At the beginning of August 2014, a random selection was made for me to start my journey from the Extra Preliminary Round to the Final of the FA Cup with Baldock Town.
In a journey that has covered Harlow Town, Grays Athletic, Bromley, Dartford, Bradford City and Reading, as well as Baldock, I have reached the Final with the current holders of the FA Cup, Arsenal.
Thanks to their 2-1 (after extra time) Semi-Final win over Reading at Wembley last month, the Gunners sit just 90 minutes away from back-to-back cup wins – not bad after nine years without a trophy.
Standing in their way is a resurgent Aston Villa side, managed to Premier League safety and a first FA Cup Final since 2000 – and only a second since 1957 – by Tim Sherwood.
Founded in Woolwich in 1886, Dial Square swiftly became Royal Arsenal, before changing their name to Woolwich Arsenal. Arsenal moved to Highbury Stadium in 1913, where they would spend 93 years, before moving to the Emirates Stadium in 2006. Perhaps the most infamous season at Highbury was the 2003/04 campaign, in which Arsene Wenger’s charges went the entire Premier League season unbeaten, winning one of 13 league titles in their history.
Completing a domestic double on three occasions, the Gunners also have 11 FA Cup trophies to their name and can boast names from the past such as Liam Brady, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Tony Adams, Frank McLintock, Alan Ball, Ian Wright, Robert Pires, Pat Rice and Ted Drake.
This Saturday (May 30th), they will be looking to add FA Cup number 12 to the trophy cabinet. The Gunners are the holders of the trophy, courtesy of a victory over Hull City in last years’ show-piece occasion, so will be looking to retain the cup this time round.
But, would holding on to the world’s most famous cup be sweeter than breaking their nine-year run without a trophy last season was?
”Whilst I maintain that winning your domestic league title is the number one priority, I wholeheartedly agree that the FA Cup is a prestigious competition and is the hallmark game in English football’ said Arsenal season-ticket holder, Dan Duckworth.
‘Last years FA Cup success was undoubtedly sweet, ending a long overdue trophy drought. To win it again this year would, for me, be as big an achievement. Back to back FA Cup wins after a long wait without a trophy, becoming the most successful club to win the trophy – and Mr. Wenger winning it for the (what I hope is) the sixth time.”
”I love the FA Cup’ added Andrew Mangan, owner and writer at Arseblog. ‘Its the first competition I ever saw Arsenal win (in 1979) so it holds a special place in my heart. I think winning it this season would be fantastic, obviously, but last season’s win ended a nine year trophy drought, so there was something a bit extra special about that.”
As stated, Arsenal are in their Final due to a Semi-Final victory over Championship side Reading. The plucky second-tier side were standing up to their Premier League opponents as extra-time began at Wembley Stadium, however, Alexis Sanchez’s shot slipped through the grasp of Royals’ ‘keeper, Adam Federici, sending the Gunners through.
Dan said that the Semi-Final tie was ‘to be expected’: ”With the greatest respect to Reading, both their supporters and players made it their cup final that day. The old FA Cup cliché of ‘anything can happen’ ran true that afternoon, but when it went to extra time, you always felt that Arsenal’s stamina would be too much for the Championship strugglers. Luckily, it did!”
Despite being without a Premier League title win since that invincible 03/04 season, Wenger and his squad have consistently finished in the top four over the last decade – but, is that good enough? Does a third-place finish and an FA Cup Final contribute towards a ‘good season’ for Arsenal?
”It potentially is a positive’ said Arsenal fan, Kieran Daly. ‘It shows progression. However, we did go out to Monaco in the Champions League. The question now remains of can we move forward and challenge for the title. Some supporters would most definitely demand more.”
For some, top four finishes every season are not enough. In recent years, pressure has grown from certain sections regarding the future of the Gunners’ long-serving manager, Arsene Wenger, saying that his time is up and change is needed. But, what do our trio of Arsenal fans think of their boss?
”I personally love Arsene Wenger and all he has done for Arsenal Football Club. I would categorically say NO change is required” said Kieran.
Dan also expressed his love and gratitude for the gaffer: ”I could write for days on Arsene Wenger. Quite simply, the man is a genius. He’s transformed the club in 19 years into one of Europe’s elite, with just one feather left to sew into his cap – a European Cup. I don’t believe he’s irreplaceable – certainly, lots can be learned from those around us; for example, Manchester United and the way they dealt with the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.’
‘But, I do believe he’s still one of the best there is and only he knows when the time is right to call it a day.”
”I think he’s the man that the club see as the best man for the job with no intention of changing’ added Andrew. ‘The fact that he’s 64 now means change is inevitable sooner or later, so fresh blood will be coming – probably not until the end of his contract though.”
Moving on to the matter at hand – the Gunners were almost given a fright by the Tigers in last years’ Final; will they underestimate Aston Villa?
”Definitely not’ said Kieran. ‘We were 2-0 down to Hull after 10 minutes last season. No cup final is ever easy. With his Tottenham connections, I’m sure that Tim Sherwood would love to beat us!”
Representing Villa is Ronan Murphy, who told me of the ‘brilliant’ feeling of reaching the FA Cup Final: ”It’s a brilliant feeling knowing that we have reached the FA Cup Final. It has been a difficult few years for Villa fans since Martin O’Neill’s departure (a week before the 2010/11 season) and this season has been no different, so to reach the Wembley showdown is a real boost to everyone associated with the club.’
‘It is our first FA Cup Final since the last Final at the old Wembley, where we lost to Chelsea, so we’ll certainly be up for it.”
The 6-1 defeat to Southampton a fortnight ago suggests that eyes may already be on the prize at Villa, but Ronan is adamant that his side will not be there just to make up the numbers: ”I think the intention has to be to win the cup. Everyone enjoyed the Semi Final against Liverpool – that was viewed as a day to enjoy the occasion, but the players were exceptional, notably Delph, Grealish and Benteke, who really showed a desire to win.’
‘We are a club in form, despite that howler against Southampton (long journey home from that one!) and we have to view this as a chance to lift the trophy. Arsenal are a fantastic side and they have had a brilliant end to the season, but they have their weaknesses.”
Tim Sherwood is the man charged with bringing the Midlands club success and despite his doubters in the media, Ronan is fully behind the Villa boss.
”Sherwood has been a breath of fresh air since coming in to the club. The FA Cup 5th Round tie against Leicester was played immediately after the announcement of him joining and after yet another dismal and negative first half, Sherwood decided to go into the changing room to deliver some tactical advice. The second half was night and day; we were positive, allowed the wing backs to get forward, fed Benteke, allowed two of our three central midfield players to attack the box and ended up winning 2-1.’
‘On top of his results on the pitch, the reason Sherwood is the ideal man to take Aston Villa forward is due to his belief and trust in youth. We have seen this through (Jack) Grealish already and through (Harry) Kane, (Ryan) Mason, (Nabil) Bentaleb etc at Spurs. With Randy Lerner seemingly less keen to invest in the club, it is essential that we capitalise on our impressive youth set up, which has churned out Premier League stars such as Gabby Agbonlahor, Gary Cahill, Steven Davis and Craig Gardner, to name a few.”
Its Arsenal v Aston Villa in the FA Cup Final, this Saturday, May 30th, at Wembley Stadium. Kick-Off is at 5:30pm, with the game being shown LIVE on BBC One and BT Sport.
You can view highlights of Reading 1-2 Arsenal HERE.
Andrew Mangan’s Predicted Arsenal Line-Up: Wojciech Szczęsny (GK); Mathieu Debuchy, Per Mertesacker (C), Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal; Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Özil; Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud.
Dan Duckworth’s Predicted Arsenal Line-Up: Wojciech Szczęsny (GK); Hector Bellerin, Per Mertesacker (C), Laurent Koscielny, Kieran Gibbs; Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin; Mesut Özil; Aaron Ramsey, Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud.
Kieran Daly’s Predicted Arsenal Line-Up: David Ospina (GK); Hector Bellerin, Per Mertesacker (C), Laurent Koscielny, Kieran Gibbs; Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez; Olivier Giroud.
Ronan Murphy’s Predicted Aston Villa Line-Up: Shay Given (GK); Leandro Bacuna, Ron Vlaar, Nathan Baker, Kieran Richardson; Ashley Westwood, Fabian Delph (C), Tom Cleverley; Jack Grealish, Charles N’Zogbia, Christian Benteke.
Score Predictions: Andrew: ‘I don’t do those kind of predictions – but obviously hope it’s an Arsenal win!’ Dan: Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal. Kieran: Aston Villa 1-3 Arsenal. Ronan: Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal (AET).
Ronan has recently launched an app to the App Store (he is currently working on the Android version) and told me a bit about it: ”I’m sure football fans will definitely be interested. It is a free app, where you answer football trivia questions (either general or club specific) to move higher up the pitch to try and score a goal. You can easily sync with Facebook and play against your mates, to see who gets the bragging rights! Brilliant for away days, toilet breaks and Stoke games!
Meanwhile, owner of Arseblog, Andew Mangan, tells me a bit about his website: ”It’s a website that gives Arsenal fans everything they could want. A daily blog, seven-day a week news, two podcasts per week, columnists, tactics, stats, humour, merchandise, books and everything else we can possibly fit in. We’ve been running since 2002, so we’re well established.”
Take a look at Arseblog HERE.
The FA Cup has produced some magical moments this season – it always does. But, what moments stand out for the people that have so kindly helped me out on my journey through the rounds?
Lee Rusbridge, Club Secretary at Baldock Town, spoke of his pride at seeing his team in the FA Cup for the very first time: ”My favourite moment from this season’s FA Cup has to be our involvement for the first time. It was obviously great to get through the opening round against Hatfield Town, but to pit our wits against a good side from two levels above (Harlow Town) was a great experience. Even though we went down 3-0 in the end, we could be proud of our performance – particularly as we played most of it with 10 men!”
Harlow Town duo, Ray Dyer and Phil Tuson, offered differing opinions. Phil went for the perhaps the biggest shock in FA Cup history, as Bradford City defeated Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, whilst Ray stuck to his non-league roots: ”My best moment was seeing Maidstone beat Stevenage on their 3G surface. It was a big moment in showing how good 3G surfaces are and was a massive help in getting them approved, so they can be allowed in the Football League and National Conference.”
Grays Athletic’s Life President, Glyn Jarvis, agreed with Ray: ”As a staunch non-League supporter, I will go for Maidstone’s fantastic 2-1 replay win in the First Round with League Two Stevenage, after a 0-0 draw in Hertfordshire. I watched the game on TV and thought the Ryman Premier Division side didn’t look at all out of place against a side three tiers above them and deserved their win.”
Matt Hall and Tim Hutton, from Vanarama South champions, Bromley, both chose moments from their FA Cup run earlier in the season. ”The favourite moment for me had to be the moments after the Evesham United game in the Fourth Qualifying Round’ said Tim.
‘The game itself was end to end and Evesham were a great side who were so up for it. Fortunately for us, Danny Waldren stepped up and did the business with two goals from midfield, while I remember Seb Brown making a number of superb saves. I was fortunate to interview both Danny and Seb on the pitch immediately after the game, while myself and our cameraman, David Cook, followed Waldren into the dressing room with our cameras to get all of the reaction and the buzz in the dressing room. The entire squad and backroom staff all joined together for a rendition of ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis – that is a moment I will never forget. It helped that Evesham were such courteous hosts who really looked after us, as well as congratulating us after the game.”
”My favourite FA Cup moment would have to be our match against Dartford in the First Round, as it was such a special occasion (despite the result). To have over 4,000 people coming through the door was incredible and it resulted in a superb atmosphere. They certainly got their moneys worth, with a very entertaining game of football. It was a pleasure to be a part of the day, but I still find myself wishing the result was somewhat different!” said Matt.
”My best moment was beating Bromley to get into the Second Round’ said Dartford captain, Elliot Bradbrook. ‘I have never been that far in the competition before, having lost a couple of times in the First Round, so to get there was great.”
Owner of PureDFC, Gary Clark, added: ”Seeing Dartford playing away at Bradford (who would then write their own FA Cup story!) and subsequently hearing our club mentioned whenever Bradford were mentioned as beating Chelsea!”
Darts’ Programme Editor, Steve Kennedy, spoke of the Bromley game as his highlight: ”The First Round match at Bromley. Massive crowd, with two non-league clubs going toe-to-toe for 90 minutes. The game had everything, from loads of goals to defensive mishaps and even the odd flare thrown in (and onto the pitch) for good measure. It was not only a great selling point for the FA Cup, but also showed the wider world the entertainment on offer below Football League level.”
”So many to choose from – I’ve actually rewritten this about three times, switching my choice each time, but I’m going to go with Andy Halliday’s goal against Chelsea to put us 3-2 up – the celebrations which followed involved one of my mates trying to lift me up, failing miserably and pulling a muscle in his arm’ said Bradford City fan, Tim Penfold. ‘It’s not an amazing moment unless someone injures themselves celebrating too hard!”
”I’m surprised you need to ask – not sure if you remember, but there was a kick about at Stamford Bridge in January that was pretty damn good!” added Kate Eveleigh.
”My personal favourite moment was the end of the game against Arsenal, looking around and seeing 20,000 Reading fans belting out that they were ‘Reading ’til they die.’ It’s not often football chants really give you a proper spine tingle, but that one struck with me. On a non-Reading note, following the Chelsea v Bradford score on Sky!” said Reading fan, Alex Everson.
”Bradford’s fourth goal against Chelsea – it reminded us all of what’s possible in the FA Cup – still!” added Roger Titford, whilst Dave Harris said: ”I have to choose Reading’s first ever FA Cup Semi Final goal – Garath McCleary’s strike against Arsenal, in front of the travelling Royals at Wembley. Its always good seeing your team score but this was a rare old feeling that doesn’t present itself at all often.’
‘We may have gone on to lose the game in what can only be filed under the term ‘devastating’, but going in to the game the general feeling many had was to a) just do us proud and play your hearts out and b) give us something to cheer. They did both, but when the latter happened, the feeling, the unbridled joy, the uncontrollability of limbs flying around all over the place, the voice that didn’t right itself for a full four days afterwards – for Reading fans, no other moment comes close.”
FA Cup Final Score Predictions: Lee (Baldock): Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal. Ray (Harlow): Aston Villa 1-3 Arsenal. Phil (Harlow): ‘I fancy Villa to cause an upset in the final – the pressure is all on Arsenal and Villa have found a new belief in their play.’ Glyn (Grays): Aston Villa 1-3 Arsenal. Matt (Bromley): Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal. Tim (Bromley): Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal. Elliot (Dartford): Aston Villa 1-3 Arsenal. Gary (Dartford): Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal. Steve (Dartford): Aston Villa 0-3 Arsenal. Kate (Bradford): Aston Villa 0-2 Arsenal. Tim (Bradford): Aston Villa 2-3 Arsenal. Alex (Reading): Aston Villa 1-0 Arsenal. Roger (Reading): Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal. Dave (Reading): Aston Villa 1-3 Arsenal.
So, from Hatfield Town v Baldock Town to Aston Villa v Arsenal. Who will win the 2014/15 FA Cup? Find out this Saturday!
With thanks to: Lee Rusbridge, Ray Dyer, Spencer Knight, Phil Tuson, Glyn Jarvis, Liam Willis, Matt Hall, Tim Hutton, Rob Swaine, David Cooke, Roger Westmacott, Elliot Bradbrook, Steve Kennedy, Gary Clark, Kate Eveleigh, Tim Penfold, Katie Whyatt, Stephen Jones, Sam Khan, Keith Chapman, Alex Everson, Roger Titford, Michele Mead, Dave Harris, Kieran Daly, Dan Duckworth, Andrew Mangan & Ronan Howard.
Route To The Final