It’s pantomime season, isn’t it? Oh yes it is, oh not it isn’t. We’re talking Arsène’s future which unlike the past is not behind him. Who the dame is, well, Stan looks good in a wig, doesn’t he? The ages of Arsenal were wheeled out in the media yesterday with Tony Woodcock, Ray Parlour and Martin Keown all offering their views on whether the outcome of the FA Cup final has any bearing on the signing of his contract. The general consensus is that it won’t affect that decision but Woodcock raised the prospect of discontent, reflecting on the atmosphere at The Emirates on the opening day and noting that a similar reaction could be expected.
The way to take the sting out of that would be new signings and god knows, with less than a week passed since the end of the Premier League season, there gave been enough stories about that already. This is, you sense, going to be a tough summer for anyone who tries to keep up with the number of players linked with the club. All this following a statement from the manager that told us there would be no early transfer activity because of the World Cup. Does he not read the back pages?
Woodcock reinforced the message put forward by Robert Pires a couple of days ago: winning the Cup would do wonders for the players confidence and remove the stigma attached to nine years without a trophy. Both argued against arrogance. Whilst as Woodcock says, this is a match Arsenal would win “eight or nine times out of ten“, tomorrow might be the one. It might, look at what happened to Manchester City last season.
Oh come on, I hear you say, we beat this lot comfortably a month ago, on their own ground and with their two strikers cup-tied, Steve Bruce’s wife has been signed on a short-term loan deal, specially for the occasion. As Pires said, that was in the Premier League and the two competitions have a different mentality about then, require a different approach. But yes, I take your point. The ease of both Premier League wins this season do lend themselves to the arrogance both former players warned about.
It’s all Pires’ fault anyway. The last genuine cup final rehearsal Arsenal was the 6 – 1 drubbing of Southampton at Highbury a week or so meeting in Cardiff. We know how well that turned out under the metal and plastic roof of the Millenium Stadium, albeit with a closer score line. It did start me thinking about dress rehearsals though. Did history point to a pattern or sound any foreboding about what may lay in store come Saturday? I am aware, at this point, of the glaring hypocrisy of denouncing superstition in a recent post whilst expounding a theory which might be politely described as being based in superstition. But I have started so I will finish.
Genuine dress rehearsals don’t happen very often. I took it to be a month before the final as frankly any closer leads to a very short conclusion. It all began in 1930. Well, 1927 was the first but let’s be honest, it is more famous as a trivia question than anything to do with Arsenal’s history. Cardiff were not in the top flight so there was no opportunity to rehearse that defeat. It was a different story three years later. Huddersfield Town provided the opposition in the final and a week or so earlier, hosted Arsenal in a one-all draw. So the scoreline is a win and a draw, which as wild, unsubstantiated theories go, is as good a start as you could wish to have. It could have been better, it might have been a lot worse.
As an ‘encore’ for the 1930 final, the match immediately before Wembley remains the highest scoring draw in top flight English football, despite the best efforts of Arsenal to egg Newcastle on at St James Park a few years back. The six-all draw at Filbert Street – yes that is 6-6 – contained seven of the side which would go on to win at Wembley, David Halliday scoring four in his last appearance for the club. A tough gig even back in those days.
You might argue that it was the first real experience of resting key players before a final. Whether the experiment worked is debatable as two years later Arsenal beat Newcastle in the league a month before losing the FA Cup meeting. It is stretching the point somewhat to suggest that rehearsal was resting players but no matter it leaves the trio of matches split equally between win, lose and draw. Something has to give and it did in 1952 when history repeated itself at the business end with Newcastle again winning the cup, this time following a draw at Highbury a month earlier. That’s 1-1-2. There was a sixteen year wait until the next day out at Wembley when a quirk of fate meant that the League Cup final defeat to Leeds was a dress rehearsal itself for the league meeting that match ended 4-3 to Arsenal. Frank McLintock scored in two of the three games between the two clubs that season; a pity he couldn’t have completed a hat-trick of sorts.
Twenty-five years would pass before another rehearsal came and, stretching the point a bit, it was like a London bus; nothing for ages and then two come at once. Sheffield Wednesday in 1993 might have fancied their chances in the FA Cup, clinging on to the hope that the Law of Averages might be average. Having lost the infamous first dress rehearsal in the drunken debauchery of the League Cup final, they faced Arsenal in a league match at Hillsborough nine days before the sides got heartily sick of each other at Wembley. George Graham was a cunning old dog and sent a reserve team out which contained only John Jensen who would start at Wembley. The Law of Averages duly obliged and gave Wednesday their one victory in the five games that season, this time by a single goal. Which brings the score up to 1-1-3. Or 1-1-4 if we count the 1968 League Cup final as a dress rehearsal.
At this point, you are agreeing with me that these old sayings and superstitions mean nothing until the third dress rehearsal with Newcastle found a truism in ‘third time lucky’ when a brace from Nicolas Anelka and Patrick Vieira goal sank Newcastle hearts at Highbury a month before the final, Overmars and Anelka stomping them into the ground as Arsenal completed their second double. 2-1-3. The win at the KC & The Sunshine band stadium brought a certain symmetry to the totting up, making it 3-1-3 which neither proves the theory or otherwise.
Anything else you want to hang your hat on? What about results over the season? Few occasions are that clear-cut. Arsenal lost twice to Liverpool in the League in 1949/50 but won the cup. Nearly half-a-century later, we beat Newcastle twice in the League and won the cup. Birmingham? Twice beaten in the league but when it mattered…you’ve got where this going, this doesn’t prove anything either way. So none of these theories work. Dress rehearsals offer no clues, league results are no better. But we did learn two things from this exercise:
1. Robert Pires knows what he’s talking about, and,
2. I can write 1200 words on just about anything Arsenal-related.