Savour this evening, and tomorrow. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that you should savour the rest of this season’s FA Cup competition, because Big Money won’t allow an oversight like this to happen again. We’re half-way through the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, and Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool aren’t going to win it. Neither, for that matter, are Everton, Newcastle United, Spurs or West Ham United. In fact, of the six clubs left in this year’s competition now, two of them (Bristol Rovers and Middlesbrough) have never won it whilst none of the other four have done since West Bromwich Albion did in 1968 – of the other three, Cardiff City won it in 1927, Portsmouth did in 1939 and Barnsley did in 1912. Whatever happens from here on in, it has been an absolutely engrossing tournament so far, and the clubs left in the tournament should be proud of what they have already achieved. We will also get to see two FA Cup semi-finals and an FA Cup Final which are more than a weak consolation prize for teams that have spent the whole of the season with their eyes on other, bigger prizes. These matches will mean everything to those concerned, and the competition will benefit as a whole from this. Also, the prize of European football next season in the UEFA Cup could end up in a some very unlikely hands come next autumn.
So, this afternoon’s matches, then. Both of today’s matches looked like nailed-on certainties. Manchester United have been almost uniformly awesome at Old Trafford this season, whilst most surely believed that Chelsea would be too strong for a Barnsley team that had stretched every single collective sinew in beating Liverpool at Anfield in the last round. They couldn’t repeat that, could they? Well, Manchester United simply had no luck against Portsmouth, from Louis Saha getting injured in the warm up, to Edwin Van Der Saar getting injured in the first half and Rio Ferdinand having to take over after Tomasz Kuszczak was (correctly) sent off for the foul that won Portsmouth the match from the penalty spot. In truth, United paid the price for their own profligacy in front of goal. Evra’s shot was brilliantly pushed onto the post by David James. The ball got wedged on the goal line a couple of times but they failed to poke it over. Ironically, the one thing that Alex Ferguson really did complain about (the tackle on Cristiano Ronaldo by Sylvain Distain) was absolutely, defintitely not a penalty. He should have saved his breath and expended the energy and torn a strip out of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez instead. Ultimately, Portsmouth deserved their win for a terrific rear-guard performance, with old stagers such as David James rolling back the years to keep a strong United team.
This, though, was the mere appetiser. Barnsley vs Chelsea was the authentic, old fashioned FA Cup experience. The clicheed southern, overpaid fancy dans against the gritty northerners – only, with the advent of the Premier League multimillionaires, this cliche has escaped from the bottle to become a truth in itself. It felt as if someone was scripting proceedings from the very start, to the point that it would have been unsurprising if the teams had come out onto the pitch behind a brass band. There was definitely something in the air, too. The crowd of 22,000 sounded like three times the size that it was – it was a solid wall of noise – and Barnsley rose to the occasion, demonstrating that if you are going to follow a script, you should at least follow one for a film that people are going to want to see. It’s difficult to pick out one single performance in a team that put in such a display, but Rob Kozluk put in a performance of staggering determination. Throwing his entire body into tackles, blocking, hacking the ball away when it seemed to be stuck under his feet on the edge of the six yard area – he was everywhere across the back line, preventing Chelsea’s expensively assembled midfield and attack from creating any real, clear cut chances. Meanwhile, at the other end, Chelsea’s defence was showing signs of being accommodating enough to allow them chances to snatch a goal – at half-time, it was goalless, but Barnsley had had the better of the chances.
Chelsea started the second half as the stronger of the two sides, but something wasn’t quite right. It looked as if the ball was being controlled from the stands by a remote control whenever they got hold of it – over-hitting passes, looping shots high into the crowd behind the goal, treading on it and generally acting like the stars of a new film called “Carry On Football”. Mid-way through the second half, Barnsley seized their moment. Martin Devaney crossed from the right, and Kayode Odejayi out-jumped Cudicini to put the home side a goal up. From then on, they put ten men behind the ball and defended as if their lives depended upon it. Chelsea threw men forward, but were still unable to create very much in the way of clear chances. Luke Steele continued to make a mockery of the few weeks that he has been at Oakwell by commanding his defence magnificently and claiming every ball that went into the six yard box. The last ten minutes was the tensest that I have seen all season. I was on the edge of my seat, wondering if I could justify going for a walk round the block to count the clock down. When the whistle blew after ninety-three minutes of absolutely pulsating football, the crowd invaded the pitch to celebrate with the players. It was a perfect end to a perfect afternoon.
There is, of course, still plenty of scope for Middlesbrough and Portsmouth to ruin this by playing out a dismal 0-0 draw at Wembley in May. There will definitely be plenty of bleating about how the FA Cup doesn’t matter any more from supporters of The Big Four (who neatly overlook the fact that the Champions League doesn’t matter to the supporters of any clubs apart from theirs, and that the majority of the rest of us don’t even really care much what happens in the Champions League). There will probably be a lower television audience for the final (and probably two semi-finals at Wembley that don’t sell the place out), but really, who cares? Barnsley and Portsmouth took a little piece of our game back for us this afternoon. Not much? Possibly. Temporarily? Almost certainly. Those arguments, however, are for another day. For now, let’s just luxuriate in the warming glow of the greatest cup competition in the world.