James Lawton: Ferguson's semi-detached attitude to the FA Cup sells everyone short
Tuesday 21 April 2009
I know we are all expected to rejoice in the polyglot splendour of English football, but wasn't that quite tough on Sunday when the FA Cup, which was supposed to be experiencing another Lazarus-like recovery of vital signs, was discarded by Manchester United as though it was one of those cheap trinkets on offer at a fairground shooting gallery?
No doubt Sir Alex Ferguson would today be brushing aside praise for his grand strategy if his hashed-up, mostly reserve side had won the penalty shoot-out that followed an execrably played 120 minutes of their semi-final against Everton, but that was hardly likely to happen given the keynote apology of an attempt by Dimitar Berbatov.
If the Bulgarian had brought any less concentrated commitment to the task he would probably have slipped into a coma.
It wouldn't be quite so bad if United hadn't already dealt historic damage to the tournament which, whenever it suits one of its leading participants who just happen to be down on their luck in other branches of competition, is invested with all of its old romance.
That wasn't, of course, the case when United hit their peak of achievement in 1999 with the treble of Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup. With the glory still running on a high tide, United refused to defend the Cup in favour of a cheapjack, Fifa-sponsored World Club tournament in South America.
We were told that it was a selfless gesture aimed at currying favour for the 2006 World Cup bid. It did not wash then and nor does it now, when another asterisk goes against an FA Cup tournament denied wholly, or in this case substantially, the best efforts of the nation's most celebrated club.
United simply cannot have it both ways. They can't tack on the FA Cup as a potential source of glory and expect people to assess it as such when it is clear the club so plainly regard it as utterly expendable the moment pressure mounts on more rewarding challenges.
United have never quite put into words the depressing sentiment of Arsène Wenger that it was more important to finish fourth in the Premier League than to win the Cup, but such a belief was surely matched in disrespect when United's team-sheet was issued on Sunday afternoon.
It is probably true that in today's football the average United fan would have gladly accepted a winning performance from a substandard team, and the retention of huge bragging rights, but we can only imagine how it felt to be a boy taken by his father, or mother, to Wembley for the day of his life, perhaps at a cost that put strain on the family budget.
This should be a priceless moment in the career of a sports fan. Certainly, I will never forget the catch of breath and the beat of the heart when I first saw on a day of spring sunshine the vast, green billiard table of the old Empire Stadium in the company of my grandfather. The thrill was not wiped out by the absence of the heroes we had both come to see.
So much has changed since then, of course, but not, surely, a fundamental duty to the paying customer – nor to teams expected to produce levels of entertainment worthy of national attention.
Ferguson was at least right to criticise the quality of the Wembley pitch, even if he did bracket it with his complaint that the referee Mike Riley might have been influenced by the Everton manager David Moyes' pre-match bout of psychological warfare. Ferguson no doubt had a point – United certainly should have been awarded a penalty – but, given his own form in the black art, it is still stunning that he had the gall to make it.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Wenger stressed that his contempt for the surface was in no way an excuse for his team's defeat by Chelsea and when the weekend action was over it was hard not to make a link between United's selection and the Football Association's neglect of something so vital to the quality of football at the highest level, a true pitch.
Wenger said that it was embarrassing that so much should be spent on a showpiece stadium – and so little care devoted to the centrepiece of its purpose.
"It is a disgrace, a catastrophe" said the Arsenal manager. It is indeed. It is what happens when the priority is so demonstrably profit. In this particular example of skewed values it scarcely helps to recall the significance placed on the old Wembley pitch by a football artist of the quality of Sir Bobby Charlton.
Reflecting on one of the best of the record 49 goals he scored for England – a beautiful strike against Yugoslavia in 1966, he said: "A factor in the goal was the quality of the Wembley pitch. Throughout the season we played on all kinds of surfaces, many of them quite wretched, and it was always the ultimate luxury for a player of some skill to reach the oasis of the great stadium. You could trust the run of the ball and its bounce." Not any more. Now, there is a horrible bobbling that puts at risk even the most sublime skill.
None of this should minimise the achievements of Everton, who beat Liverpool earlier in the tournament in games that plainly mattered. Again they performed honestly, and if a little disrespect had come their way, along with so much for the meaning of the competition they had put so much into, it was hardly their problem. No, that resided with the club who were supposed to be making an unprecedented move on football history. But instead they sold everyone short – and mostly themselves.
Even the bravest of England's battlers feel the heat on tour
Peter Roebuck, the former captain of Somerset and now one of the most insightful and eloquent of cricket writers, once gave me his solution to the challenge of producing English players with the right equipment, mentally and physically, for the highest levels of the game.
"I wouldn't send them off to cricket academies – I'd deposit them somewhere like the Australian bush," he declared. "I'd have them chopping down trees and rounding up sheep and generally toughening them up. It would weed out a few softies."
It was easy to remember the Roebuck plan while scanning the memoirs of Matthew Hoggard, the latest English cricketer to make a foreign tour seem like the equivalent of a posting to Helmand province.
Hoggard reveals that he reached a point of breakdown while bowling against New Zealand – not Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara or Ricky Ponting, you understand, but New Zealand – and that he confided the matter to his captain, Michael Vaughan.
No doubt the Yorkshireman, who built a deserved reputation for dogged and often inspired bouts of bowling against the best opposition, had his personal problems, but they didn't seem to be notably unusual visitors to the life of most men at some time or another.
What happened, anyway, to the principle of getting on with the job, whether or not you are lucky enough to be living in a bowl full of cherries, or just being paid rather well to send down one of them?
The soul of wit distilled in a Freudian sip
It has been good to see those few appraisals of the late Sir Clement Freud bucking the tendency to view him solely as a self-parodying dilettante.
He was, it has already been pointed out, a man of great erudition and talent who once supplied a brilliant account of festering trouble in the football grounds.
One fragment: "One large police sergeant seemed intent on pushing a supporter through a door, without the benefit of first opening it. It said much for his dedication to duty that he almost succeeded."
I fell under his spell as a young reporter ravaged by the cold of an afternoon at Bloomfield Road, Blackpool, where a surly steward was put in charge of distributing a little warmth to members of the fourth estate when they came down from the stand worried about the possibility of frostbite.
What you got was a pre-poured glass of faintly yellowish liquid rumoured to be Scotch.
When the fur-capped Freud received his he took a tentative sip and asked: "What is this?"
The steward glowered and said: "Scotch."
Freud frowned deeply and asked: "Have you put anything in it?"
"Water," growled the steward.
"Ah," said the future Sir Clement, "I thought it was something I hadn't tasted before."
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