The Nick Townsend column: Watch Barnsley against West Brom in the final? I'd rather not, thanks...

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Driving home from Old Trafford and listening to Chelsea fall to Barnsley in the FA Cup quarter- finals, accompanied by what one suspected was unsuppressed joy throughout the land, for some reason Michael Caine's exclamation in The Italian Job came to mind: "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off". His immortal line could be adapted for the upstarts remaining in this year's tournament: "You're only supposed to produce the odd shock, not blow the damned thing apart."

They have obviously forgotten that the idea is the plucky no-hopers rise above themselves in rounds three to six but, at the end of it all, two of the Big Four cartel face each other. Or, perhaps more enticingly, Liverpool face the likes of Tottenham or West Ham, as they did in that compelling final two years ago.

Instead the nation will awaken on 17 May to the prospect of, maybe, Barnsley against West Bromwich Albion, and will feel worthy and good about itself – a bit like when you put your recycl-ing bins out – for a few seconds because the unheralded have prevailed. And you would be right to feel pleasure for them, even though by then you would have had to plough through all the inevitable, patronising guff about the People's Final (how long before someone deems it thus?).

But then it will be back to reality, and you'll be thinking: "Now, what about those repairs I promised to do?" Because outside certain areas of South Yorkshire and the Midlands, nobody will really give a damn. Sorry, but whether Brian Howard can do it for Barnsley will not have been the stuff of fag-break chatter. For the FA Cup final to be taken seriously, it requires, at its business end, some seriously charismatic performers.

Now I'm an old FA Cup romantic. Used to love it. In a previous incarnation, I set out on the ultimate tour, starting off not even with minnows but with tadpoles, and ending up with Manchester United v Everton as it transpired. Indifferent final destination, fascinating journey.But that was then.

That was before Manchester United ducked out, having been inveigled into participating in a world club tournament, and the financial imperatives of the Champions' League and Premier League lanced the old Cup's soul to the core. It is no good pretending that what remains truly engages us as it once did. Significantly, I write this in the same week that it is confirmed that the Big Four comprise 50 per cent of the Champions' League quarter-finalists. Could it be any coincidence that they have all taken premature leave of this year's competition, with the date of 21 May and Moscow yielding rather more fascination than that of Wembley fourdays earlier?

In contrast, Portsmouth have only the opportunity of a Uefa Cup place. Cardiff and Barnsley don't have anything to play for in the League except counter the outside threat of relegation – and they are only in that position because they have been sidetracked. And then there is West Bromwich Albion, who around the turn of the year appeared destined for promotion. Now there is only one certainty: if the Baggies fail to reach the Premier League, Tony Mowbray won't be thanked for allowing his team to take this tangential journey.

No doubt many will delight in a bunch of teams who normally do not engage public debate progressing to the semi-finals at Wembley, with two set to return. There will be constant reruns of Barnsley beating Liverpool and Chelsea, and the pitch invasion at Oakwell; the kind of excess which we thought had disappeared around the time of Dickie Bird's last dismissal. And, no doubt, the Barnsley man himself will talk endlessly about the proudest day of his life.

Yet, come next season, don't fool yourself that every team will have been galvanised by the feats of this quartet. There will still be other priorities, be they glory or survival. Some contend that this year's FA Cup has restored the romance of the tournament. For others of us, it's a love affair that has been over for years.

Sam and the Man come of age

What's in a name? Best Mate. Kauto Star. And now, erm, Denman. Plain Denman. As his co-owner, the professional gambler Harry Findlay, retorted when asked where the name originated: "No idea. Make of hairbrush, isn't it?"

If the latest of that trio of Cheltenham Gold Cup winners did not endear himself to the headline writers, nor is it likely his feat will stimulate the formation of a fan club. Ultimately, it wasn't a great race, failing to match up to many people's visualisation of how the plot would unfold. Denman, the straight man, was supposed to provide a mere foil to Kauto Star's cleverness and style. Instead we witnessed a phenomenal performance of raw power by the victor; by the time Denman's jockey, Sam Thomas, allowed himself a glance behind, everyone knew the game was up for the reigning champion.

"You can normally hear how close horses behind you are, but I couldn't hear a thing," Thomas explained. "That's why I had a look. But I hadn't gone that mad, anyway, so I knew I could easily put more daylight between us." He did, and we witnessed the eclipsing of a Star.

This will be recalled as the day when a monster of a horse proved so many wrong, and a young jockey never lost his faith in his mount. Thomas was adamant that, given the choice, he still would have partnered Denman, even though he did so by default, as Ruby Walsh, the first jockey to the trainer Paul Nicholls, elected to ride Kauto Star. It demon-strated the vagaries of racing on a day when Thomas was handed a ban for "interference" in the race before the Gold Cup, and received a "cussing" from Nicholls. But the trainer added: "I said, 'Forget what's happened, go out and do your best,' and he gave him [Denman] a fantastic ride. He was under a lot of pressure. I'm very proud of him." We came to marvel at Ruby and the Star, but departed reflecting on a memorable day for Sam and the "Man".

Time to call Fergie to book

Sir Alex Ferguson, we learn, has become "quite fluent" in French, and enjoys chatting away to his Gallic players in their mother tongue. Presumably he has readily mastered: "Je ne regrette rien." Certainly there appears to have been no apology from the Manchester United manager for the outrageous slurs directed at the referee Martin Atkinson, his boss Keith Hackett and, implicitly, Harry Redknapp and his Portsmouth side after the FA Cup victory for Pompey at Old Trafford.

Complaints about individual refereeing decisions have become an unwelcome, if accepted, part of football ritual (there are exceptions, including Gareth Southgate, the Middlesbrough manager, who controlled his ire despite witnessing another of our leading referees, in this case Steve Bennett, failing to interpret handball correctly and awarding Aston Villa a penalty which ultimately cost his side two points on Wednesday). But this went far beyond acceptability.

Ferguson's words implied not just incompetence but partiality on the part of Atkinson, while the United manager managed to convince himself that Cristiano Ronaldo was the victim of brutality in a contest in which the worst challenge was made by Wayne Rooney.

What would have happened if another manager had said that? Somehow longevity and a knighthood ensure that such indiscretions are virtually overlooked, attributed to the dark arts necessary in his occupation.

Ferguson will probably be fined a piffling sum. It is an obscene trade-off; so much per word for the right to mouth arrant nonsense. But that's football management, which apparently means never having to say you're sorry.

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