Football Commentary / FA Cup: Arsenal dismiss history as bunk

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The Independent Online
THE weather and the dissipating demands of television having given us more don't knows than Gallup, it was left to Radio 5 to warm the cockles on the coldest of days with the immortal shriek: 'It's all Hartlepool.'

A lot of Hartlepool it was, too. With due respect to the town which spawned Andy Capp and Clough, the manager, the third round of the FA Cup is the embodiment of tradition, and Hartlepool beating Crystal Palace with a dubious penalty will not loom large in the annals.

Historically, it is one of the season's red letter days; in reality it was anything but. Not that we should have been too surprised. Cup Saturdays have never been the same since the Great God Television had its way, and the integrity of the competition was compromised by spreading each round over three days.

Bolton v Liverpool and Queen's Park Rangers v Swindon had all the makings, and would have brightened a humdrum afternoon, but football on Sunday and Monday is de rigueur these days. Not to mention Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. He who pays the piper . . .

No matter. Huish, even sans slope, was surely the place to be. Yeovil Town, the team with the insatiable appetite for famous names, versus an Arsenal apparently ripe for the slaughter after seven league games without a win.

Yeovil did their best to conjure the spirit of 1949, when they put out Sunderland in the most celebrated of all upsets. It was all there: pre-match reminiscences from Alec Stock, their goalscoring player-manager all those years ago, some rousing stuff from the Yeovil Town band - even the weather was in conspiratorial mood. The same freezing fog, the old-timers assured us, had come rolling down football's fabled incline the day Roker's Bank of England team had their account closed.

The conditions were right, but Arsenal were in party-pooping mood, preferring their own script. The fog, which would have rendered the tie unplayable at one o'clock, cleared suddenly at half past - the only Cup magic we were to get.

What was to have been another glorious chapter in Yeovil's proud Cup history instead became an afternoon of rehabilitation for Ian Wright, who kept not only his troublesome temper but also the match ball, contributing all three goals to Arsenal's workmanlike 3-1 win.

The England striker felt he had 'let everybody down' in the assault on Tottenham's David Howells which saw him charged with misconduct, and had been anxious to atone. 'I'm not saying I'm a schizo, but I don't know why it happened,' he said. 'I know it's something I've got to eliminate from my make-up. I won't let anybody wind me up again.'

To Yeovil's credit, nobody tried. The team from ninth place in the Conference, some 21 points behind the leaders, concentrated on football, and played well enough to explain their victories over Torquay (5-1) and Hereford (2-1) in previous rounds. They were left ruing the early chance that got away, when Paul Sanderson's left- wing cross carried over Steve Bould and Tony Adams, but presented Wayne Dobbins with an angle that proved beyond the full- back's finishing powers.

Conceding the first goal might have had a catastrophic effect on Arsenal's battered morale. Instead, they survived, and it was Yeovil who were deflated after 25 minutes, when Bould headed on an Anders Limpar corner, and Wright hooked the ball home, left-footed, from six yards.

Arsenal's relief was almost tangible. Their worst performance of the season (George Graham's assessment) had seen them beaten again at Aston Villa five days earlier, and their apprehensions were betrayed by the deployment of David O'Leary, to the continued exclusion of John Jensen, in midfield.

O'Leary has many qualities as a defender, but Frank Rijkaard he isn't, and with David Hillier similarly short on craft and imagination, Yeovil's midfield gave pretty much as good as they got.

Their Achilles' heel lay elsewhere, in central defence, where the absence of Mark Shail deprived them of the height to combat Alan Smith and Bould, who did as they pleased at set pieces.

Smith should have increased Arsenal's lead with a close-range header before Wright did so, on the stroke of half-time, with an exquisite 25-yard chip. Andy Wallace was to blame, failing to control a bouncing ball, and the adventurous, but error prone centre-half had the home crowd calling for his substitution when another careless mistake let in Wright, midway through the second half, for a toe-poked third.

By that stage it had long since boiled down to a question of arithmetic, Bould demanding a notable save from David Coles and Phil Ferns clearing off the line at Wright's expense.

It would be wrong, though, to give the impression that Yeovil were outclassed or outplayed. They never were. Mixing up their game nicely, long and short, their football was a credit to the Conference, and was rewarded 11 minutes from the end, when the best move of the match culminated in a Paul Batty penalty.

If the decision was dodgy, Mickey Spencer tumbling over a legitimate challenge from Bould, rough justice was done in the sense that the approach work deserved a goal, Wallace having surged forward at pace before working the sweetest of one-twos to play Spencer in.

Three-one was about right, if not quite the result the neutrals had come looking for. Graham knew it, of course. 'You people were expecting a shock,' he told the media scrum. 'You came to the wrong part of the country.'

Most will be in attendance again for Arsenal's Coca-Cola Cup tie at Scarborough on Wednesday, but while victory over a non-League side is hardly cause to break out the champagne in the marble halls, the slide has at last been stemmed. It is too early to talk about turning it, but the corner is in sight.

The last time Arsenal played, and won, at Yeovil, they went on to do the Double, so what price history repeating itself? A hundred to one. Another fiver down the drain.

Goals: Wright (25) 0-1; Wright (44) 0-2; Wright (68) 0-3.

Yeovil Town: Coles; Dobbins, Sherwood, Wallace, Ferns, Cooper (Coates, 57), Sanderson, Batty, Wilson (Nevin, 75), Spencer, Harrower.

Arsenal: Seaman; Dixon, Winterburn, Hillier, Bould, Adams, O'Leary, Wright, Smith, Merson, Limpar. Substitutes not used: Selley, Campbell.

Referee: J Lloyd (Wrexham).

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