Football: FA Cup finals provide drama rather than art

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MANY INNOCENT years ago, before football became less of a game and more of an industry, I did not imagine covering more FA Cup finals than it is comfortable to remember.

I'd no sooner thought about turning up on Saturday for the 40th time, and shuddered again at the speed with which time slips by, when an invitation to reflect on the experience came from a radio station.

A fact about the history of the Cup final, one television attempts to obliterate with a relentless bombardment of hyperbole and trivial information, is that it has rarely lived up to public expectation. The most vivid memories are of dramatic events, not artistic merit.

Thinking back to the first Cup final I covered, between Luton Town and Nottingham Forest in 1959, there is only the sad mind picture of Roy Dwight being carried off with a broken leg after scoring the first goal in Forest's 2-1 victory.

Tottenham Hotspur's defeat of Leicester City in the 1961 final secured the first modern Double, but not to their manager's satisfaction. "On a day when I wanted them to be at their best, they gave one of their worst performances," Bill Nicholson said.

For Nicholson read any number of managers who have seen the best intentions of their players strangled by the occasion or a sense of impending misfortune. Few gave Sunderland a chance of upsetting Leeds United in 1973 but an improbable victory lives on in the sight of Bob Stokoe racing out at the whistle to embrace his goalkeeper, Jim Montgomery. The further that final went, even before Ian Porterfield put Sunderland ahead, the more apprehensive Don Revie became.

"Before the game I couldn't see any way that we could lose," the Leeds manager recalled. "We had the players, the experience, the firepower, the team spirit. If Montgomery hadn't made that amazing double save I think we would have gone on to win easily"

Three years earlier Leeds had torn Chelsea's right flank apart, but were held to a 2-2 draw and lost the replay at Old Trafford. Thus the legend of Leeds United's underachievement was born.

With the European Cup final to come next week, Manchester United will be in position to achieve a unique treble if they overcome Newcastle on Saturday. When in a similar position, 22 years ago, Liverpool were thwarted by the Football Association's refusal to re-schedule the FA Cup final replay.

Two nights before Liverpool faced Manchester United at Wembley, I sat alongside their manager, Bob Paisley, at the football writers' dinner. Glancing along the table to where two FA officials were sitting, Paisley muttered angrily about their intransigence. "Because they won't put the date for a replay back until after the European Cup final we haven't got the option of settling for a draw on Saturday."

Paisley went into the Cup final with an attacker, David Johnson, instead of his scurrying right winger, Ian Callaghan, and Liverpool lost 2-1 before going on to defeat Borussia Monchgladbach in Rome, the first of four European Cup successes.

Liverpool encountered a different problem in the 1988 FA Cup final against an unfancied Wimbledon. This time they didn't have the hardness of such intimidating midfielders as Tommy Smith and Graeme Souness when confronted by the mean application of a direct method. David Beasant's penalty save from John Aldridge finally took the heart out of them.

One of the questions before Alex Ferguson at the start of this season was how much attention he could afford to give the FA Cup while attempting to make progress in Europe and trying to regain the championship.

If the FA Cup was the least of the Manchester United manager's concerns, big games against Liverpool and Arsenal helped maintain the impetus that brought another Premier League title.

Because the prominence of Ferguson's team comes from the diligent application he calls for, nobody should expect a cavalier approach to Saturday's final.

Meanwhile, I am still trying to recall an FA Cup final in which the entertainment was more than just proof of the theory that nothing matters more than winning.