Wigan Athletic 1 Leeds United 1: Jewell and Blackwell expose reality of Cup's new place in the game's order

By James Lawton
Monday 09 January 2006 01:00

Gladiatorial fury and old-time glory there might have been at places like Luton and Nuneaton, but at the JJB Stadium we had a harsher picture of where the FA Cup stands in the football pecking order of 2006. It is not so much a moveable feast as an adjustable convenience, a bit like the diversionary device the Leeds fans brought along for their amusement through a first half of befuddling tedium: an inflatable doll.

To be fair to the managers, Paul Jewell, who made seven changes from the Premiership team which lost to Birmingham, and Kevin Blackwell, who operated at full strength in the belief that a Leeds team which did not exist beyond the veteran Gary Kelly a season and a half ago needs all the togetherness it can get in an impressive push towards a return to the top league, did observe certain niceties.

Both stressed that the inconvenience of a replay at a time of maximum physical pressure on their squads did not override their desire to stay in the tournament. Blackwell even made a joke of it, saying he had expressly fulfilled the request of his chairman, Ken Bates, for a revenue-enhancing replay.

What no one could doubt in the Legoland of the new stadium and the neighbouring shopping complex was that the old silver bauble had become a lot less compelling than when Wigan lost to Leeds in the quarter-finals 19 years ago. Then 12,497 fans crowded into the old ground, Springfield Park. On Saturday, not counting the doll, there were nearly 2,000 less in the big modern stadium. That number will be hugely exceeded when Arsenal arrive tomorrow night for the semi-finals of the Carling Cup.

There is no point in banging on about flawed priorities. In 1987 the oldest, most romantic knock-out competition in football was Wigan's passport to the stars. Now its value depends on your circumstances.

Wigan's have swelled so massively, Jewell can afford to be candid. "I have to be honest... the Premiership has to be my priority," he said.

It also has to be a lure that Leeds could scarcely have dreamed of in the meltdown days when Blackwell was left with a dressing-room empty of all but the still admirable full-back Kelly.

"Not many people realise what has happened at our club, how far we have come back ... how it was trying to pay the wages, and looking around for a player to sit on the bench," said Blackwell.

He had every reason to be pleased with the evidence of team-building here as Leeds competed mostly on equal terms with a team that twice cuffed them aside in the charge to promotion last season. At first, Blackwell explained, there was no money for anything but the shoring up of the defence. Then he had to drum up a little striking potential.

Lost in these imperatives, a touch of creativity in a midfield that in another age was occupied by men like Giles and Bremner, Collins and Gray. Blackwell could not afford to spend any money on his midfield - an admission which maybe tells us more than he intended about today's game - but now he has Liam Miller, of Manchester United, on loan. Miller may not be a game-changing force, but he is neat and busy and such virtues helped to provide Leeds with a discernable edge especially when, after using up their substitutes, Wigan lost their full-back Ryan Taylor with a foot injury in the 77th minute.

Leeds, who levelled David Connolly's 47th-minute strike through Rob Hulse in the 88th minute, should really have saved everyone the bother of a replay. The substitute Richard Cresswell seemed to have legitimate claims for a penalty, and Blackwell was understandably pleased at his team's comfortable step up a rung of the class ladder. He said that last season Leeds scuttled away from Wigan as the recipients of a sternly applied lesson. Now they had reason to feel as though they were making genuine progress.

Wigan, with 34 Premiership points already in the bag, will return such luminaries as Jimmy Bullard and the captain, Arjan de Zeeuw, for the visit of Arsenal knowing that the FA Cup remains at the very least an attractive fall-back option.

This, no doubt, is the best that the Cup can hope for in the wake of that notorious 1999 decision of the then holders, Manchester United, with the approval of the Football Association, to abandon the competition in favour of the money-grubbing misnomer known as the World Club Championship.

Maybe the Leeds fan who brought his plastic companion was making a point of awesome subtlety.

Perhaps he was saying that the FA Cup has also become something you blow up or let down according to your needs - and your options.

Goals: Connolly (47) 1-0; Hulse (87) 1-1.

Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Filan; Taylor, Jackson, Henchoz, McMillan; Johannson (Kavanagh, 72), Skoko (Roberts, 72), Francis, Mahon (Teale, 57); Connolly, McCulloch. Substitutes not used: Pollitt (gk), Chimbonda.

Leeds United (4-4-2): Sullivan; Kelly, Butler, Kilgannon, Crainey; Miller, Derry, Douglas (Cresswell, 79), Lewis; Hulse, Blake (Healey, 68). Substitutes not used: Bennett (gk), Walton, Pugh.

Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).

Booked: Wigan Taylor, McCulloch.

Man of the match: Lewis.

Attendance : 10, 980.

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