Brian Viner: Strange how the FA Cup glitters afresh when no other trophy is within reach

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The Independent Football

My first memory of life is a memory of an FA Cup final. It was 1965, I was three years old, and I can vividly remember watching 11 little men in white playing football against 11 little men in grey: this was United v Liverpool about three years before Britain was treated to colour television, although the treat didn't reach our household until 1974, and then only so that my father could see more clearly which jockey was letting him down badly in the 2.40 at Market Rasen.

My first memory of life is a memory of an FA Cup final. It was 1965, I was three years old, and I can vividly remember watching 11 little men in white playing football against 11 little men in grey: this was United v Liverpool about three years before Britain was treated to colour television, although the treat didn't reach our household until 1974, and then only so that my father could see more clearly which jockey was letting him down badly in the 2.40 at Market Rasen.

Oddly enough, my memory of the Cup final then goes blank until 1970: Leeds United v Chelsea. After that, I can remember every final until about 1990, Manchester United v Crystal Palace, when it goes blank again. Whenever I need to refer to a final after 1990 - with the notable exception of Everton v Manchester United in 1995, from which I can remember every detail up to and including the inside-leg measurement of the goalscorer, Paul Rideout - I need the help of the Sky Sports Football Yearbook, formerly known as Rothmans.

Who were the finalists in 1997? Not a clue. In 2000? Search me. The goalscorers in 1993? Can't even remember the teams. Yet those 1970-1990 finals could almost be my specialist subject on Mastermind. You want to know about 1977? I can even tell you which set of fans won that year's version of It's A Cup Final Knockout, and describe the dress worn by Mrs Martin Buchan on Meet The Players' Wives.

Happily, I know I am not the only one afflicted by this short-term Cup final amnesia. It is shared by most football enthusiasts over about 35, who also share my long-term recall, and like to bang on, probably to the intense annoyance of younger folk, about the Cup final being a pale shadow of what it was.

Of course, we are all inclined to romanticise the past, to kid ourselves that we spent our formative years in the rosy glow of a golden age. I once asked the television writer John Sullivan, creator of Only Fools and Horses, whether he thought that British television comedy had enjoyed its golden age in the 1960s and 1970s, the time of Steptoe And Son, Dad's Army, Porridge and Fawlty Towers, and with polite disdain he said, "you mean in the days when bacon really tasted like bacon?" His point was that rose-tinted glasses distort the vision. Besides, in 1977, old-timers were doubtless moaning that the Cup final was no longer the great occasion it had been in 1953.

But I don't care what anyone says, the heyday of the FA Cup final was between about 1970 and 1990, roughly between the advent of colour television and the establishment of the Premier League. Since then it has descended into a game of Buggin's Turn between Arsenal and Manchester United, and to a lesser extent Liverpool and Chelsea.

This afternoon, United and Arsenal will extend to 17 the record, which they hold jointly, for the most number of appearances in the Cup final. Moreover, United will be making their sixth appearance in the final since 1994, Arsenal their sixth since 1993. So it was wearily predictable that they should both be there; the only surprise is that it is 26 years since they faced each other.

Dispiriting as all this might be for those of us who support neither team, and sad though it undoubtedly is to reflect that there is a negligible chance these days of an unfashionable team winning the Cup, as happened 25 per cent of the time in the 1970s and 1980s with Sunderland, Southampton, Ipswich Town, Coventry City and Wimbledon all triumphant, I actually think that Arsenal v Manchester United might just be the final this venerable but devalued competition needs.

With defeat meaning the unthinkable for both clubs, in the grotesque form of a trophy-less season, the FA Cup is invested with more significance than it has had for ages. Meanwhile, the rest of us are entitled at least one cackle at the expense of United, whose withdrawal from the competition five years ago did so much to diminish it, yet who now find it magnified in importance.

On Thursday my colleague Glenn Moore deftly picked out some passages from Roy Keane's autobiography, in which Keane unequivocally rubbished the FA Cup. That's the same Roy Keane who seems to be approaching his confrontation with Patrick Vieira this afternoon with the kill-or-be-killed mindset that Wyatt Earp carried into his showdown with Billy the Kid. For Keane and Vieira, and for their feuding managers, the FA Cup is suddenly the most important piece of silverware on earth.

So maybe, just maybe, today's final at the Millennium Stadium will give back the competition a little of what it has lost. If those of us who are over 35 can remember it in three or four years' time, then that, at least, will be progress.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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