Football; Midlands in higher lands

Norman Fox speaks to a region's managers about the impact of a Cup run
IN 30 YEARS the Midlands have provided just two FA Cup final winners, Coventry City and West Bromwich Albion. This season a quarter of the teams left in next weekend's fourth round come from that area of historic under- achievement. And with Aston Villa playing West Bromwich Albion there will even be a local final several months before the real thing. But does all of this point to something stirring in the area where William McGregor formulated league football in the last century?

Pure coincidence, luck of the draw and the chance of one weekend in the limelight seem to be the more likely answers, but the attention is welcome none the less, especially in the city of Birmingham where all three of the big sides have survived the famously perilous third round.Then there is Walsall, across the other side of the M6, who have not only survived but who have also been rewarded the most envied and lucrative tie of the round, against Manchester United at Old Trafford. The heartland has rarely had it so good.

There is an irony, though, inthat although the majority of Midlands clubs are safely or promisingly placed in their various divisions (only Coventry and Port Vale are already in serious relegation difficulties), several of them confess to having been flattered by their progress through the third round.

Wolves seem the notable example - their 4-0 win over Darlington looked fine on paper. In reality, though, they struggled against a team near the bottom of the Third Division, but Mark McGhee is taking his satisfaction from the club's move closer to the promotion zone. His positive attitude to talk of a Midlands surge has less to do with the Cup than the First Division, in which his team plus West Bromwich and Birmingham City are so close together that "we could all be fighting each other come the end of the season".

Elsewhere, Aston Villa were booed off the pitch after their anxious victory against Portsmouth. Walsall found Peterborough difficult to crack, and West Bromwich had to fight hard to overcome Stoke, who only a few days before had lost 7-0 to Birmingham City.

Albion's reward, that mini- final at Villa Park, comes at a time when their early season aspirations have dimmed. The new manager, Denis Smith, was relieved to see Richard Sneekes score two fine goals from midfield against Stoke because they secured the first win since he took over. Albion's shining promise of the autumn weeks has been dulled by a string of less impressive performances.

Leicester City's manager, Martin O'Neill, says it is far too early to talk about some common Midlands resurgence and is far from happy about his own club's recent achievements. "Our results are simply not reflecting the quality of our performances", he said. Last season they could count on sheer effort and persistence to get victories; less so this term.

Villa's manager, Brian Little, says that because of the club's European success in the early 1980s he realises that huge numbers of fans will look to them to lead the way in any Midlands uprising and consequently could become even more impatient if they fail to beat their old rivals, West Bromwich. He says that while the Midlands as a whole can be pleased to be so well represented next weekend, he would have preferred a tie holding less pressure.

"Cup ties at this stage are always tough", he said. "But coming up against a local team means that the atmosphere will be that much stronger. There was some criticism after we beat Portsmouth by only 1-0, but I'd be happy to win next weekend's game by the same score."

That should be made a little more likely by the fact that Dwight Yorke will be available, having managed to get out of playing for Trinidad and Tobago in the Gold Cup tournament in the United States.

With four sides drawn against each other in the fourth round, the impact of the Midlands in the later stages is inevitably going to be diminished, but at least for one weekend no other part of the country will be so up for the Cup.