KISS THEM QUICK
Mickey Blue Eyes
I've said this before: I love the FA Cup. It's the greatest knock out competition in the world. At its best there is no more exciting sports spectacle anywhere.
This bears repeating because of the disgraceful way the tournament has been treated during the last decade or so, culminating in the last final played at the same time as league matches......the special day, gone. This season, apparently, will be different and the final will be restored to its rightful place in English football. Whoever allowed matters to deteriorate in the first place should be disembowelled. In public. Without pain killers.
On Saturday our fifth round opponents were Championship side Blackpool managed by professional West Countryman, honest Ian Holloway. Somehow you feel Ian's public persona is a perfect match for the club colour tangerine. Admired for his eccentricity, Ian is prone to say unusual things such as, "It was a great header," when speaking of a disastrous oggy by one of his erratic defenders. Everyone liked him because, well, virtually everybody beat Blackpool when they were in the Premiership, even us. Accordingly, they rose without trace. When the inevitable happened and they got relegated through sheer lack of playing resources and much naiveté they were mourned in condescending fashion as the "small club" who couldn't handle the big time. After all, from 1979 to 2010 their league attendance average never exceeded four figures. They were a classic example of a dash for growth that ended on crutches. For a time it was quite a romantic, old-fashioned heroic spectacle and most of us were sad to see them go, but really it was no surprise. Jump out of an airplane without a parachute and it might be exhilarating for a minute or two but you always end up as fresh human pizza on the landscape.
Our last madcap clash with them was at the Old Lady on a rain-soaked February afternoon last year, which ended 5-3 for us and Louis Saha got four goals, the last one after a run half the length of the field left him and their defenders gasping for breath; he never recovered and spent the rest of the year looking for a portable oxygen bottle, which he found eventually at White Hart Lane. We hoped for a similar match, this time without letting in three.
'Flu prevented Landon from playing a farewell match, which was a great pity. Hibbo in at right back, Royston wide right mid and Magaye wide left mid. Everyone else shuffled position slightly, with Felli starting in Tim Cahill's usual forward-mid rôle. Blackpool had Kevin Phillips, a player I admired greatly when he was in his pomp - and still dangerous if you took you eye off him - but I scarcely knew any of their other players. Later, Seamus came on for Magaye, Ross Barkley for Gibbo and Tolos for Denis. I didn't know what to expect given our season; what I didn't want was to be sitting dry-mouthed with the minutes ticking down and everything hanging on secure footwear or a smart breakaway. It isn't good for my pacemaker.
But, being The Cup, we go and score two goals in the first five minutes, both with Royston at the centre of action. You have to admit, he has us all gibbering to ourselves: Christ knows what he's like in training, Moyesy probably doesn't know whether to strangle or hug him. Which automatically means the opposition are baffled too.
Blackpool was no exception. In fact they almost completely neglected him for the first goal after sixty seconds, a score that had Royston written all over it first as pantomime villain then as pantomime hero. Straight from the kick off Blackpool played it down our right where it lodged in short passes for a moment. Royston lost it, got it back, got fouled and fell over, and took a quick free kick. Four cross field passes later it was down our left to Magaye, a smart turn tight on the touchline half way toward the goal line, a ground cross to the penalty spot where Felli shielded it with his back to goal and then laid it off to our right and a mysteriously unmarked Royston. From fifteen metres he curled a left foot angled beaut head height into the 'keeper's right corner.
Five minutes later he got a break down the right, charged through a couple of weak tackles, stumbled, and got a right side corner, which he took left footed himself. Magaye got to it at the near post and back headed it into the centre of the goal area. Where stood the Firecracker with four 'Pool players around him, all looking for Felli and John Heitinga and not Argentina's finest. He was so surprised, his first scoop at the ball was a miskick as he fell backwards. Hardly anybody moved so he poked it home as he hit the deck. We can only conjecture the sun was in the eyes of the Blackpool defence for both goals. Not that we could give a shit.
From then on it was mostly one way traffic except for a short ten minutes spell in the second half when the enemy got on top and were awarded a weird penalty. Kevin Phillips, who else, placed it on the spot, and I said to Macca, "He won't miss." Which meant of course he blazed it over to trigger the crowd into wild celebrations; still not trusting fate, they had been mostly quiet during the game while Fylde's very large following made easily the most noise and threw most of the standard "insults" and balloons. Crazily, we all started saying, "Maybe it's our year after all."
Hope springs eternal whatever Morgan Freeman said in The Shawshank Redemption.
On both sides of the penalty we created numerous chances until it began to look like a rout would develop. It never did. Meanwhile we were entertained by taking bets on whether Royston would stay on his feet for the next move or drift past four tackles and bladder one in from twenty five metres. On one occasion he even did what looked very like an Irish folk dance at the Bullens Road corner flag. Then he smacked in a long range effort their 'keeper saved superbly high up left side. Felli had one kicked off the line and missed a couple of headers. We should have been well clear, but weren't. Then they got a free kick just left of the D and Phillips hit a wonderful shot that clipped the top left angle of Tim's goal. Later still, their sub made an equally good shot from a little further out to produce a tremendous overhead right handed save from Tim and a knock on to his left post. To their credit Blackpool didn't lie down despite being clearly outclassed. It was good to see Seamus and Ross Barkley get some pitch time later, though both looked a bit ring rusty.
In the end it was a comfortable win with the crowd in gleeful mood.
Afterwards I travelled into town in a taxi where the driver had on a local radio football phone-in. The first caller asked, "How great a player would Drenthe be if he had a brain?" There really are times when you think, "I wished I'd said that." This was one of them.