FA Cup Semi Finals: Reading FC vs Arsenal FC/Aston Villa FC vs Liverpool FC

Reading FC vs Arsenal FC

FA Cup Semi Final

Saturday 19th April 2015

Wembley Stadium, London/My sofa, Derbyshire


It always looked like it might end here. Semi-final weekend at Wembley was likely to pose a few problems in terms of tickets.

Two decent looking underdog ties showed promise for an upset; Reading’s replay victory over Bradford meant a tie under the Wembley arch against cup holders Arsenal, while Aston Villa’s defeat of West Brom meant they’d face Liverpool.

You could get combined odds of close to 100/1 that both sides would win in 90 minutes as the media prepared themselves for a repeat of the 2001 Final in Cardiff where a late Michael Owen brace won the Cup for the reds of Merseyside.

With a gig on Saturday night, the most likely route to a ticket in the Reading end was thwarted. Eventually selling out in the days before kick-off, the Royals would be cheered on by more than 30,000 fans.

Villa vs Liverpool unsurprisingly sold out quickly despite the extended wait for a confirmed date, with Liverpool’s replay victory at Ewood Park coming almost a month after the original tie.

So it would be from my sofa that I’d enjoy both semis, in what sounds more like the synopsis for an episode of Sex in the City. The Saturday teatime game on the BBC would be the first port of call.

Not for the first time this season, criticism came over the scheduling. Taking place at the same time as Manchester United’s visit to West London, the thinking behind clashing one the season’s showcase games against a big Premier League fixture was questionable to say the least. That Arsenal’s recent resurgence gave them more than a passing interest in a potential title decider made it even odder.

Nevertheless, Gary Lineker and co. placed their Premier League hats to one side and were up for the cup. Starting with an unusual opening sequence about kings and paupers, we’re greeted by the familiar panel of Shearer and Wright, with Jason Roberts providing a Berkshire bias.

An odd start from the BBC.

An odd start from the BBC.

I can’t lie. Being a Tottenham fan, it’s not difficult to be motivated into supporting anyone playing Arsenal. Before any Gooners who’ve ventured this far abandon ship, though, I should add that I generally find the all-consuming rivalry between some football fans a bit exhausting.

I’ve got Arsenal supporting mates, lived with an Arsenal fan for two years (it got pretty bitter on derby day but was fine otherwise) and begrudgingly admire their football on occasion. It’s horrible to even write that, however, so there’s no doubt that it’s in me.

Combined with my experience among the Reading fans at Valley Parade, I’m certainly geared up for an upset. Reading’s 18th– placed ranking in the Championship is mentioned repeatedly as symbolic of their role as a mediocre second tier side in this tie, and the panel seem to be doing their best to resist predicting how many they might lose by.

Some hope is provided by Arsenal’s previous mishaps against lower ranked sides in big games. Last season’s dramatic semi-final win over Wigan and the early two goal deficit conceded to Hull City in the 2014 Final are cited, but only really serve as reminders that this is a team that has a habit of eventually prospering after shooting itself in the foot.

The boys in the studio banter about suit colours and heads of hair as the BBC relax us into the brief pre-match build-up. I’ve commented a few times on the quality of the BBC coverage this season, not least with supporting programmes such as FA Cup Rewind and Football Focus, and there remains a sense that showcase English football belongs here.

Ian Wright protests at the semis being at Wembley early on, and we see Martin Keown interviewing Danny Welbeck in a strangely soft voice like he’s Martin Bashir facing Princess Diana.

"There were three of us in that attack..." - Princess Danny.

“There were three of us in that attack…” – Princess Danny.

The bantering subsides long enough in the studio for Wright to suggest Welbeck should be being used more as a focal point of Arsenal’s forward line rather than out wide as he’s often deployed. Admittedly a fine striker in his day, I do find Wright’s childlike demeanour grating in the studio, although I do enjoy his subtle Wenger-bashing on every possible occasion.

The next feature inexplicably takes us ‘At Home with the Mackies’, as Jamie poses with his kids and shows off a few of his framed shirt collection. It feels like a token effort to feature Reading, and I’m left with a lingering sense of disappointment that they didn’t instead go with ‘At Yo Sushi! with the Yakubus’ in which the former Nigerian international tries sashimi for the first time.

Gary and co. witter on about their being 24 goals in the last three meetings between the two sides like it bloody matters and then we’re handed over to the commentary team.

The various underdog stories get a mention, including Bradford and Warrington, and we’re all-too-briefly introduced to a 93-year-old Reading fan who impressively bends down in the stand as the camera tries to find her, subsequently meaning she misses her five seconds of fame while inadvertently promoting her yoga instructor.

Reading get us underway. As expected, Arsenal dominate the early possession, and almost open the scoring through a Mertesacker header on 7mins. Obita’s snapshot soon after gives Szczesny something to think about.

Jamie Mackie introduce himself to Koscielny in the hope of adding another shirt to his collection.

Jamie Mackie introduce himself to Koscielny in the hope of adding another shirt to his collection.

The breakthrough comes in the 39th minute. A brilliant ball from Ozil finds the run of Alexis Sanchez who in turn finds the back of the net in a well-worked move. As Lineker suggests at half-time, it would have been a miserable Ian Wright (he supports Arsenal, apparently) had it not come before the break.

Shearer gives expert insight in the goal, saying it was unforgivable for the Reading backline to let Sanchez go. Hard to believe further, given the heavenly beam of light that follows him into the box on the replay.

Alexis Sanchez, sent from heaven.

Alexis Sanchez, sent from heaven.

Gary releases more FA Cup based banter on Ian Wright, poking fun at his lack of FA Cup winners medals, before Shearer defends him with a quip about Premier League titles. Martin Keown prepares his own comeback on the sidelines as Jason Roberts slowly sinks into his seat.

The second half kicks off as Reading look for a route back into the game. I get changed for my gig in while watching the TV as both kids ask me why I’m in a state of semi-undress (no pun intended) in front of the football.

“They’ve got to be on their toes here, Arsenal”, says Steve Wilson in commentary. “Nothing’s won here yet.”

It’s that kind of soundbite that usually makes me think they edit these comments into Match of the Day but, sure enough, the equaliser arrives about four seconds later.

Pogrebnyak’s run to the byline and cross finds McCleary who makes decent contact on the stretch to get the ball beyond Szczesny. The Pole makes a hash of preventing it from going over the line and the blue half of Wembley explodes with delight. We’re level with more than a third of the game to go.

Reading are given further reason to feel that it could be their day soon after. Federici’s flying save to push Gabriel’s shot over the bar has shades of Seaman about it, providing a stark reminder to Arsenal of their own deficiencies while also being a cracking title for an erotic novel.

Adam Federici's Seaman-esque save doubles up as an excellent Spot the Ball competition.

Adam Federici’s Seaman-esque save doubles up as an excellent Spot the Ball competition.

My son Jacob joins me for the final 15 minutes. His assessment that Pogrebnyak “should have done a Harry Kane header” is unknowingly astute given the circumstances. Aaron Ramsay hits the bar at the other end a minute later as Chris Gunter races to cover the gaping goal; in a nice subplot, it turns out the Reading fullback was Best Man for his Welsh teammate recently.

Pogrebnyak blows the chance of an unlikely winner late on as a Reading break sees the Russian try and take on the last man instead of finding Mackie in space.

“That’s why you should always try and find your teammate”, I say to Jacob, turning my own disappointment into a coaching point. He nods thoughtfully, although I remain confident he’ll try and go it alone again at football practise/on the back garden/when we next play FIFA.

The full-time whistle blows and a great cheer emanates from the Reading end. Nobody gave them a chance today, and yet somehow they’re heading into an extra half hour against the cup holders. Jacob tries to maintain interest but he’s clearly contemplating on my departure and ownership of the remote control.

“Can we watch Ninja Warrior yet?” he asks. “I’m just going to watch this until half-time mate,” I explain, before neatly seguewaying into an explanation of how extra time works. I’ve one eye on the clock, but it’s a local gig and I can spare another fifteen minutes.

It turns out to be an ominous prophecy. On the stroke of half-time, a seemingly harmless shot from Sanchez slips under Adam Federici. It’s a heart-breaking mistake from one of Reading’s best performers in what has been a team full of heroes. As Arsenal wheel away, Federici remains on the floor. He reminds me of Solihull’s sweeper keeper at Ilkeston way back in September’s Second Qualifying Round, even if the stage is a little grander.

Federici realises the Spot the Ball competition was rigged all along.

Federici realises the Spot the Ball competition was rigged all along.

I have to leave the house, and tune into TalkSport on the way to the gig in hope rather than expectation. Sure enough, Arsenal hold on and Reading are out. It’s a horrible way for their run to end and, while it’s not been the star-studded run of others, the quarter final replay at home to Bradford was their only tie at home. It’s been a performance of promise for Steve Clarke’s men, and they already look decent value for a play-off push next year.

For Arsenal, it’s a second consecutive Cup Final after ending that much publicised trophy drought against Hull last May. With Chelsea’s win at Stamford Bridge all but ending their title hopes, they’ll start the day as favourites once again next month.

“Did you see the match?” asks a bloke on the smoking terrace outside the gig, not specifying which one he meant. “It’s in the bag for Chelsea now…”

Reading FC                                1                      – 2              Arsenal FC

McCleary 54                                                                                                     Sanchez 39; 106

After extra time

Reading: 1. Federici, 2. Gunter, 15. Hector, 5. A.Pearce, 11. Obita, 12. McCleary, 23. Williams, 14. Chalobah (10. Cox – 105′ ), 9. Robson-Kanu (21. Karacan – 90′ ), 19. Mackie, 7. Pogrebnyak (20. Yakubu – 111′)

Substitutes: 3. Kelly, 6. Norwood, 31. Andersen, 35. Cooper

Arsenal: 1. Szczesny, 2. Debuchy, 4. Mertesacker (5. Gabriel – 63′), 6. Koscielny, 3. Gibbs, 34. Coquelin (14. Walcott – 101′ ), 19. Cazorla, 16. Ramsey, 11. Özil, 17. Sánchez, 23. Welbeck (12. Giroud – 72′ )

Substitutes: 10. Wilshere, 13. Ospina, 18. Monreal, 20. Flamini

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Att: 84,081


Aston Villa FC vs Liverpool FC

FA Cup Semi Final

Sunday 20th April 2015

Wembley Stadium, London/My sofa, Derbyshire

There’s no getting away from sport in our house on a Sunday. From the early morning Grand Prixs to the final day of the Masters, recent weekends have been just as dominated by sporting drama as they have by the humble roast chicken and Yorkshire pudding.

Today would be no different as we tried to plan our day. A 6th birthday party at a local play centre was first on the agenda, as was a shopping trip to purchase said chicken. The first outdoor training session of the year meant new football boots were needed for our son, and our three-year-old was promised a swimming trip in return for good behaviour.

It’s not difficult to imagine the joy that greeted my conjoining with the sofa in time for the commencement of BT Sport’s 2pm coverage of the second semi-final. It’s been a fairly hectic period since Arsenal’s victory and an enjoyable gig in the Nottinghamshire village of Awsworth last night.

Jake Humphrey’s introduction is quick to mention Steven Gerrard and his place in the starting line-up, in what appears to be the media’s main subplot. With Gerrard’s birthday falling on Cup Final day, several Merseyside caterers and a dwarf stripper were on tenterhooks ahead of today’s game.

Worst Take That Tribute Band EVER.

Worst Take That Tribute Band EVER.

In contrast to the BBC, BT’s coverage is meticulously thorough. With football being the primary offering of their subscription, every game receives extensive build-up and analysis as a panel of 90s Premier League stars offer their thoughts and opinions.

As ever, Robbie Savage plays the role of Jason Roberts but without the considered and intelligent input. Considered by many to be the joker of the pack, his own personal career doesn’t offer the prestige of a Lawrenson or a Wright to have earned that position. Still, he has nice hair, I suppose.

An interview with Tim Sherwood gives us a taste for things to come as he pals his way through the questions. Often accused of resorting to team spirit and confidence over tactics, Sherwood is a rare breed of manager who appears to have teleported himself from a pre-Wenger era of camaraderie over qualifications. Today would be a good test of those credentials.

I have to admit that I wasn’t a Sherwood fan when he was at Tottenham. I was at St Mary’s for his first game in charge of Spurs and clearly remember his response that “if we don’t give the ball away, we don’t have to win it back” when questioned pre-match on Southampton’s tendency to dominate possession.

It’s the kind of answer that only he, with a wink and a smile, could seemingly get away with without utter ridicule. That said, he adds colour to the Premier League and I’m pleased to see him doing well at Villa.

Much has been made of the resurgence of Christian Benteke in recent weeks, just as it was of Adebayor last season. Rather than some man management genius, I think the answer is perhaps a little simpler.

Tim appears to be the type of boss that any workplace could love or hate in equal measure. Freezing out high profile players in place of new favourites during his short time in charge at White Hart Lane, he strikes me as the ‘matey’ bloke who forwards dodgy jokes round to his workforce on text and likes to turn up hungover on a Monday morning after ‘one too many sherbets’.

Tim Sherwood's record was mysteriously missing a 'win ratio' column.

Tim Sherwood’s record was mysteriously missing a ‘win ratio’ column.

His impact on Villa has been impressive. Taking over from the dour Paul Lambert, the manager who’d looked like a dead man walking for the best part of a year, his energy has undoubtedly energised a struggling Villa who’ve somehow slipped from the European qualification places to regular relegation battlers in just a few short years.

I’ve always quite liked Villa. My dad, a small business retailer, used to deal with a company with season tickets at Villa Park. We’d regularly get free seats to see Tottenham there, with the only problem being that we were in the home end. I would sit on my hands when Spurs scored and, more frequently, slow clap Villa’s inevitable late winners.

As with this FA Cup journey, I found out more about the general feeling of those home fans with each passing season than I could listening to any phone-in or reading any message board. The general depression with each season of underachievement was often palpable, and not unlike that of the Tottenham faithful. I always felt a little closer to understanding Villa because of that.

Just like Tottenham, today represented their chance of a first Cup Final in too long. Losing finalists in 2000, they last had their hands on silverware in 1996 against Leeds in the Coca Cola Cup Final. I was being dragged round Meadowhall by my parents that day and can recall protesting that I couldn’t hang around in the food hall where their 3-0 win was being broadcast on the big screen.

A neat package recreating goals from each round of Villa and Liverpool’s cup runs to this stage by two young fans was a nice distraction from the panel for a while, and Jacob laughed along as the two kids around his age played up to the cameras.

“We’ve been there!”, shouts Jacob, as a sweeping shot shows the crowds ambling up Wembley Way.

Unlike the BBC, we’re treated to our first ad break shortly afterwards, as Alan Shearer showed shades of a balding Daniel Day Lewis in his emotive performance of a retired footballer in the new Barclays advert.

Jake Humphrey introduced a trailer to a powerful looking documentary about the Valley Parade fire shortly afterwards, in what looked like an intriguing but difficult watch. New claims that the fire could have been deliberate emerged from a survivor this week, and will surely lead to even closer scrutiny on the upcoming 30th anniversary of one of football’s biggest tragedies.

An interview with Benteke is followed by in-depth insight from the panel as to his recent upturn in form.

“When you can’t see your next chance round the corner, you snatch at opportunities”, says Little Michael Owen, effectively describing the second half of his own career. He’s still my mum’s favourite player to this day.

The panel then discuss Stevie G’s birthday like he’s the Queen, before a pitchside voxpop from Roy Hodgson, who manages to refrain from mentioning his favourite player in the world is Javier Mascherano.

An ill-advised pundit lap of honour ends in predictable fashion soon after, as Robbie Savage is given a true Holte End welcome from the Villa fans. They boo and audibly chant ‘Robbie Savage is a wanker’ repeatedly, as viewers of a nervous disposition consider switching over to the snooker.

“They haven’t forgotten your links with Leicester, have they?” says Jake, clearly forgetting himself Savage’s four years at Birmingham City and 40 years as a bit of a bellend.

The next ad break is fairly unremarkable. Shearer pops back on to sell us a credit card and an attractive looking advert for the NBA playoffs causes me to momentarily consider a new sport I have literally no interest in. I’m already recording the Spurs game and the F1 highlights to watch every minute of this.

The news that Shay Given starts in goal for Villa causes some debate on whether teams should start with second choice goalkeepers in cup games. Given was a losing finalist against Arsenal 17 years ago in an ageing Newcastle squad that included Stuart Pearce, John Barnes and Philippe Albert.

Now back at Wembley nearly two decades on, he’d be the veteran to youngsters like Jack Grealish, who’d have just about been out of nappies around the time.

As the game kicks off, rows of empty red Club Wembley seats are visible. It’s a difficult sight for any disappointed fan that couldn’t get tickets – including me.

The opening stages are competitive as Villa look the more lively. Missing Agbonlahor today, they look to use the pace of N’Zogbia and Grealish to cause Liverpool problems.

“Things happen when you run at defenders”, says Little Michael Owen, effectively describing the first half of his career.

A key moment comes in the 24th minute as Nathan Baker limps off the field with what looks like the recurrence of a knee injury. Jores Okore comes on to replace him.

Minutes later, Liverpool take the lead. With the young Dane seemingly not quite up to the match pace, he lingers on a clearance and gives the ball away inside his own box. A fine ball from Sterling into the run of Coutinho sees the young Brazilian lift the ball beyond the onrushing Given – via the knee of the unfortunate Okore – and Liverpool take the lead. It wouldn’t last for long.

Consistently looking to work the ball down the left, Villa find their equaliser six minutes later. Great feet from Delph breaking into the opposition half sees him find Grealish, who cuts inside and finds the England international’s continued run down the left. A great first time ball into Christian Benteke give the Belgian time to open his body and stroke the ball into the far corner and out of the reach of Mignolet. It’s a fantastic goal, and no less than Villa deserve.

Brendan Rodgers offers to get the halftime Bovrils in.

Brendan Rodgers offers to get the halftime Bovrils in.

The ads go into overdrive as the half time whistle blows. Raheem Sterling practises the wave his agent appears to be manufacturing in an ad for Nivea, while a man fights a seagull for a cone of chips in another commercial.

"I'm not going to talk about a new contract for now..."

“I’m not going to talk about a new contract for now…”

“It’s good…but it’s not quite Carling!”, says the voiceover, in a thinly veiled attempt to rebrand warm urine as a luxury brand. Jake Humphrey then returns to the screen and encourages us to tune into the “brilliant” Fletch and Sav next Saturday morning, in a thinly veiled attempt to rebrand…no, it’s too easy.

Mario Balotelli is introduced at half-time, displaying the trademark enthusiasm of a man being held against his will. He offers plenty for the neutral, if nothing else.

I realise that I’ve become quite invested in supporting the underdog on 53 minutes. Fabian Delph, who has been outstanding so far, plays a through ball for Benteke to chase. A neat back heel to Grealish encourages the youngster to cut inside and play a superbly weighted pass to Delph, who coolly opens space by cutting inside with his left foot and slots the ball into the corner with his right.

The Villa fans behind the goal are in raptures as their team celebrates in front of them. It’s another fine goal, crafted with skill and precision. Sherwood celebrates on the sidelines in uncharacteristically subdued fashion.

“Daddy’s happy,” says Jacob, glancing up from a Scooby Doo jigsaw to see what the fuss is all about.

A shot of Roy Hodgson chatting with Gerard Houllier pops up in the bottom left of the screen, something of a common occurrence on BT Sport. Out of shot, Roy Evans, Rafa Benitez and the ghost of Bill Shankly discuss ways back into the game.

Liverpool managers of the recent and more distant past discuss a way back into the game.

Liverpool managers of the recent and more distant past discuss a way back into the game.

14 year old Jack Grealish makes way for 43 year old Joe Cole in the 84th minute to rapturous applause. A late Liverpool charge, most notable for Balotelli’s disallowed goal when he was clearly onside, fizzles out. Gerrard comes close to tippexing out that Wetherspoon’s reservation with a late header that’s cleared off the line.

Dejan Lovren’s late blaze wide in the depths of injury time is the final chance of the game and sums up their performance. It will likely do little for his own popularity on Merseyside, too.

Gerrard stands over a freekick while pondering over whether his local Wetherspoon's has a function room available at the end of May.

Gerrard stands over a freekick while pondering over whether his local Wetherspoon’s has a function room available at the end of May.

It’s a massive defeat for Liverpool. With stats flying around that Rodgers has become the first trophyless manager in his first three years at the Club since the 50’s, the pressure is already mounting ahead of the summer break.

It’s mentioned in summary that Liverpool win every game except the games they need to win, and it’s hard to ignore a worrying pattern of big game defeats in the last few seasons. There’ll be no fairytale ending for Steven Gerrard, unless you rank a late sub appearance at Stoke to seal a Europa League spot up there with the Brothers Grimm.

Shay Given celebrates early with the backward worm. Classic.

Shay Given celebrates early with the backward worm. Classic.

For Villa, there finally seems to be some reason for optimism after a miserable few years. Outplaying their supposedly superior opponents for long periods, there can be no doubting Sherwood’s game plan. This was the day he put the Tactics Tim tag to bed.

With that win ratio continuing to improve, could there really be an FA Cup winners medal hanging round his neck next month?

Aston Villa FC                                2             – 1                      Liverpool FC

Benteke 36; Delph 54                                                                                     Coutinho 30


Aston Villa FC: 31. Given, 7. Bacuna, 4. Vlaar, 2. Baker (5. Okore – 26′ ), 18. Richardson, 8. Cleverley, 15. Westwood, 16. Delph, 28. N’Zogbia (9. Sinclair – 75′ ), 20. Benteke, 40. Grealish (12. Cole – 84′ )

Substitutes: 1. Guzan, 10. Weimann, 25. Gil, 34. Lowton


Liverpool FC: 22. Mignolet, 23. Can, 37. Skrtel, 6. Lovren, 50. Markovic (45. Balotelli – 45′ ), 14. Henderson, 24. Allen (2. Johnson – 78′ ), 18. Moreno (9. Lambert – 91′ ), 8. Gerrard, 10. Coutinho, 31. Sterling

Substitutes: 1. Jones, 4. K Touré, 19. Manquillo, 29. Borini

Referee: Michael Oliver

Att: 85,416


One thought on “FA Cup Semi Finals: Reading FC vs Arsenal FC/Aston Villa FC vs Liverpool FC

  1. Pingback: Welcome to The Underdog Blog | The Underdog Blog

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