You like to think that it’s just eleven men against eleven, that anything could happen and probably will, as the old tag-line used to have it. That’s not really how it works, though, is it? A lot of the time it can be grindingly, crushingly predictable. This weekend’s events in the FA Cup have proved beyond any doubt whatsoever that the top end of English football is, frankly, not worth paying much attention. If you’d asked more or less anyone in the western world what would happen in the FA Cup semi-finals, they’d have said something like this: “Manchester United are clearly far too good for Watford (especially with Watford having to play their reserve goalkeeper), and will beat them by three goals or so. Chelsea are the dullest team in England, but they will grind out yet another result, which they always do, against England’s second dullest team”. Sometimes life doesn’t go according to the script, but yesterday it followed the path that it has been threatening to since the start of January.
Manchester United brushed Watford aside with the sort of dismissive swat that one would aim at a particularly annoying bluebottle. The only thing that came anywhere near to a surprise was that Watford actually managed to score, and make it look like it was something approaching a match for a couple minutes or so. Chelsea, meanwhile, were at least made to sweat by Blackburn. After Lampard gave them the lead, they should have coasted to a comfortable win, but Rovers levelled things up and had the chances to win the match. In extra-time, Ballack scored and that was that. As the title of this piece says – yawn.
The supporters of those concerned seemed to agree with me on this. Watford failed to sell their allocation of tickets at Villa Park, meaning that the crowd was 5,000 below capacity. Manchester United, with their supporters in Surrey, Cornwall and everywhere else in Britain, never fail to sell their ticket allocations, of course. At Old Trafford, the outlook was even gloomier. There were over 20,000 unsold tickets. Blackburn struggle to make 20,000 for their home matches in the Premiership, whilst Chelsea didn’t sell many more than that. It would seem that a trip to Manchester for a 4.00 kick-off on a Sunday afternoon was a step too far for them. The empty seats made for a depressing spectacle. The FA have already said that next year’s semi-finals will be played at Wembley, and the prospect of it being half full for them is a very real one indeed. The problem is that, because of it’s nature, the FA Cup was always going to suffer as a result of the centralisation of power within the game. We’re limited now to the hope that the “Big Two + Two” will be drawn against each other, because that’s more or less the only way that they’re going to get knocked to. To that end, the draw itself is now as important as many of the games being played. No wonder they show it live on the television now.
Meanwhile, in the Premiership, any significant hopes of anything genuinely exciting happening at the top were more or less extinguished when Arsenal beat Bolton to move five points clear at the top of the table. However, at the bottom there is a gloriously undignified struggle going on, and Sheffield United might just have done enough to edge their way clear of the drop with a 3-0 win against West Ham United, who are surely now doomed. Wigan and Fulham are very much still in trouble too, though. They managed a point between them, whilst Charlton, having scrapped their way level with a couple of minutes to play against Everton, threw it away in injury time. They could have done with that. More curiously still, Gareth Southgate, interviewed after Middlesbrough’s home defeat by Aston Villa, claimed that clubs would play more attacking football if there was no relegation from the Premiership. Yes, Gareth. The Premiership would be much more exciting if there was no relegation from it, wouldn’t it? Sheesh. More on that during the week.