FA Cup beginning to regain its old allure

It was very exciting for me to have Arsenal do the double just as I was about to join them as a 15-year-old apprentice back in 1971.

FA Cup beginning to regain its old allure

I’d already become deeply attached to the club from going over there on trials and to train over the previous two years and, at home in Dublin, I would have watched that famous ‘71 Cup final against Liverpool with its memorable image of Charlie George lying flat on his back on the turf after scoring the winner. Arsenal, as double-winners, really were the team to beat back then.

Flash forward seven years to 1978 and there I was at Wembley myself although this time there was to be no fairytale finish for Arsenal, or for me, as we lost 1-0 to Ipswich and I had to hobble off with an injury.

As a 22-year-old, there were two things I learned from that experience. One is that I shouldn’t have played because I wasn’t fit with an ankle problem. And, two, I think we got a bit carried away with the sense of occasion. It was the first time I’d played in a Cup final, as it was for all the young players at Arsenal, like David O’Leary, Frank Stapleton, Graham Rix and David Price.

It was completely new to us and I think our minds got sidetracked by all the razzamatazz around the game. And that really cost us.

But the disappointment of losing in ‘78 had one upside in that, by the time we reached Wembley 12 months later, we were really focused on doing what we had to do to win the game. In other words, we were in much better mental shape going into that 1979 final which will always be remembered for its remarkable climax, when we were pegged back by Manchester United after being two-up with just four minutes remaining, before Alan Sunderland got that last-minute goal to win the game for us 3-2.

That was a great moment for the team because so many of us on the pitch that day had grown up at the club. If you take Sammy Nelson, Pat Rice, Dave O’Leary, Graham Rix, David Price, Frank Stapleton and myself – that’s seven players in that Cup Final who were homegrown, having all come through the system at Arsenal. Which, when you think about it, is just another measure of how radically the game in England has changed over the years.

That said, there are similarities between today’s final and the following year’s Cup Final in 1980 - my third in succession with the club - in that Arsenal, then as now, were going into the game as heavy favourites, with Second Division West Ham the opposition. We were also, as Arsenal are now, going into the final as Cup holders.

One big difference 35 years ago, however, is that we’d had a very arduous season that year. We had to play Liverpool four times to get to the final and that at a time when they were the best team in the country. And around the same time we had to play Juventus to get through to a European Cup Winners’ Cup Final, which we also managed to do.

So we ended up with two huge games in a few days – the FA Cup final against West Ham on the Saturday and then the following Wednesday the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final against Valencia. And, painfully, we ended up losing both – the Cup Final to a Trevor Brooking goal and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup final after a penalty shoot-out in which, unfortunately, I had my spot-kick saved.

There’s no doubt that the FA Cup Final doesn’t mean as much now as it did all those years ago. And the main reason for that is the Champions League, because the primary goal for the bigger clubs is to finish in that qualifying top four in the Premier League.

With the prestige of the Champions League, the money that’s involved and the opportunity it offers to come up against some of the world’s best players, like Messi and Ronaldo, there is no doubt that it has diminished the FA Cup.

But I do sense, in the last four or five years, that the Cup is beginning to reclaim a little of its old allure. For example, today’s game will be hugely important to fans of Aston Villa. They haven’t won a trophy for ages – indeed, they have found themselves trying to dodge relegation in recent seasons - and so, for what has always been a big, big club with a huge following, winning this FA Cup would be massive.

And it’s important for Arsenal too. We’ve been getting bashed over the head because we don’t win enough silverware any more so if we could add the cup to the third-place finish and Champions League qualification, I think that would have to be regarded as a very positive season for Arsene Wenger and his players.

Having ended the trophy drought twelve months ago, there is undoubtedly less pressure on Arsenal this time around. The weight of that burden showed last year in both the semi-final and the final. The pressure was so intense that we nearly blew both of them against teams that would have been much inferior to us.

But Arsenal managed to find the strength and the resolve to get themselves out of trouble, first against Wigan and then against Hull in the final. By contrast, this year it’s been more or less plain sailing in getting to Wembley and, rightfully, they go into today’s game as strong favourites.

Which is not to say that they are guaranteed to win, of course. For me, there’s always the spectre of West Ham in 1980 in my mind. And there’s also Wigan-Man City and Wimbledon-Liverpool and Sunderland-Leeds when it comes to confounding all predictions.

You could never have seen those results coming about in a million years. What tends to happen when the underdogs have their day is that they go into the game with a clear plan. Going back to 1980 again, West Ham did that: they played with just one upfront, they flooded the midfield and, as a result, they managed to stifle us. And, as it happens, Arsenal have had problems with teams doing precisely that to them this season too.

Only a few weeks ago, Swansea won by playing that way.

For that reason, it will be very interesting to see how Tim Sherwood sets Villa out today. Will he stay true to his declaration that he likes his teams to get the ball down and play attacking football? They certainly looked the part in the semi-final against Liverpool but this is the final now so will he set up to defend the box, look to stop Arsenal from getting in behind them and then hope to get a goal either on the break or from a set-piece? If he’s done his homework he’ll see that can work against Arsenal.

Arsene Wenger, it has been said, faces a couple of selection headaches, with Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott back in the running after their starring roles in the 4-1 defeat of West Brom last Sunday. But if I was try and second-guess the manager, he will start them both on the bench and opt instead to stick with the side which produced such a long, unbeaten run this season, with Olivier Giroud back up top.

Personally, I think that’s the right way to go because the other great thing Arsenal have in their favour – and where maybe they couldn’t match other teams in recent years – is that they have a strong bench now. And if you have Walcott and Wilshere and Gibbs in reserve, you have players there who can really make a difference if required.

As for Aston Villa, while I consider them the underdogs going into today’s game, I wouldn’t put any store in the way they finished the league, with that 6-1 thrashing by Southampton and the 1-0 loss to Burnley.

Once they’d achieved their goal of staying in the Premier League, I think it was clear that they kind of switched off, with at least some players thinking that they really didn’t want to risk injury as the Cup Final began to loom large. In fact, I’m never inclined to pay too much attention to form in the run-up to a Cup Final because, as a game, it really is an absolute one-off.

Villa have obvious strengths but obvious weaknesses too. If Shay Given is passed fit, then they will have an experienced ‘keeper between the posts but, in front of him, I would regard the back four as a little bit shaky and not the quickest. That’s why I have a feeling Sherwood will play a lot of people behind the ball. But in midfield he has some good players – Fabian Delph is an energetic player, he has Tom Cleverlry in there too and, upfront, they’ve got Christian Benteke, who Sherwood has transformed.

And, of course, in his side he also has Jack Grealish who, for obvious reasons, will be watched very closely by Irish and English eyes on the big stage today. The first thing to say about him is that, to judge in particular by his semi-final display against Liverpool, he is unlikely to be fazed by the big occasion. Just as he doesn’t seem fazed by the decision he has to make on his international future – he seems quite calm about the situation in fact.

The reality that he hasn’t committed to Ireland, despite having played for us at under-age level, would suggest to me that he is going to wait for England’s call. But, if he’s not sure, I would have some sympathy for delaying the decision. Act in haste and repent in leisure, as they say. He seems to want to see how his Villa career goes first and maybe, after that, what Roy Hodgson might have to say to him. I think Martin O’Neill and the FAI have done all that they can do and can only sit back now and await his decision.

My fear is that, from what I’ve seen so far, Jack Grealish could turn out to be a major loss to Irish football. That said, it will be very interesting to see how he goes today. Yes, he impressed in the semi-final but this is the Cup Final now, and for a young lad like Grealish, it’s a test like no other he’s encountered to date, just as it was for another young midfielder 37 years ago.

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