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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
FA Cup Trail:
FA Cup Fifth Round, 15/02/03
Manchester United 0(0)
Team: 1. Fabian Barthez 2. Gary Neville 6. Rio Ferdinand 24. Wes Brown 27. Mikael Silvestre 7. David Beckham 18. Paul Scholes 16. Roy Keane 11. Ryan Giggs 10. Ruud van Nistelrooy 20. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Scorers: Baptiste 71
Arsenal 2(1)
Team: 1. David Seaman 12. Lauren 5. Martin Keown 23. Sol Campbell 3. Ashley Cole 15. Ray Parlour 4. Patrick Vieira 17. Edu 7. Robert Pires 9. Francis Jeffers 11. Sylvain Wiltord
Scorer: Edu 34, Wiltord 52

Referee: J. Winter
Crowd: 67,209 (official)
Conditions: Blue skies, glorious sunshine, slightly chilly

Entry: 27.00 adults
Programme: 3.00 for 76 pages in full colour with 2 staples
Refreshments: Tea & Coffee 1.10, Pringles 1.00, Coke 1.80
Distance travelled: 365 miles including small detour to visit Dave's parents and sisters

"Forgetting lessons"
By Baz Barry
 
I am happy to admit that I am as romantic as a dead jellyfish washed-up on a sandy beach. I am also a natural born cynic and I have a memory like a sieve. Combine these three human characteristics and you may understand why I'm always in the doghouse on and around Valentines Day.

Each year I have a stubborn reaction to the commercialism of the event, refusing to be sucked into buying flowers, or chocolates, or booking a meal out. A card is the best I can do and if I've got my wits about me, I'll remember to buy it the day before. This year I went a little further by cashing in the loose change collection and instead of spending the 110 on a new turntable so I could play my old LPs, I bought Mrs B a new duvet because our old one is knackered. The sacrifice went down like a lead balloon and I spent the rest of the weekend trying to make up for my annual blunder.

Each year I get into trouble for forgetting the lesson I learnt from the year before. All my wife wants is a bit of romance, a bunch of flowers, some chocolates and a cozy meal.

Each year I mess up.

I was not the only one to mess up this weekend and forget the lessons from past experiences. Fergie and his eleven Red Devils got it wrong against Arsenal. Very wrong. The plan was immediately obvious. Clatter the Gunners and particularly Vieira and incite them / him into retaliation. It's been done before with some success but nowadays Vieira and his chums seem to rise above the provocation. Or at least he saves his venom for a tirade against the referee for which he got booked. He was not alone. Within five minutes of a brutal start, Scholes, Keane and van Nistelrooy had all received yellow cards. In reality the latter should have been sent off because, after being booked for an assault on Keown, Jeff Winter overlooked a particularly late challenge on Lauren.

Afterwards, Ferguson whined about Arsenal intimidating Winter with a quorum of eight surrounding him after every contentious stoppage, but as has been pointed out by others it was no different from what United do. Andy D'Urso can vouch for that. Sir Alec also complained about the diving and play-acting, but for each time an Arsenal player was pole-axed it seemed a United player, Beckham inevitably, would do the same. What his post-match comments do show is that the United manager hates losing and it is now apparent he saved his true views on the game for the safety of the dressing room - blistering rages, flying boots and butterfly stitches.

It was a frightening start to the game with little love lost between the teams. I remarked to Dave how scared Edu looked but after a shaky start and once the bookings had calmed down the ferocity in the midfield, he and Vieira were able to control the game. Even I had to swallow my pride, ignore my irrational hatred of the Gunners and admire what was going on.

The first goal encapsulated Vieira's industry and United's shortcomings. Having repelled an Arsenal attack, the United players tried to play the ball from their penalty area just where Vieira was lurking. He had no right to gain possession but he did, surrounded by United players before crumpling under an innocuous looking challenge from Keane. Edu took the free kick...Beckham's shoulder deflected it into the net...one-nil to the Arsenal.

Admittedly United had hit the post from a Solskjaer snapshot and the sorry-looking Giggs was responsible for that Miss Of The Season but as soon as Arsenal scored the game was over. United looked pretty for the rest of the first half but were ineffective. After the restart Wiltord killed the game with the second goal but his celebrations were curtailed when what looked to be a large bottle of cod liver oil was thrown from the stands. I wonder if that will be mentioned in the referee's report?

With half an hour remaining all that was left was to enjoy the sunshine, marvel at the huge crowd in what nowadays is a fantastic arena. It's a reflection of the modern game that the only oversight seems to be the absence of a big screen but we were able to watch replays of all the fouls by turning round to view the TVs in the executive boxes directly behind our seats.

Old Trafford certainly has changed from my first visit in 1978 for Watford's League Cup victory on 4th October, no less. Familiar date, anybody? I recall being herded into a concrete, barred and seemingly subterranean pit behind the goal opposite the Stretford End and spending the rest of the evening worrying about my well-being as forty thousand Mancurians took exception to the "Cockney" upstarts.

It was the game that projected Luther Blissett into stardom with his two trademark headers and I still have the framed ticket stub on my loo wall. It was also the game that friends started to listen to my persistent predictions that the Hornets were going places. Not only could I mock my United mates about the result but also bait their supposed allegiance by stumping them with the question as to where the scoreboard was in the ground. I mean, how many United "fans" do you know who have been to Old Trafford? To be fair, one mate did make the effort to travel from Maidstone to see Man United play at Spurs, only for his day to collapse when he couldn't find the ground on exiting the tube station at Tottenham Court Road! True.

With five minutes to go and an Arsenal player winding up the home crowd with another life threatening injury, we sloped off and jogged back to the car, parked at Lancashire Cricket Club. Ignoring the Test Matches, I bet they make more money from football car parking than the cricket.

After a quick diversion at Stoke for a cup of tea with Dave's family, we rejoined the usual crawl south on the M6. We shuddered to a halt just as news came through on the radio of a penalty at the Stadium of Light. Radio 5 Live stuck with commentary on the rugby but every time they broke to go for news elsewhere, my heart was in my mouth in dreaded anticipation of an equaliser. Luckily they didn't return to Sunderland until the final whistle. It's only now that I realised we sat in the traffic jam for an agonizing thirty minutes, corresponding exactly with the goal being scored and news of full time. Spooky.

As our FA Cup Trail has reached these later stages the emphasis seems to have changed from enjoyment of the trappings of grass roots football to the dominating significance of the draw and the all-consuming quest for tickets. For the United game we had sent out feelers left, right and centre, even writing to Tony Coton who nowadays is the goalkeeper coach at Old Trafford. He hasn't replied, yet. As a last resort we had planned on buying from touts just after kick-off when we were told the price starts to fall dramatically but, as we discovered on the day, there were very few touts about. I did overhear one in conversation with a couple of Japanese tourists saying, "No, you give me the money and I'll go and get the tickets" and I regret not lingering to see if they'd been scammed. Luckily the colleague of a good friend (another David) was mysteriously able to find two seats for us. So please excuse me for a huge expression of gratitude to those involved and a shameless plug for the www.zest4.com web site where it seems big savings are to made for those who want to buy energy over the web.

Arsenal are at home against Chelsea in the Quarter-Final for a repeat of last year's Final and another big game. The ticket crusade permitting, it will be the third time we've watched Arsenal. So far we've not seen the same club more than three times on our FA Cup Trail.

Need I say more?