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Why I’m not applauding Crawley’s fairytale moment


It was a weekend of clichés. The FA Cup was restored to its place at the top of English football and in the hearts of millions of fans. Thousands poured forth from homes not usually filled with the sounds of football chatter to watch David vs. Goliath encounters. Communities came together and embarked on quests to places suddenly rendered exotic wonderlands. Who would have thought Manchester could seem such a distant, unattainable paradise?

There were shocks across the board. Even in an all Premiership tie in London, eye brows were raised as the holders Chelsea were dumped out. But the novelty attractions lay elsewhere in the form of so called minnows taking on the swaggering, mega-bucks big boys. Leyton Orient snatched a replay with Arsenal. And of course there was the tie of the round.

It was the dream draw on everyone’s speculative lips as the balls were swirled and plucked. No one quite expected it to really happen, despite the FA Cup’s notoriety for such things. Non-league Crawley Town, netted a huge financial windfall from the grandest theatre of football in the land, not to mention an unforgettable “day out”.

I say “day out” because it was always going to be more than that. United’s FA Cup jitters have become commonplace in recent years and Crawley were up for the occasion. They’re also a team studded with players that could play at a higher level, bought for sizeable sums in non-league terms. Crawley are now reaping rewards that are not merely financial. Thanks to holding the Premier League leaders and the world’s most famous team to a mere 1-0 win, they have secured a place in the hearts of countless neutrals and established themselves on the football map. Many would say they deserve the plaudits for a fearless second half display in which they dominated a team far above their standing.

I am reluctant to praise Crawley and refuse to join in the enthusiastic congratulations. Yes they played well at Old Trafford and reasserted the reality that the so called stars of football can be little better than a well organised, galvanised lower league team in a one-off match. Yes they gave hope to other small teams hoping for a break and injected life into the dreams of youngsters. Yes they hinted at the FA Cup’s ongoing ability to charm and surprise. But the manner in which they progressed from the previous round tarnished the innocence of their fairytale moment for me.

Until they burst onto the scene courtesy of an FA Cup run, I’d not heard of Crawley, the so called “car park for Gatwick” of the non-league. I don’t follow non-league football so I have no bitterness about their supposed Manchester City like spending to propel themselves towards the football league like an unfeeling big stack bully. But I saw the highlights of their triumph over Torquay.

The behaviour of the Crawley players in that game was nothing short of shameful. There was talk of the squad showing disrespect by warming up in the home side’s goalmouth prior to kick-off and of spats between the managers behind the scenes. On the pitch Crawley displayed evidence of dirty tackling and unsporting tactics alongside promising bouts of impressive football. Worst of all were the school boy tantrums surrounding two missed penalties.

Crawley players literally fought each other in fits of moody rage for control of the ball and the right to have a go from the spot. They tugged at each other’s shirts and unmistakeably swore. They abused the referee and demanded cards for their opponents. It was an ill tempered match and Torquay also had a sending off, but those two petty squabbles over penalties highlighted Crawley’s immaturity, arrogance and disrespect.

There’s been all the usual talk about the “magic” of the FA Cup surrounding Crawley’s tie with Manchester United. But for me if there is such a thing as FA Cup magic a key ingredient of it is the good behaviour and pure innocence behind the lowly sides’ valiant and courageous displays. There’s an assumption these days that it’s the money at the top of the game that breeds the bad side of football. I didn’t believe this to be entirely true. But the arrogance and disgraceful behaviour demonstrated by Crawley against Torquay, that sets such an unsporting example for watching youngsters, seems to suggest that even an injection of cash lower down the leagues can lead to behavioural problems and dissent in the dressing room.

It’s a worrying trend of excessive wealth tainting all corners of the game, given greater weight by Leyton Orient’s chairman Barry Hearn’s plans to fly his squad to Las Vegas as a reward for securing a replay with Arsenal. On the surface this is far more acceptable than Crawley’s shocking antics on the pitch and simply a part of another cup fairytale. But why isn’t a replay with one of the country’s greatest teams reward enough? It seems football in itself isn’t enough anymore. After the ludicrous transfer window the last bastion of pure football, the FA Cup, appears under threat too. Cup glory is becoming a trendy badge, an accessory or piece of bling, rather than something honourable, innocent and valuable all by itself.

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Old heads see off new faces at Old Trafford…just


It seems fitting that Manchester United’s new kit has a retro style this season, given their reliance on the resurgence of their old guard, the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, for a much needed breath of life and class during a stuttering start to the campaign. With few new signings to speak of United fans have been forced to hope that established stars in the squad recapture their best form to give this year’s title charge renewed vigour and yesterday in the ultimate clash of rivals Bulgarian forward Dimitar Berbatov stepped up to make a much needed, more significant contribution and spark premature talk of becoming player of the season.

All the early season talk has been of the ginger maestro Paul Scholes, spraying the ball effortlessly and accurately around the pitch from midfield, at the heart of everything good United do going forward. However whilst the shy professional stole the headlines for a change through the sheer dominance of his performances on the pitch, several of his usually derided teammates have quietly improved their consistency. Nani looks as if he is finally emerging from the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo to become a tricky winger with plenty of end product, in both shots and crosses. He is tearing apart teams down United’s flanks and will be needed even more with no Valencia to steer crosses straight onto the head of Wayne Rooney for the bulk of this season. Berbatov too had, until yesterday, been progressing unnoticed into a reliable source of goals as opposed to an occasional scorer of wonder strikes full of delightful, artful strokes of flair and football genius. Yesterday’s hat-trick ensured his new season transformation took centre stage and became the subject of endless discussion. The test for him now will be whether or not he can continue all the qualities demonstrated against Liverpool’s demoralised defence and genuinely ease the burden on Wayne Rooney upfront for United by becoming their next big match winner, their next title winning goal machine.

For yesterday that it was what Dimitar Berbatov hinted he is capable of. He has always oozed flair and natural ability on the ball. As Mark Lawrenson remarked on Match of the Day 2, he is the type of player who can play football at walking pace. However yesterday Berbatov showed a whole host of other qualities that would make him the complete player should he be able to replicate them week in, week out. Much debate has centred on the lack of understanding between Rooney and Berbatov but yesterday they displayed intricate, interlinked build-up play. Berbatov showed plenty of movement and eagerness to work for the team. Most tellingly and positively for United he got himself in the box, in dangerous positions far more often than usual. Then once in these positions he produced classic, clinical centre forward headers that he made look easy, as well as a world class, instinctive second goal that will be one of the best of the season. In reality even the simple finishes required timed jumps, thoughtful movement and strength. I have previously argued that Fergie should ditch Berbatov if he proves to be nothing more than a costly luxury, but now the veteran United manager knows he has a player around which a successful season can be built should he maintain his form.

Worryingly for Fergie his side almost threw away a comfortable lead again against opponents they had easily outplayed though. Dropping points away at Fulham and Everton may already prove costly in the title race, but to allow arch rivals Liverpool back into the game so casually at the invincible fortress that is Old Trafford would have been unbearable and perhaps irreparably damaged United’s march to reclaim the title. Berbatov may symbolise all that was good about United’s attacking play and have had the effect of a new signing by discovering such inspired form, but the holes (literal ones in the wall for Liverpool’s equaliser) and lack of concentration in United’s defence may have the fans hoping for similar inspiration at the back. The return of Rio Ferdinand may help steady the ship should he find fitness and even the long awaited emergence from exile of Owen Hargreaves could give United’s title charge new impetus. Fergie must be hoping that the £17 million paid for Hargreaves finally reaps some rewards. He has undoubtedly only been a costly crock thus far in his Old Trafford career, but his return could prove timely and give the United defence a focused, hard working defensive shield in midfield that inspires concentration in the rest of the team. If United do not iron out defensive slip ups they will quickly lose touch with Carlo Ancelotti’s juggernaut of Chelsea consistency.

Meanwhile on Merseyside Liverpool fans will have to wait sometime before Hodgson’s new team gels and produces anything like the sort of consistency necessary for a title charge. Kenny Dalglish’s optimistic assertion this week that his old club could win the league contradicted the realistic assessment of the new manager and the expectations of all onlookers. The turmoil off the pitch means that Roy will be given time by the fans to rebuild upon sustainable foundations and a successful first season is only likely to yield silverware via a typically passionate and rollercoaster cup run with a few hard fought victories won in front of an always loyal Anfield faithful. Yesterday at Old Trafford it seemed for a while that Liverpool may have snatched a draw and such a result would have felt like a victory. In reality it would have been unfair on a dominant United side who easily stifled the likes of Torres and new boys Joe Cole and Raul Meireles. Liverpool’s new faces will eventually take the club forward but this season looks set to belong to the old heads at Old Trafford, with only the Chelsea steamroller capable of crushing their last hurrah.