Up for t’Cup: 1992 – 2001


The most unusual mowing pattern ever

The FA Cup had been conceived and commence in the Nineteenth Century. Had those whose inspiration it had been ever foreseen what it, what their youthful, unformed game would become? I doubt that they had ever imagined what this sport, so recently codified to eliminate handling and hacking, might become, though several lived to see the outline of the future. Several lived to see the Twentieth Century: could they have imagined their trophy might last until the Twenty-First Century?
One thing that did not was the trophy itself. The third FA Cup had, by 1992, become so fragile that it could no longer be risked and a fourth – identical but sturdier – was made. But the glamorous old trophy was reserved one final outing under the North London sky that season.
The Third Round began with a bang, with one of the great Cup results of all time. It came at Football’s New Year, the Third Round, at the Racecourse Ground, Wrexham, where the visitors were Arsenal.
The great beauty of the Cup is that on any given day, any team of eleven players can defeat any other team of eleven players. The distance between the two clubs could not have been greater: Arsenal were the reigning League Champions, whilst Wrexham had finished bottom of Division Four, and had only escaped relegation to the Football Conference because of a failed plan by the Football League to expand to 94 teams. First played ninety-second. If you could arrange for this to be played one hundred times as a League game, Arsenal would have won ninety-nine and drawn the hundredth. And they scored first.
But this was the Cup. In the space of two minutes, the oldest player on the field and the youngest player on the field scored for Wrexham to overturn Arsenal’s lead and send them out of the Cup. It was a welcome demonstration of what the Cup really meant. It is the stuff of which dreams are made.
In 1973, Sunderland had shocked the whole of English Football by winning a game they were never expected to compete in. They beat Leeds United, one of the greatest teams of the time, and they beat them whilst representing the Second Division. In 1988, Liverpool had played in the other shock Cup Final result of all time, but that time they had been the overwhelming favourites, losing a game they were never expected to be vulnerable in. For the first Final of this latest decade, Sunderland, once again a Second Division, were back at Wembley and looking to pull off the same feat against the other victim.
But history never repeats itself when you’re relying upon it to do so, and Liverpool, after a goalless first half, negotiated the Sunderland challenge more than adequately. Michael Thomas, who’d destroyed Liverpool’s Double Double dreams in 1989, by scoring the goal that enabled Arsenal to steal the League in the last minute of the season, opened the scoring, and Ian Rush became the first player to score in three different Cup Finals. It was his fifth Cup Final goal, a record that remains to this day.
Somehow, the sets of medals were switched round so that Liverpool’s team received losers medals and Sunderland winners. The players rectified the issue themselves on the pitch after the presentation.
The FA Cup still remained the showpiece, the climax of the season, but something went out of it in this season, heralding a new decade. With effect from 1991/92, there were to be no more marathon ties. Henceforward, if the scores were still level after extra time in a replay, the game would be decided that night, by a penalty shoot-out.
It was not a decision taken by the FA, rather one that was enforced upon it. The game was emerging from the dark ages of being regarded as the cause of hooliganism, as opposed to being its victims. Football fans had refuted their image as thugs at Italia ’90. Manchester United had gone straight back into Europe and won a trophy at the first time of asking. All-seater grounds were beginning to spread, in accordance with the Government’s directives. The membership scheme was gone, the fences were gone, good things were coming.
But the Police, whose relationship with football had been forever soiled by the experience of Hillsborough, decided to put their foot down. Their presence for crowd control and safety was mandatory before a game could take place: suddenly, they decided that they would no longer provide that on anything less than ten days notice.
It was a direct blow to the Cup. Traditionally, replays were instant: draw on Saturday, be back at it by Tuesday or Wednesday. That was gone in an instant: no replays until the week after. And any subsequent replays would also need ten day’s notice. And there wasn’t that much time between Rounds that could accommodate later replays.
So the FA gave in, decided to cut their losses, accept the police’s position, introduce penalty shoot-outs as a standard Cup feature. In the Fourth Round, Manchester United became the first First Division Club to go out of the Cup without losing, at home to Southampton.
And it diminished the Cup, just as so many things would begin to do so in this fateful decade.
The biggest of all, though it made no direct difference, came that summer, though it had been bruited almost all the season. The long years of rivalry between the Football Association and the Football League over who really controlled English football were settled when the FA persuaded (it was down to money, which was always the most convincing talker) the entire First Division to secede from the League and form the English Premier League, a separate competition.
It settled the argument decisively: it was the Clubs, hand in hand with the money from BSkyB Satellite Broadcasting, buying Football, hook, line and sinker. It made no difference to the Cup, structurally: The Premier League simply took the place of the old First Division, the Football League renumbered its Divisions, moving everybody one level up, and the game went on as normal, or so it seemed.
But the money went into the Premier League, not the Football League. And the financial benefits of a successful Premier League season suddenly outweighed the glamour of the Cup. It didn’t happen immediately. But the seeds were sewn, and in very fertile ground, well-watered with money.
Arsenal would be the first Premier League team to win the Cup, completing as they did a new Double, the first club to win both the League Cup and the FA Cup in the same season. Both games ended 2-1 and both times the defeated side was Sheffield Wednesday, proving yet again that football is weirder than fiction. It is the only time this has happened.
But there was much more to this Cup season than that. Once more, only two years later, the North London rivals were drawn together in the semi-final, making a mockery of the FA’s claims, in 1991, that a Wembley-staged semi-final would be a complete one-off. Given the greater capacity, the FA were hardly upset at having to repeat the exercise, but were faced with a revolt over the other semi-final venue.
By an odd coincidence, this too was a derby match, the two Sheffield clubs having been paired by the draw. Originally, and in accordance with the traditional approach, the game was scheduled for  Elland Road, Leeds. But United and Wednesday protested furiously. They were upset that their rivals were being favourably treated by experiencing the Wembley atmosphere ahead of them, and given the rivalry between Sheffield and Leeds, they were unhappy at being required to play in a city where they both were hated.
So, after an initial show of reluctance that seemed to be based more in trying to demonstrate who was boss, rather than upholding principle and tradition, the FA accepted the Sheffield clubs’ proposals. And got a much higher gate than any Elland Road could have produced.
There was another shift as well. The live televised semi-finals of the past two years had both been free-to-air on terrestrial television. But the advent of BSkyB as a major player, televising live Premier League games, extended to the Cup. The Sheffield semi-final took place on the Saturday, on Sky TV: only the North London semi-final – won on this occasion by Arsenal – was shown on BBC.
Unusually, the Final began with the presentation of a Winners’ Medal, to Arsenal’s Steve Morrow. It was a holdover from the League Cup: Morrow had scored the winning goal and, at the final whistle, was lifted off the ground by team-mate Tony Adams, who unfortunately dropped him, causing Morrow to break his shoulder and have to be rushed off by ambulance with receiving his medal.
The Final was drawn, one apiece, making this the fifth Final in the last thirteen years to require a replay. It was also the last time this would occur. In 1999, the FA would decide to abolish replays for the semi-finals and Final: any such match not settled after extra-time would go to a penalty shoot-out, an indignity that all fans of the Cup immediately and devoutedly hoped would never be required in  the Final.
It nearly came to pass in the replay. The match finished 1-1 again, Arsenal’s goals in each match both scored by Ian Wright, adding him to the short list of players who’d scored for two different Cup  Final teams and bringing his total in Finals to four, one short of Ian Rush. And the game was in injury time at the end of extra-time when Andy Linighan headed the Arsenal winner to spare that fate.
This was also the first Final in which the teams played in squad numbers, with their names on their backs, instead of the traditional 1 – 11. The innovation was taken up the following season by the Premier League and has now spread to all of English professional football.
The first Premier League was won by Manchester United, ending their twenty-six year long quest for another title. It was to be the springboard for a season that would see them come closer than anyone ever before or since to winning not merely the classic Double, but a Grand Slam, a Clean Sweep of every trophy in the domestic game.
United were League leaders for all but twenty-eight hours of the season, and they won the Charity Shield after a penalty shoot-out (shared Shields were no longer permissible in the BSkyB era). At one point, they led the League by sixteen points, but in the Spring they suffered a collective loss of form that threatened to leave them with nothing. It did cost them the League Cup, beaten 3-1 by Aston Villa, and suffering their fourth red card in the space of a month, two of which in successive games having led to a five match suspension for their talisman, Eric Cantona.
One of those other matches Cantona was disqualified for was the FA Cup semi-final.
Once again there was controversy over the venues. Mindful of the income a Wembley tie would produce, the FA seized upon the draw pairing Chelsea with Luton Town as an excuse to nominate the Empire Stadium, and with a sanctimonious air, proclaim that fairness demanded the other tie also be held at Wembley, even though United were paired, for a second time in five years, with their Greater Manchester neighbours, Oldham Athletic.
United protested loudly at the expense yet another trip to London would mean for their fans, particularly pertinent with the country still in recession. The FA decided to let things rest upon a ballot of both clubs’ fans, agreeing to switch if both sets agreed. United’s fans voted overwhelmingly for change, but a majority of Oldham fans wanted Wembley, and so it was. It is rumoured in Manchester to this day that the Oldham verdict was tipped by a large intake of Manchester City fans, out to inconvenience their rivals.
United were in poor form. The semi-final was not the six goal thriller of yesteryear, and an Oldham goal nine minutes from the end of extra-time was on the point of taking the club to their first Final, when a spectacular equaliser by Mark Hughes secured a replay. This was played at Maine Road, Manchester, where the tie should always have been played, and United were comprehensive 4-1 winners.
This was another Final I failed to see on TV, for the simple fact that I was at Wembley itself. The omens were mixed, with Chelsea the only team to do the League double over United, both times by a single goal from Gavin Peacock. Who hit the bar in the first half, which was goalless. The second half was a different story as United were twice awarded penalties, one clear cut, the other controversial. Both were stroked home in identical manner by Cantona, the first Frenchman to play in the Cup Final.
It was the first, and to date only occasion when two penalties have been awarded to the same team, and Cantona’s first was the first Cup Final penalty to be scored since Arnold Muhren for United in the replay eleven years earlier.
The second penalty was the subject of controversy, referee David Ellary giving the award from thirty yards away when his linesmen, ten yards from the incident, failed to flag. However, Ellary was at the correct angle to see the offence, whereas his linesman’s view was blocked by the body of United’s Andrei Kanchelskis. I have always found it significant that, despite England’s top referee being correct in seeing the offence, his linesman was unable to tell him that contact had been two yards outside the area. Subsequently, Elleray admitted regretting his decision.
Not being at home, I missed the BBC’s near blunder in allowing replays of the penalty incident to nearly overrun United’s third goal, by Hughes. This too was a personal record: it was Hughes’ fourth Wembley appearance of the season – Charity Shield, League Cup Final, FA Cup semi-final and Final – and he had scored in every game. Indeed, Cantona’s first penalty had been United’s first Wembley goal that season NOT to be scored by Hughes!
The Frenchman came inches from scoring the first Cup Final hat trick since 1953 but United equalled their own record for biggest winning margin at Wembley with a fourth goal just before time, set up on a plate for Brian McClair by an act of unselfishness above and beyond the call of human nature by Paul Ince.
United’s eighth win equaled Tottenham Hotspur’s record and they also became the sixth team to win the Double of League and Cup in the same year. That the Cup was still the great glory game may be signified by the fact that it was not until the third United goal, securing the Cup, that I remembered United were the League Champions, and had therefore won the Double!
This was also the first Final to features three substitutes for each team, enabling clubs thereafter to always have a goalkeeping substitute available in the event of injury or sending off.
After winning their Double, Liverpool had come close three times in the next four years to be the first Club to win in twice. In 1994/95, Manchester United came within two blinding saves of doing it back-to-back.
That season’s Cup almost began with a team short, as Tottenham Hotspur were initially banned from entering the Cup, as a punishment for financial irregularities. On appeal, however, it was decided that a financial penalty was better suited for financial improprieties and the joint record-holders were reinstated.
Manchester United’s season was rocked in February by the suspension of their talismanic striker, Eric Cantona until September 30 1995. Cantona had been sent off in a League game at Crystal Palace and was pursued along the touchline by a home fan spewing racial and obscene taunts at him, until Cantona vaulted the fence and kung-fu kicked the fan (quickly revealed to be a National Front member).
United reacted promptly and responsibly by suspending Cantona for the rest of the season, though the FA decided it needed to be seen acting and extended that ban by a further ten weeks.
Without Cantona, United still reached the Final, needing a replay to beat their 1990 Final opponents, Crystal Palace in the semi-final, whilst Everton comfortably beat the reprieved Spurs to set up a repeat of the 1985 Final. United, hampered by the absence of Cantona, arrived at Wembley as Premier League runners-up by a single point, a title-winning win in their last game denied by great saves from Ludek Miklosko for West Ham.
The repeat Final from ten years previously would end with the same score, but this time Everton prevailed. United were denied extra-time by a blinding save from Neville Southall, who played in both games, preventing an equaliser by substitute Paul Scholes. Scholes would score in a Final before the decade was out.
Nevertheless, United’s failure in 1995 was reversed only twelve months later. Cantona’s return from his lengthy suspension saw him create one and score one in a 2-2 home draw with Liverpool, and several vital goals from the Frenchman saw United overhaul season-long League leaders Newcastle United to regain the title.
Once again, an entire round was almost wiped out by snow, in late January, with only four of sixteen ties in Round Four being completed on the day. There was another oddity when Round Six featured an all-Premiership line-up, a very rare occurrence, and due to television’s demand for live games, all four ties were played on different days.
In the semi-final, United were drawn to play Chelsea. It was their third successive semi-final and their third against recent and previous major Cup opponents: in order, United had played their 1990 semi-final opponents, their 1990 Final opponents and their 1994 Final opponents, who they beat 2-0 at Villa Park.
For once, the Cup missed a trick. The other semi-final was played at Old Trafford between Aston Villa and Liverpool, who won by a comfortable 3-0, denying the Cup a Final between clubs who had won their semi-finals at each other’s ground!
For a second successive season, Manchester United faced a repeat Final against opponents they had previously beaten at Wembley, but where Everton had gained revenge, Liverpool were unable to prevent a second defeat, inevitably at the hand, or boot, of Cantona, four minutes from the end. For those who watched on TV, the game was a dull disappointment, but I can only speak for myself when I say that inside Wembley, the game was tense and fascinating at every minute.
United became the first team to win the Double Double, only two years after completing their first such. This was their ninth Cup win, setting a new record, and Eric Cantona became the first player to score Cup Final goals from both the penalty spot and in open play. They also became only the fifth team to reach three successive Finals, as recently achieved by Arsenal and Everton.
Speaking in my personal capacity as a Manchester United fan, I have to comment that when United were beaten in a Fourth Round replay in the 1996/97 tournament, it was a very strange sensation. It was the first time in four years that we had no interest in the Cup after January. I don’t mean to be big-headed at that: I am sure that Arsenal fans in 1981 and Everton fans in 1987 had exactly the same sense of vague displacement.
There was a guaranteed first time Finalist that season when Middlesbrough were drawn against Second Division Chesterfield. This was the first appearance in the semi-finals by a third tier team since Norwich City in 1959, and Chesterfield took their Premier League opponents to a draw, or rather it was the reverse, as Chesterfield led twice and were denied a third goal when the referee, David Elleray again, missed seeing a shot bounce behind the line. Within two minutes, the referee awarded a penalty to Middlesbrough for an obstruction that took place outside the penalty area, from which Boro scored their second equaliser. Chesterfield’s run was broken in the replay, which Middlesbrough won comfortably.
In contrast, Chelsea were easy winners in their semi-final against Wimbledon, coming their closest to repeating the glories of 1988, just five years before the controversial and fatal decision to allow the club to be uprooted to Milton Keynes. Chelsea were equally comfortable at Wembley, winning their second Cup, twenty-seven years after the first, whilst Robert di Matteo broke Jackie Milburn’s record for fastest goal at Wembley, set forty-two years earlier, scoring after only 43 seconds.
Middlesbrough would complete the unwanted Double of Cup Final defeat and a very controversial relegation in the same season due to a points deduction, not to mention defeat in the League Cup Final. But it was a personal triumph for Chelsea striker Mark Hughes, winning a record fourth Winners Medal after three with Manchester United. Chelsea manager Ruud Gullit became the first foreign and non-white  Manager to win the Cup.
Chelsea would go on to record the seventh English win in the European Cup-Winners Cup, the only English team to win it twice. Their victory came in the Cup’s penultimate season: it’s reputation had seriously declined and a decision was taken to abolish it after the 1998/99 season.
In 1988, Arsenal emulated Manchester United by winning their Second Double, though this came twenty-seven years after their first. Arsenal were also the first team to win the Cup after progressing through two penalty shoot-outs, the second of these in the semi-final. Their opponents at Wembley were Newcastle United, the third time this pair of clubs had met in the Final, the only pairing to meet more than twice. Newcastle had won both the previous encounters.
Though he was not in the match-day squad for the Final, the first in which  each team could name five substitutes, of whom only three could be used, Ian Rush had scored for Newcastle in Round Three against Everton, his 43rd goal in the FA Cup. Like his five in Finals, this is a Cup record that stands until today: no player has scored more Cup goals.
This year saw ITV replace BBC as the terrestrial TV broadcaster. Because of Arsenal’s Double, Newcastle became the last English team to qualify for the Cup-Winners Cup, alongside holders Chelsea.
This was another Final that I refused to watch, the reason this time being the teams playing. In every Final where I did not have a personal stake in the outcome, I could always settle upon one team to support. It seemed as necessary as breathing. I cannot be perfectly neutral, perfectly disinterested. I need some element of passion, however spurious or brief. How this was to be determined depended on multiple factors: sometimes, I would support one side because I couldn’t stand the other. This Final presented me with a conundrum. I couldn’t stand Arsenal and their manager Arsene Wenger, and wanted them to lose. On the other hand, I couldn’t stand Newcastle manager, Kenny Dalglish, and wanted them to lose.
So I went up to the Lake District for a day’s walking and managed to avoid learning the result until the Sunday paper was delivered.
Arsenal had equaled Manchester United’s record of winning the Double twice. Practically the whole 1998/99 season, in League and Cup, was a struggle between the two teams to become the first club to win it three times.
Before this reached a head in the semi-final, there was a sensation in Round Five involving Arsenal, who defeated Sheffield United thanks to a controversial goal, breaking the unwritten ‘rule’ about returning the ball to opponents who had knocked it out of play to allow medical treatment for an injured player. Manager Arsene Wenger offered to replay the game, which Arsenal won second time round.
Neck-and-neck in the Premier League, Arsenal and United were drawn together in the semi-final, where a properly dramatic draw would have paired them at Wembley. The game was goalless with David Elleray once again at the heart of controversy, disallowing a valid United goal over a misinterpretation of the offside rule.
This set the scene for the last ever semi-final replay. Ellary sent off United captain Roy Keane and disallowed an offside Arsenal winning goal. United saved a last minute penalty and the game was won in extra-time by a goal from Ryan Giggs that was immediately hailed as one of the greatest ever scored in Cup history.
United’s win prevented the first case of back-to-back Finals with identical teams since Blackburn Rovers vs Queen’s Park, in 1885 and 1886. They duly completed their Third Double in six seasons (and the fourth in that same period) before going on to win the Champions League Final, and complete the Treble that they had denied to Liverpool in 1977. Almost unnoticed, United extended their record as Cup Winners to ten. As the Cup-Winners Cup no longer existed, Newcastle United became the first English club to qualify for the UEFA Cup by this route.
Much was (unavailingly) expected and feared of the Millennium. For the Cup, it was a progression into the third Century of its existence, and it was also the seventy second and last Final to be played at the Empire Stadium Wembley, with its famous Twin Towers. To their everlasting shame, defending holders Manchester United withdrew from the Cup, the only winners to fail to defend their trophy. United were under pressure to play in the FIFA World Club Championship in South America, in the misguided belief that it would support the FA’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup. The Championship would have clashed with the Cup’s Fourth Round, and the suggestion that United muster a team of reserves and juniors for that Round – assuming they would reach it, which was not a given – was dismissed as an insult to the Cup. How that could have been worse than simply refusing to play – as holders – is hard to understand.
The FA Cup’s prestige was delivered a blow, by the people charged with maintaining its history and tradition. In one moment, that was discarded, and the Cup’s meaning, except for romantics such as myself, has diminished ever since.
To accommodate United’s absence from the Third Round draw, the FA opted to re-include a ‘lucky loser’, a random Second Round victim. This fell upon Darlington, the only club ever to get a second Cup life. They were promptly beaten by  the eventual Finalists, Aston Villa.
There was a big shock in Round Five when League Two (i.e., fourth tier) club Gillingham beat Premier League Sheffield Wednesday, but their hopes were crushed in the quarter-finals by eventual winners, Chelsea.
With the demolition of the Empire Stadium, and its replacement to be paid for, the FA dispensed with the neutral ground tradition in favour of the increased gate money and brought the semi-finals to Wembley again. This was a foretaste of the eventual decision to make Wenbley the semi-finals’ permanent home. Chelsea kept Newcastle from reaching a third successive Final whilst Aston Villa reached their first Final since setting their seven win record in 1957, thanks to a penalty shoot-out.
But the last Old Wembley Final went to Chelsea, the claret and blue shirts finishing on the losing side as they had in the very first on that ground, with Roberto di Matteo scoring for Chelsea in the Final a second time.
So, for the first time in seventy-eight years, the Cup Final needed a new home. It was suggested that Old Trafford, Manchester, be used, as the stadium with the greatest capacity in England, but instead the FA chose to take the Final away from England, agreeing to utilise the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for the five years it was estimated it would take for the new Wembley to be constructed (it would, in practice, take six years).
Manchester United returned to the competition they had dishonoured, winning 2-1 away at Fulham in the Third Round, but beaten in unusual circumstances at home by West Ham United in the Fourth Round, when an attempted bluff by goalkeeper Fabien Barthez failed to deter Paolo di Canio from scoring the only goal.
There was a shock in the Fifth Round thanks to second tier Tranmere Rovers, who came from 3-0 down to Premier League Southampton to win 4-3, thanks to a hat trick by former Southampton striker Paul Rideout, scorer of the winning goal in  the 1995 Final for Everton, but it was overshadowed by fourth tier Wycombe Wanderers in the next round, by beating Leicester City 2-1, their late winner coming from a player who had only recently joined the club after seeing a newspaper advertisement.
Wycombe made history by becoming the first fourth tier team to reach the semi-finals, where they were only narrowly beaten by Liverpool, all three goals coming in the last twelve minutes.
The other semi-final was the third meeting at this stage between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. Surprisingly, after the FA’s sincere concerns about capacity for such a meeting, the clubs managed perfectly well at Old Trafford, Manchester. Then again, Old Trafford did hold more than 70,000 by that time, so everybody was happy, except perhaps for the fans, with both sets of supporters having to travel over 250 miles – on the same routes – to reach the venue.
The Spurs fans were certainly the unhappiest: for once, their Cup affinity with years ending in 1 let them down.
The first wholly Twenty-First Century Cup saw the first Final to be held outside England. There was no score until Arsenal took the lead, twelve minutes from time, and looked to have secured the Cup, but two late goals from Michael Owen turned the game around, and it was Liverpool who ended the thirteenth decade as Cup-Winners, exactly as they had started it.
This was the fourth, and to date last Final that I missed watching, and for the same reason as 1998: Arsenal? Liverpool? What joy can be had from watching a Final where you desperately want both teams to lose, and one must win?
The FA Cup was now 130 years old. But at last it was beginning to show its years. It wasn’t just the indignities shown to it during its thirteenth decade, many of them practiced by the men who were supposed to be respecters and guardians of its heritage, record and glamour. But football as a whole underwent a massive change in the Nineties, thanks to Sky TV. Millions were poured into the game, much more than the game that had once been the province of sportsmanlike Public schoolboys and hard-nosed working class men alike had ever seen. And money changed everything, in many ways for the better but, for good or ill, it changed things irrevocably.
If it was about anything, Sky TV was about control, which came from exclusivity. But it couldn’t show the FA Cup exclusively. The Final was still a ‘Crown Jewel’, a Protected event that had to be shown free-to-air. So the Cup didn’t get what the Premier League and the Champions League got. These became the money-pots, the tournaments to win. Glamour is all very well, but it doesn’t pay for that new record signing who doesn’t know that once upon a time you won one of the most exciting FA Cup Finals ever.
This was demonstrated vividly by the scheduling of the Final. For the first time, the Final was deliberately scheduled to be played a week before the end of the League season. Though the day was cleared for the Final itself, nevertheless one final round of matches (with nothing but relegation to settle, Manchester United having won the League at a canter) was scheduled for the week after the Final.
The men who ran the FA betrayed the Cup, betrayed football, for the smell of the money. Weak men in power, a dangerous, indeed fatal combination. Nothing was safe in their hands, not if the chance of an extra buck was dangled before them. Everything was for sale, even the FA Cup.
This degradation of the Cup would only rise through its next, and last complete decade so far.

WINNERS
(all Finals played at the Empire Stadium, Wembley unless otherwise stated)

1991/92   Liverpool 2 Sunderland 0
1992/93    Arsenal 1 Sheffield Wednesday 1 (aet)
R:   Arsenal 2 Sheffield Wednesday 1 (aet)
1993/94   Manchester United 4 Chelsea 0
1994/95   Everton 1 Manchester United 0
1995/96  Manchester United 1 Liverpool 0
1996/97   Chelsea 2 Middlesbrough 0
1997/98   Arsenal 2 Newcastle United 0
1998/99  Manchester United 2 Newcastle United 0
1999/2000 Chelsea 1 Aston Villa 0
2000/01  Liverpool 2 Arsenal 1 (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff)

The third decade of the FA Cup’s second century featured only eleven clubs, and only five winners, this latter equalling only the previous decade. Manchester United, with three again, were the most successful team again, and there were two wins for Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. Only Everton disturbed the ‘Big Four’ clubs in their dominance. Each of the ‘Big Four’ appeared in one losing Final as well as their wins, and, with the exception of Everton, each of the other one-timers went down to defeat, including Middlesbrough, the Decade’s only First-Tine Finalists. But Manchester United have to be the team of the decade, each of their three wins being Doubles and, in the case of the third of these, a Treble unprecedented amongst the major Leagues of Europe (a formulation chosen to obscure the fact that, in 1967, Glasgow Celtic had gone one better than everyone). ‘Big Four’ domination would continue into the next decade, as the romance of the Cup, and its unpredictability diminished even further.

End-of-Term Report: Lucifer


An all together more convincing Devil

Having already made my opinions clear about the TV version of Lucifer, in no uncertain terms, an End-of-Term Report may be regarded as otiose. Lucifer has come to the end of its thirteen episode first season, and it has been renewed for a second season. After the current season finale, it would appear that substantial changes are on the way, with two cast members being rendered hors de combat (though there’s nothing to stop the series coming back to Malcolm in Hell next year), and we were treated to a final word cliffhanger climax that gave us the line for season 2.

Nevertheless, I will not be playing in this particular sandpit next year.

I knew from the outset not to expect the TV Lucifer to emulate the Mike Carey/Neil Gaiman character from the Vertigo series. Those were, and still are, just not the kind of stories that can be adapted to television with any fidelity, and that is not going to change in my lifetime.

They deal with profound and fundamental issues concerning Predestination and Free Will, and a relationship between Lucifer Morningstar and God, his Father, that in the nature of the two beings/entities, was plainly incapable of resolution. Lucifer’s pride, his arrogance, every atom of him demanded something that could not be given: he could not cease to be, or ever have been, the creation of his Father. All Lucifer could, eventually achieve, was to remove himself, to go forever beyond the reach and presence of his Creator. He could not uncreate that Creator.

Carey’s series dealt with heavy issues, issues that many of the religious could not have helped but see as blasphemous. Fox were prepared to deny the Christians enough to present ‘Lucifer’ as hero/anti-hero, but not to tackle anything serious whilst they were at it.

No, all I hoped for was Lucifer himself, Lucifer as defined by Carey, and Gaiman, and John Milton before them. Cold, callous, invincible, reeking with ancient authority, superior, never at a loss, calm, polite, gracious, consumed by himself and his wants alone. In Carey’s hands, Lucifer was in control, supercilious and often tremendously funny in how he allowed no pomposity or presumption, not even in himself.

But that’s not the Lucifer we were given nor, in retrospect, do I think that portrayal was ever possible. That would to have accorded too much to the Devil, to have drawn down too much disapprobation, of a kind that couldn’t be shrugged off or laughed away.

So Lucifer was not, and was never going to be what I wanted it to be. Was what it was any  good in itself?

Well, I’ve already made it plain that I don’t think so, not for a second. It was hard to try and see Lucifer for itself, let alone judge it, and I’m afraid I never managed a clear-eyed look. Because Lucifer the tv series was, from start to finish, a cheap giggle, a deeply unserious thing, daring to believe it was transgressive, when in truth it never exceeded the level of a twelve-year old virgin who still found wank-jokes to be the height of humour.

Well before we reached the depths of having the Lord of Hell, the Prince of Darkness called ‘Lucy’, Tom Ellis’s portrayal was of an ultimately shallow, fayly-giggling, retarded adolescent who combined an unheathily juvenile interested mainly through blatantly obvious knob-jokes, overlaid by a nudge-nudge, wink-wink air of perversion that was outdated in the dark ages when homosexuals were fairies and pooftahs and all behaved like that.

TV Lucifer’s evil and transgressive nature was reduced to toilet-wall sexuality, whilst its serious side, when it came to the crime-of-the-week was if anything even more demeaning. Lucifer’s ageless intelligence, his infinite subtlety, was reduced to that of a brainless clown shrieking around, banging his head on a completely irrelevant brick wall that everyone his inferior  has already identified as propping up somebody else’s kitchen in a different city. Lucifer’s complete blindness to what has been going on around him has been embarrassing to watch: satanist cults should really have been suing for defamation long before now.

Along the way, there were a couple of moments when the show stepped out of its limited and grubby little pen to deal with things of higher moment. The thing  with Lucifer’s wings came to absolutely nothing, at which point I lost all hopes I had for it ever getting better, and there was a potentially interesting scene in the penultimate episode which was swamped by the morass of what had gone before.

This involved Lucifer hurt, rattled, despairing of ever escaping the blame for sin and evil. Lucifer is not himself Evil: he is Lord of Hell because that is how he was punished by God, but he is not evil, he does not solicit evil, he is there solely to punish. Lucifer is the victim of the longest ever misappropriation of blame.

Too little, too late to turn the tide of what had gone before, and too implausible in the light of the horrified boy scout act Lucifer was putting on at the sight of cultists killing people. I’m sorry, Lord of Hell, punisher of Evil for how many millennia is it, and you’re trying to sell me on your feeling shock and disgust at one ritual slaying? Oh, no.

The final episode, which began with Lucifer under arrest by Chloe Decker for a murder of which he was being framed was, quite frankly, an incomprehensible morass, with neither the writers nor the show-runners knowing what to do except throw in several stainless steel kitchen  sinks and hear them go crash! It was desperately stupid from every angle and I don’t propose to try to explain any of it.

As for the set-up for next year, at one point Lucifer is killed and goes back to Hell, only for God to grant his request for a favour and restore him to Earth, provided Lucifer re-enters his service and hunts down a single escapee from Hell. An escapee who frightens Lucifer. Who is this season 2 big bad? Why, it’s Mummy.

Lucifer clearly has its fans and they can enjoy the show without me. I confess that I only stuck it out to the end just to see what the end would be, and I have no qualms about steering a wide berth in season 2. The teaser doesn’t tempt me, far from it, and I will leave you to come up with your own reasons for why, on every possible level there could be, it is such a dumbfuck idea to have your Big Bad be Mrs God.

Good luck.

Deep Space Nine: s2e10 – ‘The Sanctuary’


Where’s the skin cream?

I always play a little game with myself with each new episode of Deep Space Nine, trying to assess from the open where the story will go this week. Invariably the first half can be disregarded as a distraction: the formula is a bit of ‘life-as-normal’, to then be interrupted by the actual subject of the story, which also provides the lead into that superb theme music.

‘The Sanctuary’ offered a double-helping this week, with first Major Kira getting a mild disciplinary over allowing her frustrations with the Bajoran Provisional Government to override her duty to complete the duty roster, then Quark complaining that the aged Bajoran musician blowing a heartfelt version of the theme, who he’d taken on at her request, was bankrupting him by tempting his customers to listen, not gamble.

So the actual meat was held back to the final seconds: a strange ship, in bad repair, comes through the Wormhole, it’s crew of four – two men, one boy, one female leader – are beamed aboard, but the Universal Translator can’t turn their language into English for us…

Unfortunately, this extended open was a symbol of the poor, stretched quality of the story this week. The story itself was so thin, and frankly predictable, that it felt like all sorts of unimportant and irrelevant stuff had to be crammed in just to make it last long enough.

The newcomers are Skreea, the woman named Haneek, the boy Tumak and the two men Haneek’s insignificant husbands, or rather bondsmen. The Skreea are a matriarchal society in which males are generally dismissed as over-emotional and impractical, and are polyandrist possessions of the females: in short, a complete contrast to Alpha Quadrant society, but possessed with enough gender-reversed parallels as to set up a fruitful tension between the societies.

Having outlined that, I have spent more time on the subject than the show did.

The Skreeans are a farming race fleeing from conquering invaders – a direct parallel there to Bajor which also went all-but unexplored – and there are three million of them out there on the other side of the Eye of the Universe (no relation to the Pete Atkin song of the same name), seeking refuge on their planet of hope, Kentanna.

Haneek, a simple farmer, becomes by default a leader, in the same way that Kira becomes, by default, the Skreea liaison, and, or so it seems, a friend to Haneek. That is, until Haneek decides that Kentanna is Bajor.

Unfortunately, the Provisional Government decides that in the planet’s current state, struggling to feed itself as it is, it cannot accept three million refugees on an isolated and barren peninsula. It doesn’t matter that the Skreea are farmers and that Haneek is absolutely convinced they can grow anything anywhere. It doesn’t matter that they don’t want aid at all, that they plane to be self-sufficient. The Bajorans point out – an under-emphasisedplus point for them – that if it all goes pear-shaped, they simply couldn’t sit by and let the Skreea die: they’d have to aid them and they haven’t got the resources.

The hell of it is that Kira agrees, which immediately snaps Haneek’s friendship: Kira won’t do exactly what she wants? Hate her.

It’s unworthy. It may be understandable but it immediately diminishes Haneek, whose case is precarious given that it’s apparently based on nothing more solid than we-can-do-it conviction whereas the Bajoran case comes at least in part from study.

And that’s it, basically. The Skreea have no option but to accept the much more promising uninhabited planet Sisko and Dax have found for them and Haneek and Kira part with only bitterness on Haneek’s part about not getting her increasingly self-righteous way, and words about how Bajor is basically paranoid after the Cardassians. Even then, Haneek can only offer ‘we’ll never know if it would have worked but it would have been better if it had.’

Of course, since that’s a crap ending, it has to be gussied up a bit first, with some artificial, tacked-on drama. Haneek’s spoilt brat son Tumak – boy, they really know how to get you on some people’s side, don’t they? – steals a ship and sets off for a one-boy-and-his-two-mates invasion of Bajor. Unfortunately, he’s chosen a ship under repair, with a plasma leak. He won’t answer hails, won’t shut his engine down, gets fired at by Bajoran interceptors (aiming to miss) and blows up.

I really could not get into this episode. It was crude and predictable and did everything it could to deprive the Skreea of sympathy, down to giving them all very flaky skin that made them all unpalatable to look-at. Yet the story could easily have been a much better episode, one that integrated all its little sub-plots into a cohesive central track, that set-up an inevitable tragedy, that properly got the viewer onto the side of Haneek.

But it was too inept, and too lazy to do so. Maybe it ended up being a rush-job, too little time to work out the script properly, maybe filler was all that could be scraped together this week, but it was a seriously thin and lacking effort, and well below season 2’s standards thus far.

For future reference, the story mentions the Dominion for only the second time, and for the first time to the Federation.

Better next week, I hope.

Twin Peaks: It’s getting nearer


Filming has been completed for the long-unexpected third series of Twin Peaks, due to appear in 2017.

A cast list with 200 names (200!) has been published and can be studied here.

This going to be either the greatest television experience ever or the greatest television disaster ever, and I can’t even begin to guess which one is the more likely.

But it’s going to happen. My 1991 self would be absolutely delighted (except for the bit about waiting twenty-six years, that is).

A Collection of J. L. Carr: A Season in Sinji


A Season in Sinji, J. L. Carr’s second novel, was originally published in 1967, the same year that he resigned his position as Headmaster of Highfields Primary School, Kettering, in order to devote his time to writing, and to publishing. Though the book centres upon experiences of War-time, based upon Carr’s own  experiences in West Africa, it is also a book about cricket, and has been hailed by many people as the finest cricket based novel ever published.
But don’t let that put off the cricket-haters among you. Cricket is indeed a running theme throughout the novel, and the fortunes of a cricket side are of great importance as the narrative gains momentum towards its tragic conclusion, but its importance in the book is rather as a metaphor, as A.C 2, 1293393 Flanders T, orders his thinking according to his experience of the game.
Though A Season in Sinji is set during the War, it’s also very much removed from it. The story begins in Blackfen in Lancashire, at a camp where RAF servicemen, groundcrew, technicians, support staff, are in a form of limbo whilst they await – some of them interminably – for postings. It’s a horrible place, staffed by horrible men, dull, stupid, sex-obsessed and starved, eking out time with nothing to do and nothing to think about.
The whole setting is grim as can be. Carr is particularly savage about ‘Lancasheer’ and the ‘Lancasheer’ accent (a bit of Yorkshire prejudice going on there) through both Flanders, the narrator of this story, and Wakerly, Flanders’ closest friend. The two men come from different backgrounds: Flanders, at 26, is from the North Riding, of farming  stock, brought up by a Religious Grandfather and a caring mother (his father has not been part of the equation: his fate is not stated but the inference is that he abandoned his family, being unable to put up with his Father-in-Law) whilst Wakerly is from somewhere down south, two years younger, better educated, a step or two up the class scale.
The pair are trained/in training as photographers. They already know each other from camp on the south coast, at Budworth, where the binding event that spirals out through the events of the novel, takes place.
But before we learn of any of this, Carr opens the story with an event of seemingly complete irrelevance. This is a woman, beautiful and sexual, who comes into the tea room out of the rain, in bare, stockinged-feet, accompanied by a shorter, meek man. The tea and its surroundings are not to her taste, and she is vocal about this, sweeping out into the rain in disgust. Flanders and Wakerly observe this. They never see the woman again: she is almost a hallucination, a fetish-dream in a wet, dark, dull, depressed war situation. But she is later identified, in an imported newspaper clipping, as having been murdered by the shorter, meek man, her husband.
Leave that aside. From Blackfen, the story moves backwards in time to Budworth, and to Flanders and Wakerly teaming up together. Flanders talks of them understanding each other as people, and it is very clear that neither has, nor wants, anything in common with their fellow servicemen. Indeed, both are contemptuous of them, a contempt derived primarily from a class point of view. It is unpleasant to read, in much the same way that a lot of A Day in Summer is, before the narrative momentum takes hold.
But Budworth also contains Caroline Driffield, a beautiful eighteen year old working behind the bar at her Uncle’s pub, which becomes the regular haunt of Flanders and Wakerly. Both of them are in love with Caroline, though it takes the whole length of the book before Flanders admits this. At the time, he merely observes that Wakerly loves Caroline – to the point of obsession as we’ll see – and stands aside in favour of his friend, who he sees as more deserving of Caroline, socially.
Wakerly, however, lacks the courage to speak. And Flanders passes up his chance, with Caroline experiencing hot urges, partly because he feels himself inferior to Wakerly, but also because he is sexually naïve: inexperienced and self-determinedly inactive.
Enter Turton. Turton is the third pole of this story, the villain. Turton is a Leading Aircraftsman, a technically oriented  photographer and an all round arsehole. Turton sees Caroline and moves in on her. Wakerly refuses to fight. Flanders has withdrawn from the combat. Turton takes Caroline to bed, wants to marry her. When her Uncle refuses consent, he forces the issues by making Caroline pregnant (though she miscarries).
Then comes Blackfen, and after that a posting, for both Flanders and Wakerly, both sent to Sinji, in West Africa.
Like A Day in Summer, this is a very dark book, presenting a picture of its setting as unrelievably miserable and despairing, and once more shot through with a distinct class contempt for the plain, the ordinary, the vulgar – i.e., the lower classes. Carr has very little time for ordinary people, limited and unintelligent, enslaved to carnal needs: Flanders’ withdrawal from the sphere of sex is ascribed as being primarily the fear of making a fool of himself in ignorance, but there is a fastidiousness to him, a revulsion from flesh that continually shows itself.
Nor do things improve once the boat reached RAF Sinji.
The boat is torpedoed in the mouth of the river upon which Sinji stands. Flanders survives, and later discovers that so too has Wakerly, but the majority of the intake are killed. This makes for a brief but effective interval, but the truth is that once this passes, the incident is of no moment. Life in Sinji is not affected in the least by it. It is dull, drab, uninteresting: as much of a prison as was Blackfen in Lancasheer, but within fewer facilities outside the camp.
Flanders and Wakerly are the only two photographers’ assistants n the camp and are set to work under Lance Corporal Glaphorn. Once again, he is socially and mentally inferior to both of them, but he is their direct superior and they work under his orders. Flanders is, however, not suited to the work: he lacks confidence and knowledge and is responsible for a major mistake that ruins a reconnaissance mission.
He’s also physically uncertain, which is the beginning of his persecution at the hands of the new Adjutant (the CO’s secretary and first administrator). This is Turton, completing the picture and setting up the course of the narrative.
Turton is worse than he was at Budmouth. He is self-centred, arrogant and in a position of power, exactly the kind of man from whom power of any kind should be withheld permanently. He is a bully, able to create trouble for everyone, without the chance of redress, and he knows Flanders and Wakerly and they become his particular targets, for the ‘crime’ of having been interested in his wife, Caroline.
For Wakerly, the pressure is too much. He has already abdicated his chance with Caroline, a long time ago, for which he has Flanders’ silent condemnation. Flanders sees life in terms of cricketing metaphors, which makes him better able to stand Turton: cricket is a game that requires patience, and Flanders is prepared to play the long game.
And he has organised a cricket team among the other ranks, a team that he captains and dominates as its opening and only substantial batsman. With the aid of two quality bowlers, in Slingsby (fast off-breaks) and Trader (left arm quick slanting the ball towards the slips) and the careful organisation of willing but lesser players, he forges a team that gradually takes on all the other sides at the base in Sinji, and beats them. His aim is to build a team that will face, and beat, the official Company team. It’s what keeps him sane in the face of the bleakness of life at Sinji.
Wakerly has no such outlet and, as Flanders has already alerted us, Wakerly does not survive. The pilot, FO Gawkrodger-Jones is an appalling flier, unable to land a flying boat without bouncing it several times across the surface of the water, which brings him the nickname of Desperate Dan. Wakerly flies with him once, inspecting the cameras on a training mission: this is the one where the plane finally crashes on landing.
The pilot survives. Wakerly is thrown from the plane into the jungle, and is killed instantly.
In a way, Wakerly’s death protects Flanders. The photographic section is reduced to only two operatives, so Turton’s persecution has to be scaled back. But his determination to wield his power in every possible direction, disrupting and destroying the various mechanisms by which other men cope with life at the station, takes other forms.
Glaphorn sings, quite decently, at the fortnightly shows. It’s his relief and release, the means by which he enjoys a moment in the sun, the only thing which brings him respect. Turton orders him into a duet, an old-fashioned song, arranged and staged to Turton’s ideas, even though Glaphorn, the expert, tries to avoid everything about it. It will be a disaster, the men will not accept it. Turton’s arrogance ensures it goes ahead as he plans, and it is every bit the disaster Glaphorn knows it would be, and worse. It destroys Glaphorn, taking his one little chance of self-respect from him.
The same thing happens with Flanders’ team. Turton has played for it once, by his own invitation, been disastrously poor. Now, with the team undefeated, the end of the season nears with the intended match against the Company.
At this point, Turton installs himself as Captain. Flanders is pushed to one side, all the plans he has laid to maximise his resources are thrown away, and Turton’s approach is a signal disaster. The Company bat first, amass a fearsome score. Flanders is demoted down the order. There is an early collapse, the match is heading for a walkover. Flanders comes in, determined to save the game.
He holds up his end, plays defensively, ekes time out.
Then Turton interferes again, shouting from the boundary to order Flanders to leave the field. Flanders refuses: as Captain, Turton could have declared the innings closed, and deliberately thrown the game, but he has no power to order a single batsman to end his innings.
Flanders’ rearguard action saves the game: it ends as a draw, albeit with a massive discrepancy of scores. This is a satisfactory outcome to everyone, except Turton: Flanders is summoned – whilst in service – to a meeting of the Sports Committee, where he is berated for being unsporting, his actions are distorted by Turton and he is barred from any further cricket activity for the rest of his tour of duty.
This is of little practical effect: Flanders had already disbanded the team due to the interference that ruined everything for everyone, and there is barely any time left before the rainy season is due for another game: by next season, he will be back in England.
But though Flanders is not personally responsible for it, the events contribute to Turton’s downfall. Too many people have been affected by him, too much has been concealed from the new CO: his ability to interfere, to force himself into others’ spheres of activity, is almost over.
There is one final flight. Flanders is the photograph expert, the pilot is once again Desperate Dan but this time Turton is on board. It’s just a reconnaissance flight, until reports come in of a U-boat. Dan diverts in pursuit, despite the risk of running out of fuel. The attack is a disaster: the plane is shot down. Flanders alone escapes into the dinghy: he saves a body floundering in the sea and it is Turton.
The U-boat commiserates but beyond throwing out some emergency rations, abandons the two men to the hope of rescue. Flanders is the sole hope of survival of the man he loathes and despises, but who he finds himself incapable of touching.
The novel drifts towards its conclusion over the next few days. Turton cannot speak: Flanders’ conversations, in which he is quite open about his feelings towards both Turton, and Caroline, are monologues.
But the book has a final twist, two in fact. Flanders intends to live, to seek out Caroline, who he confesses to loving, and make a life with her. But Turton has two documents on him, that change everything in the final pages.
One is a letter from Caroline to Turton, whose first name we learn at long last. Despite everything Flanders and Wakerly have thought and said about the bounder, Caroline’s letter is full of love and admiration, for a man neither would recognise. In Caroline’s eyes, Turton is far more than Flanders has ever allowed him to be: her love is real, whole-hearted and passionate.
The last is a telegram, one that Flanders had seen Turton receiving a fortnight before. The letter speaks of Caroline being unwell, having to go into Hospital. The telegram regrets to inform him of her death.
With this abrupt revelation, the book ends. We assume that Flanders was rescued, enabling him to write this account. But there is nothing more, and we are left suspended and breathless.
As I’ve already said, A Season in Sinji is a dark and unpleasant book, painting a picture of Britain and people that is almost entirely negative, and which exists at an angle to our general perception of the War years. Yet at the same time, this is quite plainly an authentic account. Whatever our personal experience, Carr is writing from his own experience, and we feel that at a visceral level.
It’s also interesting to note that Flanders’ initial decision to enlist in the RAF is influenced by his mother’s tenant at their home farm, an older RAF officer named Bellenger whilst the men at Sinji include an uninvolved Flying Officer named Ruskin. The first of these is clearly Edward Bellenger of A Day in Summer, and in light of that we must assume that FO Ruskin is the crippled Herbert Ruskin of the earlier book.
This is a technique Carr will employ throughout his career, linking characters from one book into other novels.
His next novel would also stem from personal experience, but would be much more oriented towards black humour.