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Old 19th January 2007, 10:49   #1
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Default Cup romantics must break the big four's cartel

Cup romantics must break the big four's cartel
By Tim Rich
Telegraph 19/01/2007

When Nasser Hussain was captaining England's cricketers, rather than picking through their wreckage from the commentary box, he identified India as possessing "the soul of cricket".

If you want to search for the soul of the FA Cup, the graceful stands of St James' Park would be a good place to start. It is a trophy that intrigues and entices the Geordie Nation, just as the three medals won by Jackie Milburn were dangled in front of strikers from Malcolm Macdonald to Alan Shearer.

Their last appearance in a final was as much a non-event as the previous two. It formed the sandwich filling in Manchester United's treble and was a game so one-sided that Sir Alex Ferguson remarked that it was the only final out of the 24 he had presided over as a manager that he enjoyed watching. And yet, walking down Wembley Way that May afternoon in 1999, seeing someone dressed in the robes of 'The Geordie Pope' and another in a Red Indian costume calling himself 'Toonto', it was possible, however briefly, to believe in an upset.

It was this memory that made Newcastle's debacle against Birmingham on Wednesday all the more poignant, not to mention the 26,000 empty seats. It was live on BBC, and in the third week of January there is not usually much spare cash on Tyneside, but it was a blow to those who consider that Newcastle and the FA Cup have a special bond. When Mansfield came to St James' last year, they were watched by 41,000; an unglamorous fixture with Coventry in 2005 attracted 44,000.

And yet two other stadiums where winning the FA Cup would trigger an open-topped parade, appeared almost indifferent to the competition. There were 25,000 at the City of Manchester Stadium to watch a very attractive tie with Sheffield Wednesday, who brought 6,000 fans. A more predictably one-sided match against Cardiff drew 27,000 to White Hart Lane. All three are clubs that would once have been characterised as being "good cup teams"; sides unlikely to win the League but who possessed the flair to reach Wembley.

Yet it has been 52 years since Newcastle won it, 38 since Manchester City overcame a relegation-bound Leicester and 16 since Tottenham denied Brian Clough his last chance of the trophy.

That final, in 1991, was the last not to feature involvement from one of the big four - Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. And in 1991, Tottenham (chairman Alan Sugar, manager Terry Venables) considered themselves very big indeed, being perhaps the most enthusiastic advocates of the breakaway Premier League.

That is why there was just a pang of regret when Steven Gerrard orchestrated one of the great performances in the history of the final to deny West Ham a wholly romantic triumph. They had come achingly close to breaking one of the most fearsomely solid cartels in sport.

It is 12 years since Paul Rideout carried an Everton side, who at this stage of the 1994-5 season were prime candidates for relegation, to victory over Manchester United. Since then the Cup has been won by either United (three times), Chelsea (twice), Liverpool (twice) and Arsenal (four times).

It is easy to trace how the FA Cup lost its independence.

From 1967 to 1976, the average League finishing position of the winners was 12th. Between 1977 and 1986 it was ninth, falling to sixth in the decade from 1987.

From 1997-2006 the winner has finished, on average, third in the Premiership. Aside from Liverpool's two triumphs, in 2001 and last season, their victories have been entirely forgettable.

The underdogs they beat, West Ham, Millwall and Southampton, consoled themselves with the thought they had already qualified for the Uefa Cup which in each case gave them one European fixture. Perhaps they were too easily satisfied.

Newcastle have fallen painfully and embarrassingly but when Manchester City and Tottenham take on lower-division opposition in the fourth round, the romantic result would be a Premiership win.

The FA Cup needs them.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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