To set the tone for the day, you can find this morning’s playlist, Talk Is Cheap, in the right sidebar on Dad’s Jukebox or here in your browser.
You don’t even have to go back to the days of black and white televisions for the sense of occasion. There were plenty about in the 1980s, in fact my nan had one until about 1986. Before you ask, it did come from Radio Rentals. Every high street had one, a Granada as well. Funnily enough, the jingle for Granada’s television advert sang through my mind as I typed that; never doubt the power of the box in the corner of your room. No, not that one; the television set.
The FA Cup semi-final had an allure, a trip to a regular haunt but with a sense of purpose. Arsenal were playing but this was different, Wembley beckoned with the twin towers due reward for the victors. Transport this tie back three decades or more and we would most likely have traipsed up the Seven Sisters Road or even Stamford Bridge, forcing the Football League to re-arrange the meeting between Chelsea and Manchester United. Sky’s nose wouldn’t have been put out of joint as it would never have been in the picture in the first place.
And no doubt, we would have bemoaned ticket allocations. There is genuinely nothing new in modern football. We’ve been there and done it already, generally in worse conditions.
But this afternoon, Arsenal seek to return to the FA Cup final in a throwback to the early days of Arsène’s reign and even the 1970s. The early years of that decade are often forgotten compared to the latter finals as the 1980s beckoned. Arsenal were a Billy Hughes goal shy of seeking revenge against Leeds for the 1972 FA Cup final defeat. The same two sides competing successive finals? That was a throwback to the days when Wanderers and Royal Engineers dominated the tournament.
The 1972-73 Cup campaign is often forgotten. Arsenal lost the semi to the eventual winners and a risible third/fourth place play-off to Wolves at Highbury. That match was no pre-cursor to the final, not the night before but played on 18th August three months after Sunderland had pulled off one of the FA Cup’s most enduring shocks. Little wonder the play-off concept failed miserably.
Today is different. There are no bouquets, only commiseration for gallant losers or brickbats for the shocked giant. There’s no mistake; Arsenal are even hotter favourites today than we were against Wigan last year, even if they were defending cup holders. Reading are not safe yet but the alignment of planets for them to be relegated would have to be so startling that the existence of God would probably be proved if they lined up in that way.
Steve Clarke believed his side would have to be perfect to beat Arsenal. He stopped shy of saying “whichever Arsenal turns up” but you know it crossed his mind. Arsène has as close to a full squad to choose from as is ever likely, to the extent that there are no excuses today for any failure on Arsenal’s part. Wenger has by now grasped the horns of the dilemma and bar for one – possibly two – knows what XI he is going to field.
Whereas last year, he was haunted by indifferent form, this season is entirely different. Any length of run can be cast around but the truth is that Arsenal are in as scintillating form as could be hoped for. And that causes the questions in the manager’s mind. To change the side too much risks the disjointed performance we witnessed against Wigan and leaves Arsenal exposed to the fates.
It’s for that reason, I can’t see more than four changes this afternoon; keep the momentum going into next weekend and hope the Gods are kind to make an interesting end of the season, one where next year begins with a real sense of belief. There are other factors of course, but confidence from an extended unbeaten run surely bridges a summer?
The main changes will I think, come in defence. Szczesny we know will start and I think both full backs will change as well. It’s hardly seismic, is it? Gibbs played for England more recently than he appeared for his club whilst Mathieu Debuchy is anything but a novice. Certainly, for me, the latter will start; I think he is earmarked for the visit of Chelsea, to bring his experience to bear against Eden Hazard. Hector Bellerin has done nothing to warrant being dropped but we shouldn’t get carried away; Debuchy remains first-choice right back. How long that lasts depends purely on Bellerin’s progress; he will occupy the right berth as long as he wants if his current progress is any indicator of the future.
Three of the four made; where’s the last? Danny Welbeck in for Olivier Giroud. Nothing surprising and no criticism of the Frenchman should be read into it. Wenger had that policy last year and this is no different, beyond the fact that Welbeck is immeasurably better than Yaya Sanogo. Indeed, the England striker will relish playing at Wembley, a stadium where he has scored almost as many goals for his country this season as he has in total for his club. It’s the stage which appeals to him and frankly, why deny him. Certainly the winner at Old Trafford marks him out as my lead striker this afternoon.
Crucially, it keeps the rump of the side together. The creativity and tenacity in midfield will be intact and that provides the drive and impetus needed for victory. Arsenal need to turn up and play to win, this won’t be a straightforward match for the players if they display any arrogance or condescension to Reading. Gentlemen, leave that to the professionals: us. We’ve got years of experience belittling opponents.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.
From The Vaults
1987. George Graham’s first FA Cup tie as Arsenal saw the team make the short trip down the M4. A cold, brisk day as I recall, certainly one where it was necessary to travel early to procure tickets. Which wasn’t too arduous, Guildford was, from memory, half-an-hour on the train. Probably still is.
Elm Park was a proper football stadium, reflecting the history of the club. Reading were nowhere near the top flight and regularly flirted between Division’s Three and Four, with flirtations in the Second Division. This was one of those times, the Thames Valley had rocked to their promotion the previous season.
The stadium, even then, had seen better days. As far as the eye could see, there were rows of terraced houses around the ground and the Oxford Road was never the most alluring of thoroughfares before or then; The Pond House had a different name than the one which adorned the pub’s facade. Home fans were protected from the elements with their cowshed roof but the uncovered terraces at either end, were beginning to crumble and offered no pretence of comfort; it was sink or swim in the rain.
Trevor Senior’s mop of unruly ginger hair had scared Third Division defences into submission and he was going to do the same with Arsenal in this third round tie. Jerry Williams, Reading’s winger, had in the week been marked out as a danger man and from memory, gave Kenny Sansom pause for thought. And while Kenny thought, Williams went down the wing to offer some wayward distribution. And then there was Terry bloody Hurlock.
Despite impressions, Arsenal dominated the tie. As with any trip to the lower reaches and it’s rarely one-sided but in treacherous conditions, the visitors had Charlie Nicholas and a brace put paid to any dreams of a cup upset. Martin Hayes penalty added the margin of comfort to the victory.
click on the below to enlarge