Kenny Dalglish may dream, but the big game is not the one at Wembley
Liverpool v Chelsea may engage, but Newcastle v Man City has deeper potentia
Published 05/05/2012 | 06:08
Wouldn't it be lovely if, just for today, we could flick a switch and tune in to the world of Kenny Dalglish.
What a time we would have, with all those great FA Cup finals running before our eyes in the build-up to today's 131st edition, involving Dalglish's Liverpool and Chelsea.
It would have everything you wanted in a football match: drama, passion, pathos and a whole lot of meaning. For some ancients it would even have the spindly legs of Sir Stanley Matthews ghosting across a 12-inch television screen as he mesmerised Bolton Wanderers so unforgettably in 1953.
Back then – and for a few more decades – Dalglish's brave but, let's be honest, rather forlorn statement yesterday would have gone quite without challenge by anyone who cared about the world's most popular game.
The Liverpool manager, reeling no doubt like most denizens of Anfield at the news of a near £50m loss to go along with a season of gut-wrenching futility in the Premier League, declared: "It's usually the people who aren't in the cup finals who say they don't count any more."
If only it was true, Kenny, the old game would be a much softer, warmer place.
The trouble is it's not just the accountants, pointing out that the profits on Chelsea's extraordinary run to the Champions' League final in Munich have already almost precisely equalled the extent of Liverpool's financial devastation, who place the grand old match firmly in the margins of big-time football.
Sir Alex Ferguson said the same thing 12 years ago when he acceded to the heretical notion that rather than defend the trophy – part of their historic 1999 treble – Manchester United and the game at large would get more benefit from a catchpenny World Club tournament in South America.
Arsène Wenger delivered another withering blow when he made a declaration that was briefly shocking but long ago became a cornerstone of football's new reality. "It is more important," said Wenger, "to finish fourth in the Premier League than win the FA Cup."
Dalglish has been in denial for some time, of course. After beating Cardiff City in this season's Carling Cup final he said that in 20 years fans would remember the triumph, and a good run in the FA Cup, far more vividly than what happened in the league. This was in direct contradiction to Bill Shankly's insistence that the only true yardstick of a team's success was its showing in the league. "That's where you announce you're a great team," he said. "This is because it is a marathon not a sprint."
Unfortunately and inevitably, for most of the football public the FA Cup is these days neither. It is, depending on your needs, something or nothing.
Bombarded by rule changes designed to speed up the whole business – which mean no more epic duels like the one which Manchester United settled against Sunderland in a second replay at Huddersfield in 1964 after scuffling for survival in the first two games – and chopped about by TV programmers, the FA Cup is, of course, an optional extra in the ambitions of all the top teams.
Blow out in the league, goes the thinking, then try to scrape a little attention in the old mistress of cup competitions. At Wembley today we have a neat division between one team looking for a lifeline – Liverpool – and another – Chelsea – peering over the horizon in search of more Champions League riches.
There is one more certainty of this weekend which used to be put aside for a day of national celebration, for a man in a white suit conducting the singing, or a policeman on a white horse, or a great footballer playing the game of his life, as Matthews did at the age of 38.
It is, of course, that the winners of today's consolation prize will be old-hat heroes by the time everybody else's big game kicks off in Newcastle tomorrow afternoon.
No doubt Liverpool versus Chelsea will have plenty to engage, perhaps even fascinate, but Newcastle against Manchester City has a much deeper potential.
It takes us to the heights, and maybe the entrails, of what modern football insists the game is all about, which is winning the league or, if not that, making sure you contend for the kind of windfall that has come to Chelsea in an otherwise desperately troubled season.
Wenger's elevation of fourth place was for a little while notorious. Now it cannot raise an eyebrow.
The edge of tomorrow's game is a tribute not only to the weight of City's presence, the tension that comes when any team faces a moment which might ultimately define its potential, but also the stunning transformation Newcastle manager Alan Pardew has worked at a place which for many had come to define football dysfunction.
Pardew was a pariah when he replaced the popular Chris Hughton. Now he is the creator of a team which oozes excitement, which has delivered Papiss Cissé as both a stunning revelation in the scoring arts and a product of the most superior scouting.
If we need any other measurement of Newcastle's progress, their ability to field players as subtle as Yohan Cabaye and as menacingly direct as Demba Ba, it is that of the all the assignments Roberto Mancini might have welcomed at this critical point in his season and his career, Newcastle would surely have been among the last.
City were the better team against their only championship rivals, Manchester United, earlier this week but not so dominant that they were able to announce themselves as champions-elect comfortably at home with such a title. They need to be nothing less than that to survive tomorrow's challenge.
If Mancini needs any historical underpinning, he could do a lot worse than a peek back to the style of Malcolm Allison, the man who last drove the club to the title 44 years ago.
It was a stupendous end run, bringing victories first at Tottenham, then Newcastle. City played with an unforgettable swagger and Francis Lee, Colin Bell and Mike Summerbee were forwards not only of superb talent but of a self-belief which Allison had spent several years working to build.
When Allison first met Lee – in a bar in Bolton, where the young player was already a demigod – he said: "Come to City, and I'll make you a real player." Lee recalls: "I thought to myself, 'What an arrogant bastard,' but of course he was right; he made us all better players."
Allison always remembered that collision with Lee as a pivotal moment in his controversial, brilliant career – and the performance at Newcastle as the high point in his work as a coach.
"We laid siege to Newcastle," he once said over the inevitable glass of champagne. "We were full of confidence and we knew that a point would be no good. I was happy with Lee, Summerbee and Bell. They were still full of their work at Tottenham [when brilliant running stretched Spurs wide and ransacked the great but ageing Dave Mackay].
"We had a few defensive mistakes but the rhythm of the attack was terrific right from the start. Later back in town there was a huge party in the Cabaret Club but, strangely, I couldn't catch the mood. I suppose I was stunned by the strength my players had shown.
"And then some time later, when Juventus flew me to Italy and offered me their job, even saying they would have a private plane fly my friends in at the weekends to prevent homesickness, I said I just couldn't do it. Those players had become so important in my mind it would have been like leaving a part of me in Manchester."
In a different time, and a different world, City will no doubt settle for somewhat less than such a ferocious sense of unity. What would do, very nicely, is an echo or two from the day three highly talented forwards claimed their right to be champions.
Certainly, it is not so easy to think of a better cue for Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Carlos Tevez. Or a better reminder that, whatever Kenny Dalglish says, the history that lives most vibrantly is, irrevocably, no longer to be found at the end of Wembley Way.