Date: 11th January 2008 at 10:04am
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Villa at least denied Ronaldo the welcome mat.

Admittedly, it was probably not quite like losing to Coventry or even Huddersfield but Villa’s FA cup defeat by Man United left me feeling just a little unwell. Not as though I think the FA cup is really
worth the candle but like the fans of just about every other club, Man-U is a scalp I crave for with an unhealthy passion.

Man United did at least show Villa a lot of respect, in that they were just as determined not to leave any space behind their defence, for Villa’s pacey players to exploit, as Villa were to stop Ronaldo doing the same to them. Thus it was the sort of tactical deadlock which would have left the watching Capello nursing a semi, as he viewed the sort of game, which might be found on any Sunday of the season in Serie A, and which presumably the Italians find enthralling. I should know, I’ve slept through plenty of those.

While I might have been rather too agitated to sleep through this latest example, at least I had the pleasure of hearing the Match Of The Day pundits complain about its tedium and dullness. This was sweet revenge indeed, as the whole bunch of the Beeb’s finest have turned tedium into an art-form this season. They described Villa’s high-scoring draw with Chelsea as the ‘match of the season’ and then proceeded to allocate as much time to Shearer droning the bleedin’ obvious, as they did to their butchered edit of the match itself. Bring back Stubbsy; his shirts might not be quite as interesting as Hansen’s but at least he doesn’t pluck his eyebrows, or shave his legs.

Okay, so it was a bit dull but it takes two to tango.

Of course there were plenty of kibitzers, basking in the luxury of hindsight, saying how Villa should have gone for all out attack, after it was all over. Now I am not going to deny anyone their right to verbalize their might-have-beens but the fact that Ronaldo had absolutely nothing to smile about for eighty-odd minutes, was reason enough for a cautious approach, for me. Defeat was bad enough but having to see endless replays and extended eulogies from the hype-merchants, about him being the best player in the world, would have made it a whole lot worse.

Villa at least denied him the welcome mat.

But more interesting were the facts. While all the headlines screamed Rooney, Rooney and even more Rooney, the timeline suggested other factors might have combined to create United’s late advantage. Of course Rooney made a difference but the biggest advantage for United actually emerged when Petrov was swapped for Maloney(75). So it seems Villa began to lose, as soon as they lost Petrov’s controlled midfield contribution. Ferguson read it straight away and changed Saha for Hargreaves (79) – a more defensive option. It seems the introduction of Moore for Carew (64), made very little difference at all. As soon as Villa were forced to make changes, Field Marshal Ferguson unleashed his crack troops for the final victory.

The introduction of Hargreaves was probably just as important in tipping the advantage in United’s favour as Rooney. History though, will record it slightly differently, as it seeks to placate popular prejudice and fulfil the media’s passion for mythomania. But the real truth is that it was merely another game of rope-a-dope for United, who just kept their powder dry until Villa had punched themselves out. In doing so, they gave credence to a competition which they share by buggin’s turn with their rich pals, while the rest sweat blood for a runners-up medal.

FA cup progress, is often a pyrrhic victory for those who can’t afford it.

It was a very close thing but such is the imbalance of resources between the mighty clubs of the elite and the rest, that Ferguson’s ability to introduce nearly £40m in subs (Hargreaves and Rooney), suggests an unacceptable level of unfairness in the present set-up. It was as if in a closely fought chess match, one player was allowed to promote a pawn, at a certain stage in the game, while the other was not.

The BBC seek to distract us from noticing the reality by offering us Motty’s sheepskin and dreams of Ronnie Radford but the ugly truth is that the present glaring financial imbalance which has been allowed to creep in, has killed the FA cup. Objectors to the present state of affairs are usually offered the mantra that it is inevitable but if it is, do we have to facilitate it?

Across the pond, in a land we are always told is a paradise of laissez-faire capitalism, we find that they not only pursue their tax-dodgers and business fraudsters, rather more vigorously than in our crook-friendly country but they actually seek to off-set advantage in the NFL by a draft system, which offers the weaker teams first dibs, when it comes to picking young talent. When the Miami Dolphins went undefeated in 1972, it was seen as not such a good thing and thirty-five years later, the New England Pats’ repeat of the same feat, will similarly be considered less than desirable, by those who run the sport. In a land where Carnegie dominated steel, Rockefeller oil and Gates computers, they understand capitalism and know that monopoly and all the rest of the opolies are not very good for team sports.

The only merit of the present FA cup is that it scatters a few crumbs from the Premiership and Championship high-table for the benefit of the minnows and their admirable fans. If the big clubs are to get richer (Manchester United have recently announced record figures) and the march towards monopoly is to continue, then the FA cup should be re-jigged so that every minnow which gets to the third-round should go into a draw and be guaranteed a Premiership club. The present system has not prevented the domination of the big four and although Millwall might have enjoyed their day out in 2004 and their subsequent European adventure, it was a token event of freakish rarity.

The romance should not be left to chance, it should be engineered.

In the first seventy years of the competition no club had managed more than half a dozen FA cup wins, which suggests that the game was far more equitable, in the way it distributed its silverware than it is now. As the Arsenal and Man United come close to doubling the number of wins of even the most successful clubs from other eras, the destructive power of the duopoly can be clearly seen.

The FA must either act or the middling clubs, who see it as mere distraction from more major concerns, will continue to vote with their feet. The whole idea of the FA cup was that it is supposed to be inclusive but when only three or four clubs can win it, it obviously begins to look like an exclusive club, for which only the very rich need apply.

The good news for Villa, is that if the teams in the final have both already qualified for the Champions League, then the extra place in the UEFA cup, is awarded to someone a little further down the Premiership.

And while we pause for a moment and consider whether that team is likely to be Villa, let us have a look at some babes.

Onwards and upwards…


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