The magic of the cup eh? Tin foil cups, sloping pitches, electricians playing full back and always the possibility of a shock result. Except that, by and large, that magic is being devalued by the second. Not having the Final as the one 3pm Saturday kick off you can watch live on telly saddens me as much as the continued existence of Big Brother. Cup ties on a Monday (like our game against Hull was last season – twice) and the fact that big sides always play their reserves are other nails in a fairly hefty coffin. Attendances, on the whole, are dwindling. The one exception is for those clubs lucky enough to land a plum tie against Premier League big boys at home. Like, say, Arsenal.
So it was that over 30,000 tickets were sold for the Amex yesterday and most of their owners turned up for once. Our usual group of me and another dad with our boys was augmented by a friend from up the road with his soon-to-be-five year old and another of The Boy’s mates with his mum and granddad. From young to old we squeezed ourselves on a train early enough to make the journey relatively painless. On the train from Brighton we met some old school Arsenal fans who “only did aways”. One of them was, apparently, bad luck. The other hated Wenger. With three shock results already over the previous two days and now this. the omens were lining up all right. We were bound to lose.
Beers bought for the adults, sweets and drinks distributed among children we took our seats fifteen minutes before kick off to see, not an empty stadium but one that had already pretty much filled. In these circumstances Fanzone is, indeed, a useful warm up for voices and scarf twirling arms. In these circumstances finding a version of “Ring of Fire” that is just the trumpet riff on a loop is genius. In these circumstances dropping the last bars of “Sussex By The Sea” to let the fans take over is entirely right. The stadium was buzzing. Songs fizzed from North to West. Flags waved. Scarves twirled. It built like an enormous bubble. Within two minutes of the start Arsenal had popped it.
I don’t actually think we touched the ball more than twice before it was in the net. We came out exactly like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights. Arsenal stroked it around like we used to under Oscar but with more pace and purpose. Then they remembered we had Joe Bennett at left back, sliced us open down that side before a neat cross set up Theo Walcott who showed he can actually finish when given the freedom of Sussex. Two minutes. One nil. Oh dear.
Poor Bennett. He is a skilful footballer with lovely feet and good pace. And he tries. You’d never know he was on loan from his effort. But I want to go back in time and find the coach who decided he was a left back and shout “NO, COACH. THIS IS NOT A LEFT BACK YOU SEE HERE. THIS HERE IS A WINGER! A WINGER, DON’T YOU SEE? NOW GET IN THE CORNER AND GIVE YOURSELF A GOOD TALKING TO.” The first half, yesterday, showed why the poor lad will never start in that position for Villa. Meanwhile, having told the old school Arsenal fans on the train how good Ince was, he too was proceeding to have a nightmare. In fact we all were. Collectively, all over the park we were horrible, with the exception of COG who was feeding off scraps. Inevitably we went two down in this time, a lovely pass threading our defence for Ozil to finish in style. Yes, this was the week Ozil and Walcott returned to the first team. Lucky us eh? About six minutes later we had our first shot, to ironic cheers. Half time came and, for once, I needed a half time beer. Even The Boy was stunned in to silence. We really could have been four or five down.
Sipping that beer quickly I still emerged to see the game had kicked off and we had the ball. We were passing it around! Woo hoo. Chris Hughton has not quite been here a month, yet, after Brentford, this would already be his second “difficult” half time team talk. God only knows what he said but we were now wide awake, fearless and, at times, the better side. Were these the same players? After good work down the left the ball found O’Grady who held off his man and drilled low in to the corner. It was brilliant number nine play. Never have I been more wrong about a player. If reports that he has already been sold turn out to be true then the man will get a public thanks and apology on these pages.
The fans too came to life. The scarves were up. Songs crackled in to the night. Ince became a monster in midfield, Baldock a menace. Arsenal were looking genuinely worried until we needlessly gave the ball away on the edge of our own area. It was worked to Rosicky whose powerful volley found the centre of the net to Stockdale’s disappointment.
Still we came back, though the players this time, not the fans. If anything they need our support more at 1-3 then at 1-2 but the bubble had popped again and someone was going to have to blow it up. Cue Sam Baldock with a sublime finish. I went mad. The boy went mad. Tickertape. Ring of Fire. Game on.
Except that was it. We couldn’t get back in to it and the final whistle blew with the players applauded from all sides. A true game of two halves. If only.
Afterwards we had a beer “to let the queue die down”. My friend who had taken her son and his granddad decided to go straight to the station where, according to a later text they were surrounded by “nasty Arsenal fans” and walked straight in to a fight. Even though we left later there was still a huge queue and it took well over an hour to get home. There were no “nasty” Arsenal on our train but there was a group of drunk teenagers, surrounded by the police singing hilarious homophobic songs that we’ve never, ever heard before.They were blatantly breaking the law yet the police seemed to be there in case anyone tried to chin them. I suspect there were more than a few with that on their minds.
I mention all this because this is what our reality in the Premier League would be. Sunday kick offs, huge away attendances, long waits for everything and a whole new set of clubs who think that “we can see you holding hands” is the funniest chant ever. On the pitch lots of close defeats. Lots of “what if”. We still need to survive in The Championship this season of course, but still. Be careful what you wish for.