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Asked about the great traditions of Britain’s FA Cup, most people would place giant-killing high on their list. This is the great democratic competition, when grandees face up to grubby-kneed urchins – and occasionally lose. The problem is that such occasions are becoming increasingly infrequent.
Since Wimbledon in 1988, the FA Cup has not produced a shock winner. Since Everton in 1995, it has gone to one of the predictable big four clubs: Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea. By contrast, in the 15 years before Wimbledon’s success, the winners were as diverse as Coventry, West Ham, Ipswich, Southampton and Sunderland. If the central column of the competition’s glory has gone, you might expect a feeling that the product has been diminished.
Perhaps it has but the sense ahead of Saturday’s final between Liverpool and West Ham is that the FA Cup is resurgent.
“Certainly football has changed but what made this competition great hasn’t,” said Shaka Hislop, the 37-year-old West Ham goalkeeper, who is likely to play in this summer’s World Cup for Trinidad and Tobago against England. “Over the past few years you’ve seen the teams who do well commercially off the pitch and have that money to invest dominate the domestic game. But this is still a fantastically appealing competition; one that’s steeped in history; one that can throw up all sorts of different and interesting scenarios; and one that captures the imagination of not only a British crowd but also the world.”
His presence will certainly guarantee a large audience in Trinidad and, coming just a year after he was contemplating retirement, having been released after a season as third-choice at Portsmouth, would have been the great story of the day, were it not for Teddy Sheringham, who, at 40, could become the oldest ever goalscorer in a final.
With striker Dean Ashton’s hamstring responding to treatment, Sheringham is likely only to be a substitute on Saturday but that’s how it was seven years ago when he came on for an injured Roy Keane after nine minutes and scored the opener 96 seconds later as Manchester United achieved the second leg of their treble against Newcastle. Even then he admits thinking “Thank God for that – I’ve got an FA Cup final under my belt”.
He and United, though, were not able to defend the trophy, instead being dispatched to Brazil to compete in the Club World Championship – something the English Football Association apparently believed would enhance England’s chances of hosting the World Cup in 2006.
“We wanted to play in the FA Cup,” Sheringham said. “It was lovely to take part in Brazil but, at the end of the day, you want to be talked about in history here in England. The FA Cup is a massive part of tradition in England and that is what you want to be involved in. So I think there was a little dip in what the FA Cup meant around then. It is well and truly back now.”
It is hard not to feel, though, that it would help its image if West Ham were to win this afternoon. Certainly another procession, as when other shocks were stifled – Manchester United beating Millwall in 2004, for instance, or Arsenal beating Southampton a year earlier – would be in nobody’s interests. “We are coming up against a technical team that are better than us, with a better defence, more experience, international players,” the West Ham manager Alan Pardew admitted, before engaging in a long analogy based on middleweight boxers of the late 1970s.
“If Barcelona were Sugar Ray Leonard, then Liverpool would be Roberto Duran,” he said. “You could put us down as Thomas Hearns, because we have that power to hit. We have that big punch with the type of strikers and goals we have scored. And I think you’ll find that Hearns beat Duran once.”
The FA Cup could do with a repeat.