FA Cup Final: The totem and the talisman

Shearer's duel with Adams, England captain against vice-captain, promises to define the course and outcome of a fascinating Wembley showpiece
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The Independent Online
Ian Ridley

explains why Arsenal

are justified in having

that Double feeling

DOWN in Arsenal tube station, near midnight, a fan was belting out his adaptation of the old Righteous Brothers' standard more in the style of one of Harry Enfield's Self- Righteous Brothers. "We've got that Double feeling... now it's on, on, on," he barked.

Victory over Newcastle United in Saturday's FA Cup Final would indeed bring Arsenal the twin crowns of English football after their rampantly securedchampionship last Sunday. You have to say that they should do it, having this season twice beaten an anaemic Newcastle United who only lately have banished the fear of relegation.

Thankfully, football is never that simple, especially Cup football, and Wembley can be particularly perverse. There, pomp and circumstance intrude upon form, sentiment tangles with reason. The title is for the head but the Cup for the heart.

"For me it is 50-50. It is only one game and either team can win it," says the Arsenal coach, Arsene Wenger. Kenny Dalglish almost agrees. "I don't think you can throw away the form book but I think we are playing more consistently now than in the middle of the season," says the Newcastle manager.

The competition's history tells of heroic upsets but also of comparatively minor reversals that would accord with Newcastle beating Arsenal; Coventry defeating Tottenham in 1987; 15th-placed Everton beating Premiership runners-up Manchester United three years ago. And though history rarely appeals to coaches or players, for differing reasons they might do well to recall 1988.

That year, Liverpool - managed by Kenny Dalglish - went to Wembley as exceptional champions, having clinched the title as early as 23 April. They had only to beat a manifestly less gifted Wimbledon to repeat the Double of two years earlier. Wimbledon's subsequent 1-0 win carries echoes for both Arsenal and Newcastle.

Arsenal's similarity with Liverpool then is clear, and ignoring the disparity in resources, Newcastle's position now is not dissimilar to that of Wimbledon. They may denigrate Wimbledon's long-ball football of the time but would do well to emulate their spirit. And Dalglish may also take a tactical example from that day. His shining star was John Barnes - now in barely twinkling twilight at Newcastle - who had had a marvellous season. Wimbledon's coach Don Howe, now back in youth football at Arsenal, devised a plan to negate his potential effect by having Dennis Wise snapping at his heels. The game duly turned on the move.

Arsenal now have most of the leading lights and if Dennis Bergkamp has not recovered from his tweaked hamstring, they will look to the speedy Marc Overmars to use Wembley's width - at 115 yards x 75, 10 square yards bigger than Highbury - and stretch Newcastle in what could be the key area of the game. For that reason Dalglish may employ both Warren Barton and Steve Watson on the right side of the team - and especially if Keith Gillespie is unfit - since the one is inadequate on his own as a right- back, the other still feeling his way back after injury. And should Bergkamp somehow make it, David Batty's tackling in that neck of the pitch will be an important factor.

Even without him, Arsenal have the look of goals from all over, what Wenger calls their "collective expression" more significant these days than one player, be he the Footballer of the Year or not. Though it would be hard on the whole-hearted Christopher Wreh, Ian Wright could well start, Nicolas Anelka has been growing in confidence - two against Newcastle a month ago - while Ray Parlour, Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira have all contributed goals of late. Not to mention Tony Adams.

If Newcastle are to win, their scoring potential realistically revolves around one man, either off him or by him. And Alan Shearer's duel with Adams, England captain against vice-captain, will be one of those epic struggles which will define the course and outcome of the game.

Wenger does not expect the recent disciplinary furore surrounding Shearer to influence his form. "In a Cup final you give 100 per cent no matter what is happening around you," says Wenger. "I think he has enough experience and is strong enough mentally to cope with what is happening." Wenger points out, too, that Shearer is a man to score goals on big occasions.

He needs supply, though, and to his obvious frustration has received little of it lately. The contributions of Robert Lee and Gary Speed in supporting their spearhead will be crucial. Whether they can do so and resist the surges of the influential Vieira and Petit at the game's hub must be doubtful, however. Newcastle also need to find a quality of cross from somewhere.

Whatever happens, Shearer is unlikely to be ridiculed as was the last Newcastle No 9 to go to Wembley, Malcolm Macdonald, who told the world in 1974 that Liverpool were in for a hammering. Liverpool won 3-0. "I hope we conduct ourselves better than certain individuals did then," says Dalglish. "We will do things differently to the way it was done in 1974."

For Arsenal, the aim is what happened three years earlier. Once upon a time the Double was a mythical achievement, reserved for the gods of the game; Tottenham 1961, Arsenal 1971, then Liverpool in 1986, were the only three this century. Arsenal's would be a third this decade after Manchester United's pair and amplifies the changing profile of the Premiership.

Only six teams at present can realistically win the title - still more than in most countries - so it follows that, with their superior depth of squad resources these days, these teams also have their grasp more frequently on the Cup. Less rare or not, whether Arsenal belong in the still-exalted company is the key question. Wenger insists hunger for a trophy will not have been diminished by the championship win. "Real champions are the ones who never have enough," he says.

And in footballing terms, it is hard to see beyond his team succeeding. Theirs has been a remarkable snowball of a season, melting hard hearts amid the blossoming of Spring, their pace, movement and expansive passing a delight. It is hard to reconcile this team with the one that might so easily have departed in the third round, clinging on against Port Vale at home and winning the replay only on penalties.

Having reined back after the thrilling but unproductive ride of the Kevin Keegan years, Newcastle have proved undeservingly dour curmudgeons by contrast, never more so than over their two games against that thorn in their hooves called Stevenage Borough.

Not so their long-suffering supporters. Ridiculed by two of their own now deposed directors, they continue to endure all kinds of emotional turmoil in the cause of their maddening team; pining for Keegan but desperate for silverware.

The onlooker, too, is torn. It should be Arsenal for football's sake, Newcastle for football fans' sake. Reason or sentiment, head or heart? Double-edged it may be, but in this neutral corner, it has to be that Double feeling.