Nearly four decades have passed since Arsenal first met Coventry City in the FA Cup. On this day in 1975, Highfield Road – like Highbury, now consigned to memory banks and history books – hosted a 1 – 1 draw. Arsenal won the replay four days later; none of this waiting a week or more to organise a match to suit police or broadcast sensibilities. I couldn’t find a video for that so 1991s First Division demolition on the last day of the season will have to do. I know; any excuse…the original Super Swede. It’s funny for years some claimed no-one from Graham’s era could play in the current Arsenal side. Now, with the disciplined style of play, most of the 1991 team would fit into Wenger’s idea of a footballer. The back five, Rocastle, Limpar, Smith; eight would certainly be capable of comfortably holding a place now.
Had we not been in the heady days of giantkilling, a top-flight meeting in the FA Cup would have attracted a lot of attention in 1975 but Stafford Rangers had beaten Rotherham in the Third Round, Walsall defeated Manchester United in a replay. At this stage of the competition, Altrincham took Everton to a replay whilst Leatherhead United raced into a two-goal half-time lead at home to Leicester City. The Foxes fought back, Jon Sammels scoring the first of three second half goals as the Leatherhead Lip got bitten.
But it was Dickie Guy‘s time. Wimbledon were a Southern League side but won at Burnley, the prize being a trip to Leeds United, now recovered from the 44 days of Brian Clough. The bearded Dons goalkeeper recalled his heroics on The Big Match with Brian Moore the following day as Wimbledon clung on for a draw. With the number of replays shown, you felt certain Peter Lorimer would strike the ball better next time around but history never changed; Guy always saved that penalty. The actual replay? Leeds won, a deflected goal from memory, at Selhurst Park.
Those results romanticised the cup. How quickly that lustre has dimmed.
1975 like 1991 feels a long time ago. Times and the fortunes of clubs have changed. Arsenal are poised to emerge from lean years, looking to re-establish themselves as Premier League contenders, even if the bookmakers odds reflect them as outsiders of the top three teams to win the title. Where to begin with Coventry? A ten point deduction is costing them dear at the moment as they sit that difference away from the last play-off place in League One; four draws in the past six games does not help their cause either. Nonetheless, it is one of the more impressive recoveries from such a penalty. All that against a backdrop of discord and rancour; David Conn’s article in The Guardian is as good a starting place on the story.
Whichever way you look at it, the US military term fits most aptly. The only hedges in football ought to be a nice display of topiary lining a boulevard on the way to the ground; football is such a middle class sport. Hedges should certainly not be a fund owning a club. The business side of the modern game has much to answer for, not least in scheduling a fixture such as this for no reason than BT want to show it. It’s another stain tarnishing the FA Cup that away fans are hampered in supporting their team to appease the terms of broadcasting contracts. This evening Coventry supporters are planning protests on 35 minutes (the distance between the city and Sixfields Stadium in Northampton) and 61 minutes (the year Jimmy Hill joined the club). Reliable sources are urging Arsenal supporters to stand and applaud the away fans at those times, something I would wholeheartedly agree with.
Hill is a link between two clubs, more so than the likes of Jeff Blockley who turned out for both. Hill had an extraordinary influence over the Sky Blues and is as synonymous with them as he is Match of the Day even though he started broadcasting with ITV. For Arsenal, he was the lyricist for the double-winning season’s updated Good Old Arsenal as well as running the line when necessity called in 1972 during a goalless draw with Liverpool at Highbury.
That was then, this is now and in his pre-match press conference, Arsène quashed suggestions of a very-much weakened side taking the field tonight. It will be the squad from last weekend with one or two additions; a similar squad but a much-changed XI which starts. Lukasz Fabianski will have a rare start as his contract winds down and goalkeeping will be a position that Wenger has to address in the summer if as expected, the Pole leaves. Unless he is convinced that Viviano is a capable replacement, he will surely need to buy experienced cover for Wojciech Szczesny.
There has been talk of a plethora of youngsters coming into the line-up, the likes of Hayden and Zelalem suggested as featuring from the start. I don’t think this will be the case. Indeed I would be surprised if anyone more inexperienced than Hayden is in the XI at kick-off with the manager looking to seal victory before using his substitutes to gain experience. He also has to balance the upcoming fixtures and this tie offers the opportunity for the likes of Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Bendtner to gain match fitness. Next week sees trips to Southampton and Liverpool, both tough matches and Arsène will want those players ready if he needs to call upon them. He also needs to rest some players, Mertesacker and Koscielny have played a lot of football this season without much respite; this evening offers such an opportunity.
Wenger is conscious of last season’s debacle against Blackburn, he spoke pointedly of it earlier in the season. It is something he will want to avoid although exiting the competition now brings the hidden advantage of a week’s rest before the visit of Bayern Munich in the Champions League next month. It’s not exactly rewarding failure; more of a positive from the immediacy of a negative situation. But he has the squad capable of winning and there are plenty of opportunities to put out a strong line-up nonetheless:
Fabianksi; Jenkinson, Vermaelen, Hayden, Gibbs; Flamini, Wilshere; Gnabry, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski; Bendtner
Fully focussed and professional is what Arsenal need to be. The FA Cup may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it offers the opportunity for silverware and should not be underrated in that sense. I know that people rate a top four finish more highly but no-one has ever come up with a valid reason why that and winning either of the domestic cups is a mutally-exclusive outcome to a season.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.