James Lawton: Football will be the winner if finalists upstage League and live up to Wembley's traditions
Saturday 14 May 2011
The TV paymasters and their Premier League lackeys have done their best but the sense here this morning must be a somewhat exuberant one. It is that they have failed, despite the most strenuous efforts, to kill off the FA Cup final as anything more than an obscure sideshow.
True, it is surrounded by a cluster of vital rival attractions, not least the possibility that Manchester United will be crowned champions even as Manchester City and Stoke City prepare to walk out on to Wembley.
Yet there is also the possibility of superb redemption for the day that gave us the famous white police horse and the poetic apotheosis of Sir Stanley Matthews. Also, there is the most serious challenge for some time to Arsène Wenger's declaration that winning the Cup would never again be more important than finishing fourth.
The Arsenal manager said that a few trophyless years ago but if Manchester City can achieve today that which they crave most dearly – a first piece of silver in 35 years and the confirmation they are sufficiently grown up, as well as wealthy, to win something more than a desert windfall, the Wenger statement will never have looked more shallow.
Especially, you have to believe, just a week after Stoke broke his Arsenal apart while providing much evidence that winning something major – in their case a five-goal dismantling of Bolton Wanderers in the Wembley semi-final – can create a habit of mind that facilitates winning, one that certainly might have helped Arsenal in their most shocking denouement of recent years, the defeat by Birmingham City in the League Cup final.
If you think today's old affair with Cup final day is a sadly diminished remnant, if you believe the stakes are so much higher at Ewood Park where the champions-elect are the visitors, you might just check out the need for the transplanting of a little imagination.
At the moment Manchester City are guaranteed only a place in the Champions League qualifying round, something which will look much less of an endorsement of the years of massive spending if they cannot get the better of fighting Stoke, whose place so much lower down the food chain has done nothing to curb their belief they have a place not too far from the top of English football.
If someone like the old City hero Bert Trautmann, the former paratrooper unfazed by partisan fighters on the Eastern front and a full-scale retreat from the one in the West, is scared of Stoke, manager Tony Pulis might not want to look too much further for some validation of his work and his ambition.
His rival Roberto Mancini, given his habits of mind, probably shares the view of another old City man, Mike Summerbee, who confided this week that he will be mightily relieved by a City victory. "Stoke are a hard, well organised team capable of more football than many believe," said Summerbee, "and I feel they are going to give us one of the big tests of our season. It is a game we need to win before moving on."
It is also the kind of match that should commend itself to the football nation: a collision with the potential to reveal the growth, or not, of the world's richest club and the capacity of another team, with infinitely less bounteous resources, to play to the limits impressively drawn by their coach.
In the end-of-season clutter this is a prospect that surely carries its own distinction. City have players who can turn Wembley into their personal stage, and additionally in the case of Mario Balotelli, another casting couch for a remake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Carlos Tevez, if he gets the nod from Mancini and with fitness permitting, will bring his strutting self-belief. Last time out here, Yaya Touré produced genuine hauteur when he swept home the goal that defeated United in the semi-final. He looked like a man close to a full expression of both his power and his touch. David Silva could make beautiful patterns in a back alley; at Wembley he has the chance to do something quite memorable.
Stoke have more than the long throw rituals of Rory Delap, something their driving, craftsman midfielder Glenn Whelan was keen to point out earlier this week when he reminded us that all three of the goals that further embarrassed Arsenal came from open play.
It means that today we have the perfect example of how, in all the drift away from its old aura, the FA Cup final still has the ability to meet all the needs of two teams.
Yes, we have known for some time, it has become the cup of convenience, something to be embraced or disregarded, depending on each club's circumstances.
However, in this most cynical of ages, a real Cup final has struggled into the spring light. The suspicion is that Stoke might prevail but still more compelling is a third possibility. It is that for once football has again a decent chance of winning.
The thrill of the fight is in courage and character, not a lust for blood
Right up to his death at the age of 95 Budd Schulberg, Oscar-winning screenwriter of On The Waterfront and such considerable novels as What Makes Sammy Run and The Harder They Fall, was still going to the fights with a brilliantly analytical eye and the deepest admiration for the men who stepped into the ring.
The question now is whether he would have continued to pursue his life-long passion had he known quite what contempt his behaviour – and that of fellow fight fans, including the Nobel-winning Ernest Hemingway and Norman "Naked and the Dead" and "Armies of the Night" Mailer – engendered in the heart of the celebrated columnist Julie Burchill.
This week she told us she had more respect for those who tuned in to pay-per-view porn and live sex shows than people who paid to watch one man injure another.
So take a bow, fans of Freddie Of The Big One and assorted female leads while admirers of Muhammad Ali and Roberto Duran and Manny Pacquaio et al just shuffle off into the shadows to do heavens know what.
It has to be allowed that anyone who attends a big fight without a degree of ambivalence probably has a missing link in their moral antennae, yet I'm pretty sure that when Schulberg slumped down beside me at ringside in Las Vegas after one of the most spectacular contests in the history of boxing it was not because of exhausted bloodlust but sheer admiration for the courage and superb endeavour of Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns.
Schulberg, who served the Office of Strategic Services during the Second World War and was among the liberators of several concentration camps, said, "I never thought I would ever see anything as intense outside of war."
It is only a guess, but it is reasonable to believe that Budd wouldn't have a given a dime's worth of his time in responding to this week's disapproval. No more – another hunch here – than tuning in to Hot Hustlers Come to Vegas when he got back to his room in Caesars Palace.
Boycotting Fifa election is the easy part
Chairman David Bernstein's hint that the FA may abstain from the Fifa presidential contest between Sepp Blatter and Mohamed Bin Hammam is not so much Solomonesque as a basic moral reflex.
What it doesn't address – though you might wonder if anything can, short of a wholesale boycott of the corrupt government of world football – is the need for some practical way forward. Hoping for some magical, self-imposed reformation seems fanciful to say the least. Any serious government, mindful of the importance of football across the world, its hold on the imagination of so many people, must surely feel a need to push for new levels of transparency.
Meanwhile, an FA abstention would at least be effective in saying that Fifa not only appears to be honeycombed with graft but also utterly denuded of any semblance of decent leadership.
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