that, whilst it was brilliant if your team was one of the finalists, the whole country watched regardless. This was without question the biggest day of the season and I reiterate the only match live on television. Just let it sink in that your team might have won the league the previous week but unless you were at the game, you would only have seen highlights of the on pitch celebration and trophy presentation on MOTD.

Stocked up for the drama of the day

The first final I recall well was Liverpool defeating Newcastle in 1974. I was nearly eight, already and Arsenal fan, but I had not been to Highbury and the FA Cup Final was simply thrilling for me as a football nut, whoever was playing. In 1975 it was the Alan Taylor Final as he scored both as West Ham defeated Fulham 2-0 and in 1976 the nation and the world was transfixed and stunned as Southampton, of the 2nd Division (Championship now) beat Manchester United. In 1977 United were to return and inflict their own upset by beating, the then, all conquering Liverpool.

By that time I had been taken to Arsenal twice in 1976/77 and Arsenal were resurgent under Terry Neill and I was utterly obsessed with all things Arsenal. My bedroom walls were covered with posters, from Shoot or Roy of the Rovers, of my heroes and my Arsenal shirt was never off my back and wait for it, The Gunners were in the 1978 FA Cup Final and favourites to beat Ipswich.

1978 FA Cup Final

For those who have moaned during Arsenal’s recent barren period and feel that the mighty Arsenal have a divine right to be winning should cast their eyes back of the 1974-76 period. Bertie Mee’s double winning side of 1971 had gradually broken up and although Mee had still had a few of his old glory campaigners in his team, he had lost his mojo. A mere three years after achieving an historic League and FA Cup double, Arsenal had had two successive campaigns where they had finished in the bottom six, narrowly avoiding relegation.

Therefore, in 1978 it seemed that Arsenal were back and glory beckoned. Neill’s combination of youth and experience whilst not threatening the Division 1 Title certainly had what it took to be a cup side. The old heads of Macdonald, Jennings and Hudson, combined with the youthful talent of Brady, Stapleton and O’Leary should have had more than enough for Bobby Robson’s Ipswich but it proved not to be the case. Our talisman Brady later revealed his immaturity in telling the management he was fit to play when patently was not and without him, we did not tick. Arsenal lost 1-0, I cried, I was devastated and in disbelief but despite the turmoil of my emotions I was further hooked. This was ‘the tournament’, it was a grand finale to the season and at nearly twelve years old I knew my Arsenal would be back. They had to be.

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A year later, on that glorious day, 12th May 1979, I watched one of the greatest ever FA Cup finals in my front room, with my then best friend, also a Gunner. We scored after 12 minutes and we both ran out and did a lap of the garden, screaming at my parents, who knew nothing about football that Talbot had scored. Arsenal continued to dominate, Brady majestic, this time and on 43, Frank Stapleton made it two. Another lap of the garden, around my bemused parents, shouting with joy and back for a few sweets left in our bags at half time. (At nearly 13, we had more restraint and paced our sweet intake.) Of course, United came back incredibly in the 86th and 88th minute to level the epic match. This was not in the script, after we had dominated a class Man United team full of internationals. I recall nearly walking out again to the garden to inform my parents of the disastrous turn of events but thankfully, we decided against it.

It does not get better than the Sunderland Winner

A minute after the world had seemingly ended the mighty Gunners in their yellow and blue found from somewhere reserves of energy. Brady, my hero, surged through the midfield, laid an inch perfect pass out to Rixie, who without having to even break stride, sent a delightful cross from the left flank, into the path of the on rushing Alan Sunderland to bury at the far post. Another mad exuberant lap of honour around the garden before returning to see our players climb the steps and for Pat Rice, fittingly the last survivor of our previous triumphs in 71 to lift the FA Cup aloft.

I was a Gunner before the 12th of May 1979 but that was when it truly sunk in. I felt part of something special, even from my front room. My love affair with the FA Cup was cemented on that day and despite many highs and lows, it has continued ever since.  Nothing will change how I feel about the competition. I cried at Wembley in 2014 when Wenger stood on the pitch triumphant, a nine-year wait over for him and us. I was glad it was the FA Cup that ended his trophy drought, particularly after so many seasons of him effectively opting out by selecting weakened teams. It is why I spent 9 hours in a car driving to Preston and back and it is why all I can think about this week is being at St Mary’s under floodlights on Saturday.

I want the Premier League title as much as the next fan but do not expect me to share your opinion if you think the FA Cup is not special and not a major trophy. Ask any English professional footballer, even today what they imagined doing when they played football in the park of in their garden as a boy and you will get the same answer –

“Scoring the winning goal at Wembley in the FA Cup Final!”

On that note, I rest my case and thanks for reading a very personal blog.

I will leave you with our 1998 FA Cup Final single – Hot Stuff!

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2 Responses to Just why the FA Cup will always be a Major Trophy for Arsenal and me

  1. MarkW January 26, 2017 at 3:28 pm #

    It’s a generational thing I think, attended my first Arsenal game in October 1976 aged 8, and remember wanting Arsenal to win the cup more than the league, the European Cup, the World Cup, The Ashes and Wimbledon put together, Ipswich was a nightmare, West Ham worse, but Man U 79 is right up there with best ever Arsenal memories

  2. Nigel Benson May 26, 2020 at 1:54 pm #

    Great post. The FA Cup will always be special to me, too. Like you, the first trophy I saw Arsenal win was the ’79 FA Cup. I’ve now seen Arsenal win nine FA Cups. Every single one has been special. And the losses in ’78, ’80 and ’01 still hurt. The FA Cup is the oldest club competition in the world and it’s our competition. Only newbie fans don’t understand its significance and place in our history.

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