Arsenal: Forget The Champions League, Let's Focus On The Cup

The Gunners must prioritise their FA Cup clash with the Toffees over a probable Champions League exit in Munich as their trophy drought continues...
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The Gunners must prioritise their FA Cup clash with the Toffees over a probable Champions League exit in Munich as their trophy drought continues...

Arsenal: Forget The Champions League, Let's Focus On The Cup

‘You cannot accuse me of disrespect towards the FA Cup’ - Arsene Wenger, 2003

There was a notable anniversary this week for Arsenal fans of a certain vintage.

If I have to ask what you were doing on the 4th March 1987 then the chances are you weren’t there.

I was at White Hart Lane that never-to-be-forgotten evening, along with thousands of other Gooners watching Arsenal come from 1-0 down to win 2-1 in the Littlewoods Cup Semi Final Replay with late goals from Ian, Ian Allinson and the immortal David ‘Rocky’ Rocastle.

It was one of the great nights in Arsenal’s long and illustrious history.

It was one of the nights that was a perfect evocation of the passion of English football: packed terraces, constant, swirling noise rolling around the ground, a guttural roar and release of pent up tension that sends terraces into raptures and a joyous, joyous victory that has gone down in folklore, including the story of how Spurs’ PA told supporters how to get their tickets for Wembley at half time when they were 1-0 up.

And don’t ever let anyone tell it didn’t happen because it did – I heard it with my own ears. So did at least 11,000 Arsenal fans wedged into the Park Lane that night. Initially, a collective howl of derision went around our support on hearing such a smug, arrogant and complacent gesture. What was remarkable was that it turned into something more primeval which I can only describe as a wave of defiance, a fierce rebelliousness, a roar of pride in our team, in our badge, in our club, in our identity and in our boys.

And they were boys. George Graham’s young team had been lauded that season for their skill and technique, for their exciting, attacking football – but still people questioned their mental strength, their lack of a track record in winning trophies.

Then that night changed everything. Changed it completely. For those who watched Arsenal in the 80s that glorious night was the first tentative step in Arsenal Football Club becoming the worldwide monolith it has become today, with tours to ‘strategically global marketplaces’, three million twitter followers, sky-high ticket prices, and a shiny new ground with all the trimmings.

That night convinced the team that they could compete. Of course we still had to win a trophy to prove it which we duly did at another era-defining football match later that season. For those of you who argue that beating Liverpool 2-1 in the Final was the moment the modern Arsenal took off and put our deadly rivals forever in our shadow after that, all I would say is that without 4th March 1987, our League Cup victory and subsequent trophy hauls would never have happened.

Which brings me to the present day.

For me Saturday’s FA Cup Sixth round match at The Grove against Everton now becomes the biggest game of the season. The FA Cup is our best chance of silverware this year. I wrote as much in my column in The Islington Gazette three weeks ago long before we drew against United, & lost to Bayern and Stoke.

Of course optimists say we can win in Munich – hell we did it last year. And yes, maybe we can – but not at the expense of the FA Cup.

There is absolutely no point saving players for an expected the Champions League exit. In the worst case scenario what would the view be on our season if we lost to Everton in the Cup through fielding a weakened team, saw an exit in Bavaria and then – heaven forbid – a defeat in the NLD. Actually, don’t answer that.

Arsene Wenger simply must not rest players in preparation for a salvage job in Bavaria.

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Whatever you think about him, this match is a time for Victoria Concordia Crescit. Save the arguments for after the game – and believe me if we lose our next three games twitter will go into meltdown.

The fact is I want silverware. I want to win the FA Cup. I was too young to go in 79 but I was at Wembley in 93 and 98, and all the subsequent trips to Cardiff. If you scoff at ‘only’ winning the FA Cup then I don’t think you and I are going to get on. If you think a top four finish and lifting the FA Cup is a poor season for this Arsenal squad, this season, then you are deluded.

Of course it was nice to lead the league, to firstly surprise the pundits, then annoy them by sticking around, but there are parallels with 86/87. Our team wasn’t ready to win the league that year despite leading it. But we consolidated, we gained experience of how to win through winning trophies, which led to us subsequently winning the league – and that came from winning a supposedly lesser trophy to start with.

I interviewed Kenny Sansom the other week at Piebury Corner for the Standard and the Gooner and he told me: “People said it was a Mickey Mouse trophy – well, not to us it wasn’t”. And it was said with such fierce pride discernable in his voice and blazing in his eyes - even 27 years on from lifting the League Cup that season. So much so that just listening to the great man’s evident and unashamed pride in Arsenal actually gave me a shot of adrenaline which made it difficult to write my shorthand notes for a second.

(Incidentally, talking of Piebury Corner, they have finally retrieved the Football Pie League trophy voted for by fans up and down the country 'taken' from them at the awards ceremony by Arsenal's catering staff. Owner Scottish Paul told me: "Arsenal handed back the trophy to us - and we are currently trying to find someone with an open top bus to hire so we can parade it from our stall in Gillespie Road to the shop on the Holloway Road - here's hoping it's not the only trophy paraded around Arsenal come the end of the season…”)

I wonder if any of our current lot of home grown players will be talking about lifting this season’s FA Cup 27 years from now? I would love Jack Wilshere to ascribe our desperately hoped-for future run of success to the first trophy this team lifted. I would love him to say three decades hence on lifting the 2014 FA Cup: ‘People said it was a mickey mouse trophy – well, not to us it wasn’t.”

Don’t get me wrong Everton are a top side, bursting with talent and freed from the shackles of an unimaginative Moyes. I’m certainly not saying we are definitely going to win the FA Cup, because we still have to beat a team who in my opinion were second only to Bayern Munich in terms of impressing me at Arsenal this year during their 1-1 draw with us back in December.

What I am saying - and I can’t make it any clearer – is this: Arsene Wenger has to play his strongest team against Everton.

If he doesn’t, he not only runs the risk of us losing our best chance of silverware this term but will be inviting people to heap opprobrium on himself – which is something no-one wants.

And not only that but perhaps denying this squad our own ‘WHL moment’ and a launchpad for future success.

I’m sure the true Arsenal legend who netted the spine tingling winner that emotional night at the Lane 27 long years ago, a man who wanted to play in every game he could for The Arsenal - the late, great David Rocastle, would agree.

Follow Layth on Twitter, @laythy29

Layth is a freelance journalist who has written for The London Evening Standard, The Islington Gazette, Four-Four-Two, When Saturday Comes, & World Soccer amongst many others. He is also a resident football and cricket expert on Finance and Sports TV Channel ‘Tip TV’ http://www.tiptv.co.uk/