IF ARSENE WENGER will pardon the expression, Arsenal Ladies remain the Manchester United of women's football. At The Valley yesterday, they won a one-sided FA Women's Cup final to take their 12th trophy in seven years, compensating for the disappointment of losing out in the league to Croydon, who became champions on Sunday.
The pity was that with live television exposure and a record Cup final crowd of 6,450, the opposition was not stronger. At the glitzy annual awards lunch in Mayfair last week, Southampton were named most improved team and - encouragingly for their men's side - they have just avoided relegation from the top division. But yesterday they were fortunate not to suffer the same fate as Dave Jones' team, drubbed 5-0 on the same pitch by Charlton Athletic in August.
Their weakness made it difficult to judge the overall standard of play, though even allowing for it some of the winners' movement and individual skill was excellent. Southampton's goalkeeper, Debbie Beer, was named player of the match, which emphasised Arsenal's dominance but was hard on at least three of their players: Clare Weatley and Rachel Yankey were outstanding down the left flank and Marianne Spacey, the Premier League's top scorer, would have been the most deserving recipient despite somehow failing to score.
Although having taken time off to have a baby - not a problem Wenger has to cope with - Spacey, at 31, has lost none of her pace or vigour as she demonstrated early on with a shoulder charge on the goalkeeper reminiscent of Nat Lofthouse in his prime.
That livened the game up after a desultory start and having had a confident shout for hands in the penalty area turned down, Arsenal scored in the 14th minute, Southampton's captain, Sharon Hayes, slicing a cross by Justine Lorton into her own net.
The rest of the afternoon was simply a procession of chances, only one of which, astonishingly, brought another goal. That came in the 41st minute, further deflating Southampton just as they were hoping to reach the sanctuary of the dressing-room and regroup without having suffered yet more damage. It also followed perhaps the best move of the match, as Yankey found Lorton for a through pass that the left wing-back Weatley drove in.
Beer made a fine save from Lorton's shot that looked to be curling just inside a post and Spacey might have scored four times in the first 10 minutes of the second half as well as being denied a clear penalty by the referee, Wendy Toms, for Alli Short's trip.
There were no reports, however, of the referee's room being trashed by the outraged player. Indeed, the only discordant note was criticism by Arsenal's manager, Vic Akers, of the Croydon team for "sitting behind the goal screaming abuse".
He clearly did not appreciate the message left on his answering machine by Croydon's player-manager, Debbie Bampton, which ran: "Where's your treble gone?" Akers' other concern is that at least one of his players will now follow Kelly Smith "the best women's player I've seen" in moving to the United States as a professional.
Arsenal Ladies (3-5-2): Reed; White, Slee, Harwood (Conlon, 83); Pealling, Grant, Williams, Lorton (Rockall, 83), Weatley; Spacey, Yankey (Downham, 76). Substitutes not used: Mapes (gk), Few.
Southampton Saints (3-5-2): Beer; Short, Hayes, Armstrong; Beesley (O'Brien, 60), McArthur, Fisher, Gould (Poore, 74), Ritchie; Stainer (Langrish, 74), Dimsdale. Substitutes not used: Buckett (gk), Parrent.
Referee: W Toms (Dorset).