Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger says the FA Cup remains just as special to him now as it did when he watched his first Wembley final on black and white television as a schoolboy in Alsace.
Beating Aston Villa on May 30 would see Wenger claim a sixth FA Cup winner’s medal and move ahead of Sir Alex Ferguson and also Thomas Mitchell, who guided Blackburn to success between 1884 and 1891. A victory would draw him level with George Ramsay’s personal landmark achieved with the Villans, winning his first FA Cup in 1887 and last as club secretary in 1920.
If indeed the Gunners can live up to their favourites tag – and they have finished the season in good form – it is not inconceivable Wenger could soon stand alone as the most successful FA Cup manager of all time.
Wenger was often criticised for his view that finishing in the Barclays Premier League’s top four was of equal, if not greater, merit to winning a domestic cup. For almost a decade, those top-four finishes proved the sole subsistence for trophy-starved Gunners fans until last year’s dramatic extra-time FA Cup final victory over Hull.
However, the magic of the cup remains as much part of the Frenchman’s philosophy now as it did when he was first mesmerised by flickering images of the hallowed Wembley turf all those years ago.
“It was a dream when I was a kid to watch the FA Cup. It was one of the competitions you could watch in black and white on television,” the 65-year-old recalled.
“What struck me was the ball was white and the pitch was perfect, absolutely immaculate, because I played in a village where the pitch was a disaster.
“The players had their hair well combed, and the managers were relaxed at that time – they joked together on the bench.”
Wenger added: “I believe the FA Cup is the best domestic knockout competition in the world, because it is the most traditional, this is the country where the FA Cup has been the first competition.
“I understood very quickly after arriving at Arsenal nearly 20 years ago that when the FA Cup games approached, they are something different, these games are something special.
“You go to Wembley, it is a special day for the fans and the responsibility you feel as a manager that day is even bigger.”
Arsenal may be favourites to retain the trophy, but Wenger knows that can count for nothing on match day, which for him makes the competition so appealing.
“If you are in the FA Cup everyone can dream of winning it at the start of the season, while the (Premier League) – only seven clubs can dream of winning it,” said Wenger, whose last league crown came in the ’Invincibles’ season of 2003-04.
“In the (Premier League) you can talk and talk, but we know the biggest budget will win it. That open dream is what makes (the FA Cup) special in football.
“In basketball if you play against a team from Division Two, there is absolutely no chance unless you give them 30 points (start), only our sport can create that excitement because it is uncertain.”
While Wenger may have already fulfilled his boyhood dream, success over the club he supported as a youngster would be an equally remarkable achievement for Aston Villa manager Tim Sherwood.
The 46-year-old former Tottenham boss has certainly restored the feel-good factor around Villa Park since being parachuted in to replace Paul Lambert in mid-February as the proud West Midlands club sank towards a relegation scrap.
With Premier League status secure ahead of the final match with Burnley, the Villa fans can look forward to their Wembley return and another chance to upset the odds as they did when Liverpool were “bamboozled” in the semi-finals.
“We will be the underdogs, the pressure is on Arsenal to win the cup, they are the holders and want to win it again,” said Sherwood, who grew up in Hertfordshire and whose dad is a regular at the Emirates Stadium.
“They are probably the best footballing team in the league and they can make this pitch look big, so we will have to get a plan ready.”