James Lawton: Cup's enduring value gives cynics pause for thought

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The Independent Football

So now who thinks the FA Cup is a disposable football relic, something to be picked up and put down like some long-suffering mistress? Not, it seems, the former arch disciples of this cynical belief which seemed to be taking over last season when Millwall reached the final after beating Tranmere, conquerors of the Bolton Wanderers reserve team.

You could certainly catch a mood of reappraisal on a weekend when football's oldest and most romantic competition brilliantly restated its power to lift the heart and bring down the disrespectful - and, it was nice to think, perhaps nowhere did it show more clearly than on the faces of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger.

The Manchester United and Arsenal managers happened to survive - just - as their Premiership colleagues, Kevin Keegan of Manchester City, David O'Leary of Aston Villa, Iain Dowie of Crystal Palace and Nigel Worthington of Norwich went down, but not before suffering pain which, judging by their expressions, had been excruciating.

Ferguson, who was complicit in delivering the Cup its heaviest blow when Manchester United decided not to defend the trophy five years ago - and flew off instead to compete in the ill-starred, money-grabbing World Club Championship - swore that he would field a stronger team in the replay with Conference club Exeter City. He admitted that he had expected his skeleton team - albeit one containing eight internationals - to breeze through what turned out to be a humiliating goalless draw in front of a sell-out crowd at Old Trafford.

The United manager said it had been the club's worst showing in the tournament since his arrival at Old Trafford nearly 20 years ago, but then in life, as in football, sometimes you are a prisoner of your own past. Wenger certainly was at such a risk after declaring, around about the time United were turning their backs on the trophy they had celebrated so wildly a few months earlier when it was part of a historic treble, that winning the Cup was no longer as important as finishing in fourth place in the Premiership and claiming a place in the Champions' League.

But where was that indifference yesterday when Stoke City, of the have-not Championship, stole into the lead on the stroke of half-time at Highbury against an Arsenal team which lacked, through selection, only one attacking superstar, Thierry Henry? It was nowhere to be seen as Wenger's body language spoke of extreme anxiety. Suddenly it seemed that the previously spurned glory - Wenger left Henry on the bench in last season's losing semi-final with United - might be worth something, especially in the potential shadow of Jose Mourinho's Chelsea.

The increasingly sure-footed Mourinho didn't pick his strongest unit against Scunthorpe United from the lowest tier of English league football, but he did send out the likes of Drogba, Gudjohnsen, Joe Cole and Kezman - and took the time to individually congratulate each member of the team who had shocked Stamford Bridge by taking an eighth-minute lead and remaining competitive until a few minutes from the end.

That was the kind of respect which until this weekend seemed to be draining away - and was yesterday superbly augmented by the performance of Yeading against Newcastle at Loftus Road. The Ryman League leaders - who operate two tiers below Scunthorpe - held Graeme Souness's men for 50 minutes and even after a crushing goal by Lee Bowyer, couldn't be persuaded they had been ushered from the stage.

Their manager, Johnson Hippolyte, had played up his team's time in the spotlight, but when it came to perform his collection of failed pros and building workers from West London reminded us of some of the things that have always made the game worthwhile, not least supreme effort and working for your team-mates.

Hippolyte said that only the birth of his children had given him greater pride, and for once, with him being a football man of such obvious intensity, there was no sense of the hyperbole of sport. What we had seen was something real and never more than when 33-year-old midfielder David Clarke was on the ball - or in the tackle. "I told you he would be awesome," the manager clucked proudly.

Of course, you cannot repair in one weekend all the damage inflicted over the last few years. You could see that in the empty spaces of Bramall Lane, where Sheffield United cut through Aston Villa for a win which a decade ago would have gladdened every corner of the steel city occupied by a Blades fan. But you can recognise enduring value, you can see where you have gone wrong.

Maybe we saw that in the faces of Ferguson and Wenger. English football will be a richer place if we did.

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