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Cup's famous traditions 
lost on Bellamy

First appeared in the Times newspaper Jan 2003 

A VERY lucky boy, Craig Bellamy. 

He has the exceedingly good fortune to be playing at the only time in English football history when a man can come fourth and think of himself as a success. 

Fourth. Just the very mention of the word conjures up golden images of the Everton team of 1974-75 or Aston Villa in 1995-96. 

Liverpool were so delighted with fourth in 1996-97 that the board sacked joint- manager Roy Evans for finishing one place higher a year later. 

And who can forget Ron Atkinson's time at Old Trafford when, under the present Uefa rules, he would have qualified for the Champions League in every season and been recalled as the father of modern Manchester United, but instead got the bullet after four years of failure and the nickname Big Fat Ron. 

So, in other words, Craig, you can quit pointing to the pathetic little Premier League logo on your arm and thinking yourself somehow above embarrassment for exiting the FA Cup away to Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Being caught on camera mouthing "Premiership" to the locals was also a mistake - about as relevant as it would have been for the Italian internationals to try to one-up your Wales team-mates by puffing out their chests and shouting "Serie A" after defeat in Cardiff.

Look at those Newcastle United fans. Still waiting for their first trophy of consequence since winning the Fairs Cup in 1969 - or the FA Cup in1955, if we narrow the field to just domestic achievements. Ask if they would have swapped fourth place in the league for victory at the Millennium Stadium in May. The two are not mutually exclusive anyway, as Liverpool proved two seasons ago. Sir Bobby Robson, livid in the dressing-room, demonstrated the proper response. Newcastle's players blew it at Molineux; and if they did so because they thought they were bigger than the FA Cup, then they are soulless as well as inept.

Graeme Souness had it right. At the weekend he described the FA Cup as the greatest cup competition in the world - and added that anyone who disagreed didn't understand football. Over the top? Not a bit. At its best, the drama of the FA Cup defeats all-comers, including the overblown Champions League. I'll go one farther. The best atmosphere I have experienced at Old Trafford was not in European competition but for an FA Cup game; one that did not involve Manchester United at all. When Chesterfield drew 3-3 with Middlesbrough in 1997, the stadium rocked in a way it has not for any meeting with Bayern Munich, Juventus or Real Madrid.

The best of this season so far? Wolverhampton Wanderers 3, Newcastle United 2. To win it affords bragging rights for a year and rightly so. Just don't ask me to recall the nuances of nine months in which the end result was fourth. Better still, try explaining the wonder of fourth to a child. "Yes, dear, this means we're quite good and now we can play some other teams who are quite good, or perhaps a team that is rather good but just from a small country with tiny televisions, and if we win over two games (not forgetting the away-goals rule, which we'll come to later), then we get the right to play some other teams who are very good in what they call the Champions League." "So we're champions?" "Er, no." "But we're in the Champions League." "Yes, but not every team in the Champions League is a champion.

We're quite good, though." "Right. Can I play PlayStation now?" Compare that with the FA Cup. "Lose this, son, and we're toast." "Wow." You see? It's Harry against Voldemort, the Rebels versus the Empire. It is also the very heart and soul of what makes football the finest game in the world. Souness won five League championships and three European Cups, and understands it. Bellamy has won nothing and doesn't. Still, he's fourth in the Premiership and clearly very pleased with himself. What has a big success like him got to worry about?

Martin Samuel

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Page last updated 24 June, 2009