Sunday Supplement: Spark’s Flying

Wenger wins his fifth FA Cup

Wenger wins his fifth FA Cup

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

My wife was planning to meet a friend at Finchley Road station this morning, stopping off for a bit of shopping and some refreshments. Her route would have taken her by the London Overground, should it have been working on this particular Sunday, right across the path of the triumphal Arsenal street parade around Islington.

I suggested an alternative, so a more central meeting point was hastily rearranged. At 5.10 p.m. yesterday, those much derided (in Hull and in Paul Hayward’s sitting room) plans for Islington street closures, were being tentatively revised, just as a couple of hours later, Hayward’s early copy for his Daily Telegraph piece on the Final, was being just as hastily re-hashed.

In my day on the paper – and we did overlap there for a while – the stuff you wrote first was what appeared in print. Nowadays it is penned, withdrawn, re-bored – in Hayward’s case, re- very-boring – and left for the final conclusion, which is designed for the present star writer to appear to have had it right all along the way.

I select Hayward for special mention simply because my mate George keeps me posted on the constant criticism he has of Arsenal in general and Arsene Wenger in particular.

Maybe it’s the fact that he is still deciding what to do with the money he got from taking the Fergy shilling and co-writing THAT autobiography. Frame the words for Alex to lay about all around, then watch him walk off into the sunset having contributed to what has been calculated as a £50 million hit to that club because of his insistence that David Moyes should be his successor.

Maybe Hayward thinks that like Fergy himself, when the time comes for him to pen (still love that image, but maybe “key” might be more apt) his last thoughts in print or ether as the case may be, he should be invited to follow Sir Fergy to a Harvard professorship. <By the way, I dreamed last night that I spoke to PH and he told me that at a pinch he’d consider dropping down to Yale>. True modesty!

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There was only one circumstance in which the media wolves who wait with poised PC for Wenger’s departure – at which point they will be magnanimously generous as they write his epitaph – would regard the 2014 Cup Final with any affection. It would be a win by Hull City, so potentially one-sided it was that an Arsenal victory would mean nothing.

That opinion was to fly in the face of just how difficult it is to win the FA Cup. Only six teams have won the Cup seven or more times since its inception in 1872. When Arsenal won yesterday, they equalled Manchester United’s win and final appearance figures of 11 and 18 respectively. Wenger now also matches Sir Alex’s tally of five managerial wins.

After the top two, Tottenham come next with eight wins, all in the last century. Their first came in 1901, eight years before United’s debut and 29 years before their North London rivals’ first which happened when my late father was ten.

Three more clubs have seven: Aston Villa, who kicked off in the Kennington Oval days (1872-92) in 1887; and Liverpool, in 1965 and Chelsea five years later, both well into the long initial Wembley stint (1923-2000).  Tottenham and United’s first were both in the Crystal Palace period (1895 – 2014).

The Cup throws up some amazing stats and some of them have become urban myths. As in, when there’s a “1” in the year, Spurs win the Cup. In the last century, the Cup was fought for in nine of the “1” years, the exception being 1941 in the midst of the Second World War.

Amazingly all of Spurs’ eight wins came in that century, and five of them, 01, 21, 61, 81 and 91, were indeed in “1” years, meaning only in 11, 31, 51 and 71 did they miss out. Twice, in 62 and 82 they followed on, with the only other success coming in 1967.

I trot out these things because (a) I always knew them, but (b) at my age I need reminding and (c) believe other people of a similar mind – not necessary allegiance – might be entertained. It always takes me longer than essential to make the point, but for all their Cup tradition, Tottenham have not won it since 1991, Man U since 1999 and Everton since 1995.  Yet these three, with this season’s top four, Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal start out each campaign regarding the Cup as something achievable. Few others get a proper shot at it nowadays.

That’s a tortuous way to conclude this was a great season for Arsenal, winning something, improving on recent points tallies in the League and getting far enough in the Champions League to have to meet (as usual) the number one rated team in the last 16.

They were three League points behind Chelsea, five adrift of Liverpool (whom they beat two of the three times they met) and seven points inferior to City, although they did get thrashed in away games at all three.  Yet they still won 37 competitive games; 24, including being the only team to win 11 times away, in the League and six each in the Cup and Europe, while losing just 11 of their other 18 games. Hardly failure!

The game’s going into extra time made me completely forget to watch the 2014 reappearance of Spark Plug. Late last summer, a mate, Ian Dalgleish – no relation to Kenny who shares a birthday with me – said a friend of his was looking for a horse.

He wanted something that he could go with his mates to Sandown to watch and not be embarrassed. He already had an old workhorse who goes in every ten runs or so on the all-weather, but like Lew, for he is the man, and me, that horse is getting on a bit.

I was aware of an unraced juvenile colt at Manton whom I’d seen shaping nicely, and got Lew interested, but that interest cooled when the asking priced was understandably quite a few grand too high. Then on St Leger Day, while I was otherwise engaged watching Great Hall go round the paddock before the St Leger, Spark Plug dotted in (unbacked of course by me, but not Lew) on debut at Bath.

Anyone knowing the workings of the Brian Meehan team over the years would know that first-time two-year-old winners from the stable can often be smart. The price went up again, but Lew was not to be denied, and eventually the deal was done.

I’ve been out of the loop on Spark Plug’s progress, but would still have gone to Doncaster on Saturday night had it not been for the Final. As I said, I missed the race and the fact he was 5-1. Again he exceeded apparent expectations, winning his Class 3 handicap a little cosily in a small field with highly-regarded Man of Harlech the well beaten odds-on favourite.

What Lew most liked once I detailed his new buy’s pedigree was the fact that his dam, Kournikova, was a smart runner. South African, she won a Grade 1 over there, inflicting the only-ever career defeat on the smart Ipi Tombi, a big winner in Dubai a few years back.

Lew’s not an Ascot man, so he has no plans for the Britannia unless Brian can talk him round, but I’m sure that the investment which he weighed so carefully before committing, should give him a lot of pleasure – and relief for the man who recommended him!

While mentioning the stable, I have to express my sympathy for those involved in the Thursday M11 horsebox accident which led to some happily unhurt but traumatized staff and the loss of life from car passengers. Brian also lost his much-loved American pony Pistolero, a constant on the Manton gallops and accompanying nervy horses on the track, for the past eight years. The show goes on, though, and as Spark Plug showed, a winner can always get everyone’s spirits up.

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