Keegan keeps Cup spark alive
Saturday 07 February 2004
Manchester City's comeback at Tottenham this week was not just one of the ultimate jewels in the battered but not quite time-expired crown of the FA Cup. It was also a magnificent, adrenaline-charged rebuke to the entire English football establishment.
Underpinning the great achievement, with delicious irony, was the fact that 10-man City, 3-0 down at half-time and with their manager Kevin Keegan displaying the body language of Death Row, won the reward of a fifth-round tie with Manchester United. This, of course, would not have been possible four years ago when United, who should have been defending the venerable trophy along with the European Cup and the Premiership title, were in South America playing a rag-bag of non-entities purporting to be contenders for something described as the World Club Championship.
That chintzy prize was christened "Blatter's Baby" after its creator, the Fifa president Sepp Blatter. It was more like Rosemary's in the Polanski horror movie.
No one came out of the dismal affair with any credit, and least of all those in the football-writing fraternity who wrote how Blatter's Baby was going to grow into a vital element on the calendar of world football, and that if it meant the downgrading of the FA Cup, well, too bad.
The FA's role was beyond conscience. They meekly complied with Blatter's demands, and the urgings of that most hapless sports minister of them all, Tony Banks, who suggested that compliance with Blatter, and the wrecking of a great tradition in English football, might just win us a few brownie points in the dim-witted attempt to land the 2006 World Cup. This naïve notion was promptly blasted out of the murky water by Fifa's spokesman Keith Cooper, who, had he wanted to go the full candid distance, might have added that Germany 2006 was the done deal agreed upon by the FA's Sir Bert Millichip several years earlier.
But the greatest shame belonged to City's fifth-round opponents. Trumpetings about United's "treble" could still be heard around the time they agreed to turn their back on a tournament which was so much a part of their history.
They first became a great club in 1948, when the team of Johnny Carey, Jack Rowley and Charlie Mitten caught the imagination of the nation with a superb performance against Blackpool. On that high ground grew the legendary Busby Babes and all else that followed.
So why did United turn away from the old glory? Because they were told by the FA and a government minister that it would help England's World Cup bid? No, of course not. Money was involved. TV money. The money that a few years ago persuaded Arsène Wenger that finishing fourth in the Premiership was more important than winning the World Cup - and the money which no doubt provoked Sam Allardyce of Bolton and David Jones of Wolverhampton Wanderers to deliver fresh insults to the most romantic club knock-out competition the game has ever known.
Allardyce picked a weakened team against Tranmere, then celebrated Bolton's elimination. Jones played a makeshift Wolves team against, for heaven's sake, Kidderminster Harriers.
Of course, Allardyce sings a rather different tune about the League Cup, another competition that was inspired by the need to drum up extra cash. Bolton are in the final of this poor relation of big-time English football. So, according Allardyce, naturally it is a great bonus for the fans who are otherwise condemned to an eternal battle for nothing more uplifting than membership of the Premiership and its big bucks.
No doubt Manchester City fans would appreciate a little more certainty about their chances of survival in the top flight - and it is no doubt true that Keegan's job safety may require more than an epic second half at White Hart Lane.
Even so, there was something strangely apt about his part in one of the great FA Cup stories. Of all the current top managers, he is perhaps most in tune with the romance of the game. He made it from a factory team, through Scunthorpe to the great stadiums of the world with Liverpool, Hamburg and England. He invests in attacking players. He believes that somewhere in their jaded, over-rewarded natures there is a spark and, at least last Wednesday night, he found one.
Who knows, it may not do him a whole lot of good, but there is no question about the most striking benefit. It was the reminder that the FA Cup still has a unique quality, and should never be swept aside by the roaring impulses of football greed.
Talking of that, the World Club Championship, which four years ago we were told would be by now an integral part of the big-time football programme, may be revived next year.
If it happens, though, it will be in the summer and staged in the football wilderness of Concacaf, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean. That's a properly modest start for a money-grabbing idea which one day might have the weight and meaning of the FA Cup. But we should probably give it at least a hundred years.
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