A lost art
By Matt Rowson
So here we are then. Finally.
F.A. Cup runs are something of a lost art at Vicarage Road. In the eighties we reached the Quarter Finals five times and only failed to make the Fifth Round once. This is only our second journey past the Fourth Round since.
This year, the Third Round draw was the usual pleasant distraction, and the unfamiliar disbelief that has greeted each subsequent win has accelerated interest and excitement to the point where we face our first Quarter Final since the Plough Lane chaos of 1988.
The fact that the visitors for Sunday's sell-out are Burnley, amongst the dourest of our Division One rivals, feels slightly incongruous (as, presumably, does the knowledge that a win at Vicarage Road could secure a Semi-Final seem to the Clarets). The fixture will attract at least six thousand more than it ever has done before, albeit we've never had an encounter of quite this gravity in the past.
We'll obviously be wanting to get the result on the day... the order in which the balls came out was, one assumes, the only factor to distinguish our plum tie from Burnley's and a trip to Turf Moor is never a barrel of laughs in my experience. It's worth noting that the league tie in Lancashire later in the season occurs the weekend prior to the Semi Finals. A whole load of fun for this weekend's losers, then.
If things do turn out as we'd hope, you can pretty much guarantee that the toad-like Stan Ternent will be quick to delegate blame. His wittering, barely comprehensible tirade after Burnley's Tuesday evening draw at the New Den focused largely on the failings of the evening's referee, including a failure to give a penalty for a flimsy dive from Robbie Blake. He concluded the monologue on Burnley's official site with a sulky concession that "no one will listen to me", perhaps the first accurate statement in the interview.
In similar fashion, Ternent's reaction to the Quarter-Final draw prior to Burnley's replay victory over Fulham was an assertion that the Clarets "had unfinished business in Watford", which presumably refers to either an unsettled hotel bill or some form of debt to honour on Market Street. Less plausibly, the statement could be a reference to the league game in November when Mark McGregor's foul on the escaping Tommy Smith saw a red card and penalty. Defending by both sides in that game, however, would inevitably leave any victor feeling slightly sheepish about the three points. Only slightly, mind.
Ternent adopted the opposite policy to Ray Lewington during the week, naming what appeared to be a full-strength eleven for the match at Millwall. The side put in a performance that was described as "leggy and tired"... with several of the senior players on the fringes of the first team also expected to start a reserve match on Wednesday evening.
Marlon Beresford will be in goal for Burnley, his fine recent form having kept the popular previous first choice Nik Michopoulos on the bench - he also spent a spell on loan at Palace earlier in the season.
Dean West will play at right-back - he scored a spectacular winner in a "blood and snots" win at Stoke at the weekend - with the unconvincing Graham Branch at left-back. Mark McGregor, who received that red card in October and also scored a late and irritating equaliser for Wrexham at the Racecourse Ground in 1997, can fill in at full back or in the centre, he's been on the bench recently.
Centre-back partnership is currently Mauritanian Drissa Diallo, a transfer-window signing who scored a thunderous header in the Fulham replay, and Ian Cox, who has impressed plenty of times against us for Burnley and Bournemouth. Steve Davis is the one senior player absent through injury, his knee ligament problem is expected to keep him out for another couple of weeks. Arthur Gnohere, a fixture last season, hasn't made much of an impact this time.
Burnley have been playing three midfielders with two wide attackers supporting the central striker. First choice midfield trio have been the experienced Paul Cook, the tidy but workshy Tony Grant and the more industrious Lee Briscoe. Glen Little and Paul Weller, previously mainstays of the Burnley side, have been confined to the bench of late whilst Brad Maylett is a wide option.
Ian and Alan Moore have been filling the wide attacking roles either side of Gareth Taylor. Greek striker Dimitrios Papadopoulos has played a frequent cameo from the bench, although Robbie Blake is more likely to be named on Sunday. Long-time next-big-thing Anthony Shandran is on loan at York whereas previous generation Andy Payton is still around, albeit playing an ever-more-limited role.
This game requires no build up. From a financial point of view, it's enormous. From the point of view of making the F.A. Cup Semi Finals, just for being there, it's enormous. For the sake of winning in front of twenty thousand fans, it's enormous. From the point of view of prolonging the competitive edge to the season, it's enormous.
And from the point of view of ensuring that our biggest game of the campaign doesn't prove to have been against Burnley, it's bloody massive. This season doesn't deserve that blemish at all.