ONCE the Double was as rare as a foreign match-winner in a Wembley final. Now they are as commonplace. On Saturday an overseas player scored the crucial goal for the fourth FA Cup final in five and, for the third time in five, it meant a Double.
The two facts are not unconnected. While the influx of foreign players has allowed some moderately financed clubs such as Derby County and West Ham to progress, it has also strengthened the hold on honours of the very rich.
In the six seasons of the Premier League Arsenal and Manchester United have won 11 trophies between them, including three Doubles; Aston Villa, Liverpool and Everton, long-standing clubs of wealth, have taken four; Chelsea and Blackburn, who have recently bought into the elite, have shared another four. Only Leicester, in the largely unregarded Coca-Cola Cup, have broken the Monopoly-money monopoly and they beat a Middlesbrough side expensively furnished with overseas players.
The FA Cup, once the source of dreams and giant-killers, has not been won by a financial outsider since Wimbledon's triumph a decade ago and, in the short-term, this concentration of honours is only likely to increase.
With pounds 25m of purchases Arsenal are well beyond the point where the chairman, after a notable triumph, might put his head round the dressing room door and say: "Well done lads. With the money we've made we can now buy some decent players." Nevertheless, such is the nature of the modern game that the red-and-white ribbons had not been on the FA Cup for an hour before talk turned to future acquisitions.
"Winning the Champions' League would be fun," said Peter Hill-Wood, the Arsenal chairman, "and Arsene will have the money if he needs it." Further down the Wembley tunnel Marc Overmars, the opening goalscorer, added: "We know we can go further next season. We are pretty sure the manager will buy more players in the summer and we'll need them in the Champions' League."
Having made light of the absence of Dennis Bergkamp on Saturday, Arsenal might seem rather strong already but they are about to enter football of another dimension. This is an arena where Real Madrid will start Wednesday's Champions' Cup final with Davor Suker on the bench and in which they and Juventus, their final opponents, improved already strong sides by spending heavily mid-season to buy Savio, Christian Karembeu and Edgar Davids.
Manchester United, belatedly, acknowledged the difference last month with the pounds 10m purchase of Jaap Stam and more spending is planned. Arsenal's need is for another forward to cover for the absence of Bergkamp on away trips - the Dutchman said emphatically last week that he will not be flying anywhere and not all matches will be within driving distance - a defender with pace and, maybe, a creative midfielder. There will also be squad strengthening.
The result of all this is that the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United will move even further clear of the pack at home. Only the extension of the Champions' League into an even more draining - and lucrative - de facto European league would redress the balance.
This, however, would further devalue an FA Cup already suffering from the curtailment of replays and television-orientated spreading of fixtures.
Fortunately this dilution of the cup magic is yet to impinge on the final. The occasion remains a memorable one and it was better than last year in every respect. The preliminaries were perfect. The sun shone; Tony Hadley, once of Spandau Ballet, respected "Abide With Me" rather than attempting to overwhelm it like Cliff Richard did; both teams, led out by their managers and young disabled supporters, were resplendent; even the balloons obediently rose out of the stadium rather than littering the turf.
Then the match began. While it was better than several recent finals it caught light only for 10 minutes in he second half when Newcastle threatened to draw level. Yet, no sooner had John Motson, on the evening re-run, uttered "now we have a final" after Alan Shearer hit a post than Nicolas Anelka killed the game with Arsenal's second.
Shearer said Newcastle "had them on the rack" and had his shot, after Martin Keown's error, gone in it "could have been a different story". Maybe. Arsenal were desperately tired, but they always seemed superior and the goal underlined a suspicion that they had been playing within themselves until stirred.
They had earlier taken a grip reminiscent of Liverpool in Newcastle's last final. Anelka could have twice put them ahead before Overmars did so, beating Alessandro Pistone to Emmanuel Petit's chipped pass.
Newcastle, at this point unable to get out of their half, dragged themselves back into the game after the break. They hit the bar through Nikolas Dabizas, from Rob Lee's free-kick, and a post through Shearer before Anelka settled the game. He and Shearer had both previously been erroneously called offside but this time the flag correctly stayed down as the Frenchman outwitted Steve Howey before, at last, hitting the target.
Ray Parlour had provided the pass and he continued to give the best possible response to his omission from England's World Cup 30. In an outstanding display of aggressive running - which Newcastle desperately needed - he also hit the outside of a post and might have scored when brought down by Howey. Paul Durkin, who had a decent game, was probably right to choose yellow rather than red as Howey appeared to pull out of the tackle before clipping Parlour's trailing ankle with his knee.
Newcastle's magnificent fans, more than the club deserve, sang to the end and applauded both teams. Yet while this generosity masked their disappointment it could not hide their fear for the future. The biggest cheers were for Shearer and it seemed they were beseeching him not to leave them.
A Geordie boy he may be, but he is also a hard-headed professional and his recent frustration was again evident in a nasty late tackle on Tony Adams. If he has a decent World Cup he will be flooded with offers and, if Newcastle do not give dramatic evidence of a desire to match the Arsenals and Manchester Uniteds, may reluctantly accept one.
Arsenal (4-3-3): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Winterburn; Parlour, Vieira, Petit; Anelka, Wreh (Platt, 63), Overmars. Substitutes not used: Bould, Wright, Grimandi, Manninger (gk).
Newcastle United (4-4-1-1): Given; Pistone, Dabizas, Howey, Pearce (Andersson, 72); Barton (Watson, 77), Lee, Batty, Speed; Ketsbaia (Barnes, 85); Shearer. Substitutes not used: Albert, Hislop (gk).
Referee: P Durkin (Dorset).
Bookings: Arsenal: Winterburn. Newcastle: Shearer, Barton, Dabizas, Howey.
Man of the match: Parlour.
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