Brian Viner: Cup runneth over with true spirit of 'Fantastic Four'

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The Independent Online

Last weekend, 44 men collectively breathed life back into the FA Cup. But I wonder whether the blazers at the Football Association feel as indebted as they should to the players of Barnsley, Cardiff City, West Bromwich Albion and Portsmouth.

Or are they, in fact, privately aghast that Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool are conspicuously absent from the semi-final line-up – the first time since 1987 that the last four has featured none of what are now the "big four" – and that the final on 17 May will perforce be lacking in so-called "glamour"? Are they fretting that there won't be much frantic bidding in Kuala Lumpur for the television rights to a Barnsley v West Brom final? Do they think that such a prospect undermines the FA Cup?

As it happens, the FA Cup has never been so disastrously undermined as it was by the men in blazers themselves who, eight years ago, demeaned their own competition by encouraging the withdrawal of Manchester United. They were convinced that United's participation in the inaugural Club World Championship in Brazil would help England's bid for the 2006 World Cup, and it's not just the wisdom of hindsight that makes their calculations look idiotic; plenty of us called them that, and worse, at the time.

Moreover, Sir Alex Ferguson's cheerful acquiescence in that fiasco makes his unpleasant and ill-judged rant about refereeing standards following United's exit last Saturday even more morally dubious; if he'd stood up more forcefully for the integrity of the FA Cup when he had the chance, his self-righteous fury now would be a little easier to bear.

Whatever, it is downright life-affirming that feats of giant-killing should yield two of the semi-finalists – three for those who believe that Portsmouth winning at Old Trafford counts as giant-killing – and that West Brom faced Bristol Rovers in the concluding act of last weekend's remarkable drama. The perfect antidote to the dreary dominance of the "big four" and the FA's own myopia, it also made the presence on Monday evening of John Motson, Ricky George, Ronnie Radford, Colin Addison, Dudley Tyler and Billy Meadows at the Rankin Club in the small Herefordshire town of Leominster wonderfully timely.

All the above-named men played a role in what is still, Barnsley's defeat of Chelsea notwithstanding, the greatest FA Cup shock of all time, non-league Hereford United's 2-1 defeat of mighty Newcastle United in a third-round replay on 5 February 1972.

Except for Motson, who, aged 26, was cutting his teeth as a commentator for Match of the Day, they all played for Hereford that day, Addison as player-manager. And they still get together for reunions like the one at the Rankin Club, where Motson and George entertained a sell-out audience with their memories, and the others chipped in from the front row.

Addison told us that he knew for a fact that on the way home from Hereford 36 years ago, Joe Harvey, the Newcastle manager, stopped the team coach so he could throw up. I fancy that the only thing stopping Avram Grant alighting from the team vehicle to do the same last Saturday was that the team vehicle was above the clouds.

Anyway, I was pleased to find that Motty too was of the opinion, which dispiritingly is not shared by all football enthusiasts, that the FA Cup semi-final line-up is "fantastic for the democracy of the competition". He told us that he had a strong sense of déjà vu on the gantry at Oakwell last Saturday, spiriting him all the way back to a wintry afternoon long ago at Edgar Street. And even though he had also commentated on Sutton United's defeat of Coventry City in 1989, Hereford's act of giant-killing "will always be the biggest and the closest to my heart". Which was, of course, precisely what his audience wanted to hear.

It was a cracking evening, and I spent much of the interval chatting with Radford, now 64 and sporting a hearing aid, but scarcely less lean than he was when he so indelibly wrote his name in the history books by hammering home from fully 30 yards the equaliser to Malcolm Macdonald's opening goal.

It was George who bagged the winner in extra time, but as he told us, "If I'm outside Hereford I always claim Ronnie's goal. I'm sick of saying that I got the bobbly one from eight yards!" Radford wouldn't mind. A charming, modest man, he also talked about Addison's predecessor as Hereford's player-manager, the great John Charles. Before his debut at Shrewsbury in 1971, he asked Charles where he wanted him to play. "You're a midfield player, aren't you?" said Charles. "That's right," said Radford. "Play in midfield then," said Charles.

How times have changed; today there would have been diagrams, if not video analysis. Which is one of the reasons why in 2008 it is so comforting to be reminded that some things stay constant, and that FA Cup giants can still be slain.