Football: FA Cup Commentary - Rovers fight for traditional values

West Ham United 2 Blackburn Rovers 2
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The Independent Online
GEORGE BEST never played in one, nor did Johnny Haynes. Cloth-cap heroes Wilf Mannion and Tommy Lawton missed out as has, to date, Alan Shearer.

The honour of appearing in an FA Cup final is granted to only 22 players a year, plus the odd substitute, and with players like Mark Hughes monopolising the occasion the number of current Premiership players familiar with the experience is a mere 57.

None of this elite group were on display at Upton Park on Saturday, which perhaps explained the spice and sparks in West Ham's 2-2 draw with Blackburn Rovers. Four goals, a player sent off, others involved in running feuds and it all kicks off again at Ewood Park on Wednesday week.

The lure of the Cup appeared to be there both in the way West Ham were roared on by the home support as they hauled themselves back into the match, and in Rovers' gritty resistance after losing Kevin Gallacher.

It is said there are dark suggestions from Manchester United and others that the Cup should be neutered. One-off matches with penalties, no replays to clog up Premiership and European campaigns. Many of us miss the titanic struggles of the past, such as the eventual winners Arsenal and then Third Division Sheffield Wednesday sharing five third-round matches in 1979. To go to sudden death seems a travesty of tradition.

Yet so big is the Premiership, so desperate the need for clubs to win it, or stay in it, the FA Cup does seem to have been devalued. Does it mean the same to clubs as it used to?

"Oh yes," Harry Redknapp, the West Ham manager, said. "Everybody wants to get to Wembley, it's the highlight of the year. I don't see why you shouldn't have a replay. We used to have one replay after the other. If one team is good enough to go away and get a draw, they are entitled to a replay. It would be farcical to have penalties."

Not that Redknapp was pleased to get a replay on Saturday. In more than 30 years in the game he has never got beyond the fifth round, but he has rarely had a better chance. "We were 2-1 up against 10 men - we should have won from there," he admitted.

That they did not was due to some stirring play from Rovers and thoughtful half-time work from their manager, Roy Hodgson, making his fifth-round bow. Hodgson had to calm a Rovers side whose composure disappeared along with their early lead after Gallacher's dismissal. He went for allegedly elbowing Eyal Berkovitch, West Ham's Israeli midfielder, who had already earned Rovers' ire for his response to two challenges from Billy McKinlay.

With the benefit of video evidence, which the generally admirable Peter Jones did not have, Berkovitch did appear to make a meal of the first McKinlay tackle and dive over the second. The evidence on the dismissal is inconclusive and, although the referee was close by, his view seemed obscured by Steve Lomas. Gallacher made contact with an arm, but it did not appear to be an intentional elbow, nor did it seem to justify Berkovitch's dying swan routine.

The game has certainly changed since Peter McParland's assault on Ray Wood in the Aston Villa-Manchester United final of 1957. McParland's bodycheck, six minutes into the game and several seconds after Wood had taken possession, knocked the goalkeeper out and fractured his cheekbone. United, reduced to 10 men with Jackie Blanchflower in goal, lost 2-1. McParland scored both goals and, far from being vilified, was described, by the former goalkeeper Frank Swift, in the following day's press, as the hero of the hour.

There is no place for violent play in the game, but so skilled are the divers that the pendulum sometimes swings too far. Not that the Cup, and its protagonists, cannot absorb the trend.

"That's his style," said Blackburn's captain, Tim Sherwood, of Berkovitch afterwards. "It's up to the referee to identify if he's diving and he obviously didn't think he was. It's gamesmanship, but if he did it for us we'd applaud, so we can't criticise him."

Not that Sherwood was so relaxed at the time. West Ham had just begun to dominate the game after falling behind to Gallacher's early goal, stabbed in from Chris Sutton's cross after Ian Pearce was dispossessed.

Paul Kitson equalised, coolly sliding the ball in from Stan Lazaridis' cross. Ten minutes after the dismissal, Berkovitch added the finishing touch to John Hartson's shot after Tim Flowers had saved from Frank Lampard and Berkovitch.

West Ham would have won had Hartson, with a free header, scored rather than hit the bar on the stroke of half-time. Instead, Hodgson was able to cool his players and, on the hour, his introduction of Damien Duff made the difference. The youngster combined with Jason Wilcox, whose cross was met by Sutton to cap a striking masterclass in front of Glenn Hoddle.

Hendry, who at 32 is running out of FA Cup chances, said: "Every season when a Cup run starts you always say: 'Right, this is our season'. We came in at half-time thinking maybe it wasn't. But the manager put in perspective what was happening. We are a professional bunch and we sat down and analysed it. You find out what sort of character you've got in those 10 minutes."

The character they subsequently showed was reminiscent of the championship season, as was the defending. Maybe it will be their year.

Goals: Gallacher (3) 0-1; Kitson (25) 1-1; Berkovitch (43) 2-1; Sutton (60) 2-2.

West Ham United (3-5-2): Forrest; Breaker (Potts, h-t), Ferdinand, Pearce; Impey, Lampard, Lomas, Berkovitch, Lazaridis; Kitson (Hodges, 78), Hartson. Substitutes not used: Mean, Moncur, Lama (gk).

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Kenna, Henchoz, Hendry, Croft (Duff, 58); Flitcroft, Sherwood, McKinlay, Wilcox; Gallacher, Sutton. Substitutes not used: Dahlin, Bohinen, Broomes, Fettis (gk).

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).

Bookings: West Ham Berkovitch. Blackburn Flitcroft. Sent off: Blackburn Gallacher.

Attendance: 25,729.

Man of the match: Sutton.