FA Cup Semi-Final Preview: History In The Making
Depending upon your point of view, this weekend sees either the most exciting or the least compelling pair of FA Cup semi-finals in the venerable competition's distinguished history.
The fact that not one of the last four in the world's oldest knock-out competition is from English football's self-styled aristocracy has polarised opinion. On the one hand there are those romantics who view such an outcome as a glorious vindication of the FA Cup's capacity for upsets; on the other hand there are the cynics who see the absence of even one of the Premier League's 'Big Four' as evidence of the declining importance of the Cup. Then there are the critics of English football self-righteously declaring that three Championship teams in the last four merely proves their point that the Premier League lacks quality.
Personally, and at the risk of sounding patronising, I believe the achievements of Portsmouth, West Bromwich Albion, Barnsley and Cardiff City in going further in this year's competition than the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool is a refreshing shot in the arm and just what was needed to banish, at least temporarily, the monotony of the usual suspects carving up the honours between their well-heeled selves.
The Cup shock is alive and well and a cause for celebration. This year's last four may not be the most glamorous quartet in world football but they are there on merit. Get over it.
Portsmouth and their fans may find it surreal to be the Premier League's sole survivors and thus favourites to win the FA Cup, but the results that have brought them and the three Championship sides this far have enhanced rather than diminished the Cup's appeal. And let's face it, the famous old competition has taken enough knocks to its reputation in recent years.
For the record, this is the first time in a century that only one top-flight club has reached the FA Cup semi-finals. West Bromwich can make further history by knocking out Portsmouth, which would guarantee an all-Championship final. That would be the first time since the League was formed in 1888 that both FA Cup finalists had come from outside the top division.
Venue of Legends?
If the identity of the four semi-finalists is controversial, the choice of the new Wembley Stadium as the venue for both semi-finals and the final is contentious. The feeling is that naked commercialism - good old-fashioned greed, if you like - on the part of the FA is behind a crass scheduling decision that devalues the occasion of the final itself. The argument is that that the obscene overspend on the construction of Wembley has forced the FA to exploit every opportunity to claw back some revenue, and the semi-finals - traditionally staged at venues like Old Trafford and Villa Park - are too good an opportunity to miss. The magic of a Wembley FA Cup final was its uniqueness; staging too many lesser occasions there is regarded by many as a form of pernicious inflation.
Again, without wishing to patronise, it is questionable whether the fans of four clubs whose opportunities to go to Wembley have been somewhat limited in recent years will see the possibility of two trips there in a little over a month as a problem.
Ironically, all four semi-finalists have a proud FA Cup pedigree. They have all won the trophy before. West Brom are the most recent winners, having beaten Everton 1-0 in the 1968 final to lift the Cup for the fifth time. In fact Albion have appeared in ten finals altogether, though only two since the Second World War. Five of their appearances were at the back-end of the 19th century when such things as Premier Leagues, Bosman free transfers, players earning 50 thousand pounds or more a week and even Wembley Stadium itself were beyond even the most fanciful Victorian imaginations.
Barnsley's great claim to FA Cup fame was winning the competition in 1912, when they beat, coincidentally, West Brom - two years after losing in the final to Newcastle. Arguably, their achievements this season in disposing of both Liverpool and Chelsea have been considerably greater, given the staggering gulf in wealth and resources that now exists between the Premier League elite and lower league also-rans.
As for Cardiff City and Portsmouth, both hold special places in FA Cup folklore. One of the competition's great quiz questions is: when was the only time the trophy was taken out of England? The answer of course is 1927, when Cardiff beat Arsenal in a final that saw the only goal squirm from the grasp of Arsenal's (Welsh) goalkeeper, Dan Lewis. From that day, every new goalkeeper's jersey has been washed before wear by Arsenal, as it was claimed that the shiny new surface of the fabric contributed to Lewis's mishap. Not that Cardiff's (Scottish) match-winner, Hugh Ferguson, cared, as his captain, the chain-smoking Fred Keenor, lifted the Cup before putting it on a train heading out of the country. Two years earlier, the trip back to Wales had been more sombre, the Bluebirds having lost 1-0 to Sheffield United.
Another popular quiz question is: which club held the FA Cup for longest? And the answer is Portsmouth, beaten finalists in 1929 and 1934, who sprung one of the great pre-war upsets by defeating highly-fancied Wolverhampton Wanderers 4-1 in the 1939 final. Wolves were 5 to 1 on favourites and had finished runners-up to Everton in the League, while Pompey had just avoided relegation. Wolves boasted the meanest defence and Pompey the poorest attack in the First Division that season, but the South Coast club produced a shock by thrashing Wolves on the day.
The Second World War broke out a few months later and it fell to holders Pompey to look after the Cup for the duration of hostilities - until it was contested again in 1945-46. Thus Portsmouth had held the Cup for seven fateful years.
The Road To The Semis
This season, as the great and the good and the mediocre of English football have fallen by the wayside, Portsmouth, West Brom, Barnsley and Cardiff have steadily progressed through the rounds and are now just 90 minutes (or 120 minutes and possibly penalties, if needed) from the globally televised FA Cup final. Their respective routes to the final have been as follows:
West Bromwich Albion
Third Round: v Charlton Ath (A) DREW 1-1
Replay: v Charlton Ath (H) DREW 2-2 aet (WON 4-3 on penalties)
Fourth Round: v Peterborough Utd (A) WON 3-0
Fifth Round: v Coventry City (A) WON 5-0
Sixth Round: v Bristol Rovers (A) WON 5-1
Third Round: v Ipswich Town (A) WON 1-0
Fourth Round: v Plymouth Argyle (H) WON 2-1
Fifth Round: v Preston North End (A) WON 1-0
Sixth Round: v Manchester United (A) WON 1-0
Third Round: v Blackpool (H) WON 2-1
Fourth Round: v Southend Utd (A) WON 1-0
Fifth Round: v Liverpool (A) WON 2-1
Sixth Round: v Chelsea (H) WON 1-0
Third Round: v Chasetown (A) WON 3-1
Fourth Round: v Hereford Utd (A) WON 2-1
Fifth Round: v Wolverhampton Wanderers (H) WON 2-0
Sixth Round: v Middlesbrough (A) WON 2-0
West Bromwich Albion - Portsmouth
Who: West Brom (4th, Championship, 67/120 pts) v Portsmouth (6th, Premier League, 53/96 pts)
When: Saturday, 5th April, Kick-off: 1215
Where: Wembley Stadium
Referee: Howard Webb (South Yorkshire)
Baggies' boss Tony Mowbray has no new injury or suspension worries. Only Filipe Teixeira is definitely sidelined by injury, though on-loan Luke Moore is ineligible as he has already featured in the competition this season for his parent club, Aston Villa.
Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp will make late decisions on the fitness of Hermann Hreidarsson (Achilles) and John Utaka (hamstring). Unfortunately for Redknapp, in-form striker Jermain Defoe is cup-tied, so Kanu will lead the attack for Pompey, who have Sulley Muntari and Papa Bouba Diop back after suspension.
West Brom (0-0 v Cardiff away): Kiely, Hoefkens, Albrechtsen, Clement, Robinson, Koren (Phillips 74), Greening, Gera (Brunt 67), Pele, Morrison, Miller (Bednar 66). Subs Not Used: Danek, Barnett.
Portsmouth (2-0 v Wigan home): James, Johnson, Campbell, Distin, Hreidarsson (Lauren 63), Utaka (Hughes 71), Davis, Pedro Mendes, Kranjcar, Baros (Nugent 67), Defoe. Subs Not Used: Ashdown, Mvuemba.
Form Guide (League)
West Bromwich Albion
01 Apr v West Brom (A) DREW 0-0
29 Mar v Colchester Utd (H) WON 4-3
21 Mar v Charlton Ath (A) DREW 1-1
15 Mar v Leicester City (H) LOST 1-4
12 Mar v Crystal Palace (H) DREW 1-1
29 Mar v Wigan Ath (H) WON 2-0
22 Mar v Tottenham (A) LOST 0-2
15 Mar v Aston Villa (H) WON 2-0
12 Mar v Birmingham (H) WON 4-2
02 Mar v Everton (A) LOST 1-3