Football: The FA Cup is still steeped in magic and mystery... it's what makes it (here we go again) the greatest Cup competition in the world

ON SATURDAY
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The Independent Online
Perhaps it is because football is such a funny old game in which anything can happen that it has the right to use a vernacular that in other walks of life would be considered out- dated and downright daft. I mean, could you imagine John Major conceding the election with a rousing speech claiming the Conservatives woz robbed and that he was as sick as a parrot at the end of the day, but full credit to Tony Blair who must be over the moon? No, me neither.

But anything else just would not be football, particularly when it comes to the "magic and mystery of the FA Cup". Unfortunately, magic and mystery have been conspicuous by their absence recently - Wrexham beat the then- Premiership Ipswich in 1994/95, while Kidderminster and Hartlepool put out Birmingham and Crystal Palace the year before - but the results hardly registered on the shock-o-meter; not like Sutton, Hereford, Port Vale et al. If the gap really had been closing for as long as people say, it would be slammed shut by now.

No, the FA Cup is still steeped in magic and mystery... it's what makes it (here we go again) the greatest Cup competition in the world. Yet there was still a sense of anticlimax at 4.45pm last Saturday when it transpired that not one single David had slain its Goliath. A few came close. Woking, inspired by a balding 39-year-old Englishman, gave Millwall a scare, but were undone by a 22-year-old Scotsman who knows a bit about Cup upsets: Steve Crawford was in the Raith side which beat Celtic in the 1994/95 Scottish Coca-Cola Cup final.

Farnborough came closest to an upset (if you can describe beating Barnet thus) and, but for Devine intervention in the 90th minute, would have buried the Londoners. Of course, had it been any other Cup competition, Barnet could feel pretty comfortable about going through on the away goals rule. "That vital away goal," particularly when scored "right on the stroke of half-time" when "the game is crying out for a goal", is what all visiting teams strive for - except when you've got a Dutch referee who forgets the rules. It was not until Rangers were sitting disconsolately in the bath after losing the second leg of their European Cup-Winners' Cup tie against Sporting Lisbon in 1971 on penalties (final score was 4-3 to the Portuguese, 6-6 on aggregate; the Gers won the first leg 3-2) that they realised they had won, having scored three away goals to the Portuguese's two. Since Sporting played in green and white hoops, the belated victory was even sweeter.

Anyway, Rangers doubtless showed true British bulldog spirit in beating the Portuguese, who are always pretty, never pretty effective. We do love to pigeonhole Johnny Foreigner. The French side, Metz, displayed Gallic flair, but not cutting edge, against Newcastle; the Italians of Juventus were always going to be hard to break down with their ultra-defensive catenaccio formation (didn't catenaccio go out with the ark, and weren't Juventus a potent attacking force at Old Trafford?); the Dutch have a suspect temperament, while the German champions, Borussia Dortmund, displayed that "ruthless Teutonic efficiency" in forcing a draw against Widzew Lodz on Wednesday. And after Terry Venables stressed that the Euro 96 semi- final was "a football match, not a war", didn't one commentator remark that a German miskick had hit a sniper in row 38 of the stand?

But it is not just European sides which stimulate our cliche juices. Take tomorrow's Arsenal v Spurs match. The first north London derby was on 20 November, 1887: Arsenal scored early and defended doggedly but lost 2-1 to a spirited and entertaining Spurs side, thus giving rise to 99 years of stereotyping, Arsenal as lucky or boring (or both) and Spurs as the glamour side who will never win the League but are always a good Cup bet.

Wimbledon may have started stringing a few passes together, but like the schoolground bully, their long-ball reputation will haunt them forever. When the Dons last had a change of style, the Norwich manager, Mike Walker, said they were now kicking the ball "50 yards instead of 60". But thankfully you cannot reach fourth in the Premiership by humping, bumping and whacking the ball which, as Ken Bates one observed, "might be a recipe for a good sex life, but it won't win the World Cup".

Slopes, too, seem to be "famous" without justification. If Hibs really "enjoyed kicking down the slope in the second half" as legend has it, surely they would achieve more than mid-table mediocrity every year. Barnet's Underhill Stadium has a renowned slope, too, as Farnborough will no doubt discover.

The black and old gold shirts of Wolves and the Blues of Birmingham, however, are justifiably famous, since both clubs are sleeping giants Rip Van Winkle would be proud of. And then there is West Ham with their famous Academy; an Academy so famous, and so effective in producing young talent that the manager, Harry Redknapp, has been forced to shop abroad rather than on his own doorstep.

Another thing about the Hammers is that they always win under the floodlights on a Wednesday night. Apparently. I remember being at Upton Park on a freezing Wednesday night when Sunderland won 3-2, but I suppose that is the exception that proves the rule. So Stockport should beware on Wednesday in their Coca-Cola Cup tie. Then again, it may not be the FA Cup, but it is the Cup, so anything can happen.

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