Cardiff 0 Arsenal 0
FA Cup 4th Round, January 25th 2009
"The important thing is not that we can live on hope alone, but that life is not worth living without it."
For a 9 year old boy whose devotion to Cardiff City had begun to take over and shape his life, the ultimate must-have Christmas present in 1968 was not a Thunderbirds outfit, Ker-Plunk, a bottle of Mackesons and a packet of Number 6, but a ticket for the FA Cup 3rd round tie to be played at Ninian Park between Cardiff City and the mighty Arsenal on January 4th. Me and my brothers had been begging my dad to go since the draw had been announced, but the old fella would not have it, saying the crowd would be far too big for kids of our age.
The run-up to Xmas took on a dim hue as the dreams of attending this titanic Cup clash evaporated and it was with a heavy heart that we went up the wooden hill on Christmas Eve. Next morning our faith in Father Christmas was restored bigtime, as, perched on top of the pillow case of presents at the bottom of the bed was a 9 year old's version of the Holy Grail - a ticket for the Grange End terrace. Woo-hoo and game on, as we didn't used to say in those far-off days.
Clear memories of the game itself have misted over in the intervening years but some things stand out. The sheer size of the 55,136 crowd was imprinted on my mind even then - huge numbers of Arsenal fans mingled (peacefully?) with City fans in the area between Bob Bank and Grange, one of the Gooners wearing a bright yellow fireman's helmet for some reason. My father tells me that when the crush got really bad, a bunch of Gooners passed me and my brothers over their heads down towards the safety of the front - my first (and only if I'm honest!) attempt at crowd-surfing. So, a belated thanks to you, boys.
I'm sure such conviviality was not all around, as another vivid memory was of both Arsenal and City fans running on to the pitch pre-match, and setting ablaze the Welsh Dragon and the Union flag respectively. The game finished goalless, but we ended up listening to the second half on the "wireless" as we trudged back home - my dad having deemed the swaying crowds too dangerous at half-time.
Missed out on the 1980 game for some reason (sex/drugs/rock n roll?) but fast forward thirty seven years and the Bluebirds draw the Gunners again - away this time, in the Highbury library's final season. Another must-see game, another hysterical ticket clamour and the first of a prophetic series of FA Cup visits to the Smoke. The Metropolitan Police did their very best to sabotage our day, wheeling us straight off the train into the Pride of Paddington and keeping us there till 12.10, before escorting us across London and depositing us outside the ground at 1.15 (kick-off time 1.00 PM). Cheers boys! Only been waiting thirty seven years for this rematch.
Inside the Clock End chaos reigned, with over-excited City fans dangerously clogging gangways and stairs making it impossible to reach our seats. Finally, at half-time, we were able to fight our way through to the seats where (surprise surprise) there was loads of room, and enjoy the rest of the game, the superb City singing, the consolation goal from Jerome and the prospect of a dry train home (not before another lock-in at The Highbury Barn nearby).
And so to 2009, and what a way to crank up the run-in to the end of our days at Ninian Park. From the days of Bertie Mee, Bill Shankly and the great great Jimmy Scoular to Arsene Wenger, Rafa Benitez and the great (but not quite so adored) Dave Jones, it certainly has been a long strange trip - today's historic tie laden with the precious detritus of history and some notable personal stand-offs - Ramsey's first match against his old club, and Bothroyd lining up aginst the team that booted him out of their Youth Squad - in a moment of Homer Simpson madness our Jay had hurled his shirt at Don Howe after being subbed, a moment of pique which circuitously kick-started his journey to Cardiff City.
Hopeful, but not stupidly optimistic, City fans enjoyed fry-ups, early lunches and liquid liveners before jamming into the stadium for what promised to be a rare occasion. Arsenal fans occupied either side of the Grange and made a decent racket as the rest of the ground filled up, the large number of old-skool striped scarves no doubt adding to the nostalgia factor for the prawn-munchers from the Emirates - the prospect of visiting a proper piece of terracing in a dilapidated ground having apparently excited our visitors from North London.
The Battle of the Big Flags ended with a resounding victory for Arsenal - their well-drilled effort was traversed expertly across their bank of terracing, straight edges retained in impressive military fashion. "The" Big Flag was conspicuously, and sadly, absent, but was replaced by a new kid on the block, which made the short journey up and down the length of the Bob terrace in frankly shambolic fashion - getting all confused when it hit the Canton end. Clearly more to this Big Flag lark than meets the eye - a few focus groups and training sessions required!
City got down to business impressively, attacking Arsenal from the first minute with an eye-catching, breathtaking display of short, sharp attacking moves. We were rocking, they were reeling, and totally unable to find their feet and focus as the lines of blue darted in and around the penalty area. As impressed as the City fans were with the fearless offensive attitude, frustration intensified as chance after chance was spurned in a mixture of over-excitedness and tension.
It could seriously have been 4-0 in the first half hour - McCormack dragged a shot wide, headed weakly wide when well placed in front of goal, whilst Parry and Ledley both lifted shots over the bar. Cardiff were not just holding their own, they were outplaying the mighty Gunners with a style of football which has intermittently thrilled the City crowd this season. Arsenes's boys looked more than rattled - rookie keeper Fabianski slicing memorably in the first quarter.
In the centre of midfield Ledley and Rae were bossing the show - Ramsey had some good touches and acting as the fulcrum sprayed some lovely passes around, but was outmuscled by his old team-mates. Nasri was Arsenal's most effective player in the first half, and looked odds-on to put Arsenal in front as he homed in on goal, but placed his shot too close to Enckelman, who nevertheless saved well. Bendtner, too, had a decent chance but was blocked by Roger Johnson. Eboue went flying in the box, and was promptly booked for his efforts, to the relief of City fans.
Everything changed in the second half, and not in a good way. Arsenal emerged from the tunnel well before the Bluebirds, having evidently been exposed to some hard truths from manager Wenger. The Gunners upped their game and slowly began to take control. Ramsey was replaced by Diaby, and as the Arsenal midfield got a grip, Van Persie became ever more influential, carving his way through the ranks of blue.
City's decision to back off threatened to backfire on several occasions, but the defence held firm in stalwart fashion - Johnson and Gyepes both had monumental performances, and were also grateful for some terrific saves from Encks, who probably had his best game in a Cardiff shirt.
There was little respite for the back-tracking midfielders and hard-running defenders, with barely a glimpse of a Cardiff attack in the second half. Parry, who had a hugely disappointing game, swapped wings when a clearly knackered Chris Burke was taken off on 79 minutes - Capaldi bolstering the left side of the Cardiff defence/midfield, where full back Sagna had made real headway.
Burke's opening twenty five minutes had been spot-on - he linked well with SuperMac and caused some problems for the tyro left back Kieron Gibbs. After that,however, the young defender seemed to have his card marked and took the ball off the winger far too frequently.
Up front, Bothroyd had another impressive game, leading the line with assurance and competing well against a central defensive partnership of Djourou and Toure, who looked uncomfortable at times in the first half. McCormack will rue his missed chances, but can be satisfied with another sharp high-energy performance. He was denied twice in the second half - one shot parried away, and a superb dipping free kick palmed onto the bar and away.
The best chance of the game fell to substitute Adebayor who snatched at a golden opportunity and whacked the ball into the ground allowing Enckelman to collect easily.
So forty years on, and another 0-0 draw, and despite the achievements of matching one of the best teams in Europe, there was a palpable and deflated sense of disappointment amongst the Cardiff fans at the end. We had a chance (or four) in the first half to beat this lot, and blew it. Whether the subdued second half performance was down to fatigue, a collective loss of nerve or the penetrating powers of Peter Ridsdale's mind control from the director's box, we will never find out. Whichever way you slice it, it was frustrating to see Ledley running down time in the corner when we had an opportunity for one last attack.
Off the pitch, the knuckle-draggers did their best to take the edge off a memorable day and tramp the club's name through the gutter again. After recent disorder at both the Reading and Birmingham away games, Sunday's Hall of Shame included coin throwing incidents and racist chanting directed at Arsenal's black players.
To cap it all off the "lads" who had congregated in the corner of the BBT facing the Grange End were sufficiently wound up by a single Swansea fan's taunts to surge, like Pavlov's drooling dogs, towards the fence. Separated by riot cops, knuckleheads from both sides hurled abuse at each other whilst the tannoy announced "Please behave, you're all on CCTV". I look forward to the day when the message can be changed: "Please behave, you're all human beings".
Paul Davies © 2009.
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