United survive weather to emerge as standard bearers

 

ALTHOUGH football's latest foreign player Siberian winds reduced Saturday's FA Cup fourth round to a bare trio of matches, recent history suggests it did not freeze out the eventual winners.

Since 1981 four clubs have dominated the competition. Manchester United, Everton, Liverpool and Tottenham have provided a dozen of the last 15 winners and six of the runners up. Only once, in 1993 when Arsenal defeated Sheffield Wednesday, did one of them not figure in the final. Even then Spurs got to Wembley, losing to Arsenal in the semi final. So much for the unpredictability of the Cup.

Three of the golden four were in action on Saturday and all survived to make yesterday's draw. However, with Everton and Tottenham facing daunting replays, and Liverpool still to play their tricky tie at Shrewsbury, only Manchester United are sure to be in the fifth round.

It would be a major surprise if they were to be the quartet's only representatives but, after Saturday's 3-0 win at Reading, they are certainly the standard bearers. On a pitch with more sand than most English beaches, their slow start was primarily due to nervousness over the conditions. All the more credit, then, to Ryan Giggs, who skated as nimbly over the freezing surface as Wayne Gretzky. Players of slender build and ample flair are often those who `go missing' on occasions such as Saturday but a strong heart beats within Giggs' coltish frame. He has produced some tenacious midfield performances this season and, though nominally on the right wing on Saturday, he was again active in the tackle as well as the dribble.

United were grateful to his example. In the early stages, at least, not all his team mates were as enthusiastic. Afterwards Alex Ferguson nostalgically described Elm Park as an "old fashioned football ground" and said playing there would have been good experience for his young players.

Some of them have only known the pristine theatres of the Premiership and Reading's ageing facilities did not suit. However, United's captain, Steve Bruce, grew up at such a ground with Gillingham and he looked as at home as he does at Old Trafford's, broad acres.

Reading will remember Bruce for an extraordinary late miss, but by then his real work had been done. He had held United together during the first half hour, as Reading, driven on by Mick Gooding, over ran them in mid field. Their neat passing created chances for Trevor Morley (twice) and Lee Nogan but they were not taken. United were not so profligate and, after 36 minutes, Giggs caught Michael Gilkes in possession, fed Lee Sharpe, then scored himself after Nicky Hammond had saved Sharpe's shot.

Twenty minutes later Paul Parker's mis hit cross flew in from 25 yards and Reading, who had not reached the fifth round for 61 years, knew they would have to wait a bit longer.

Although Eric Cantona added a third in the closing minutes interest had, by then, moved to more worrying matters with the linesman, Jeff Pettit, hit by a coin thrown from the crowd. It appeared to be aimed at Cantona who, unwisely, then lobbed back a piece of fruit which was thrown on while Pettit was being treated.

The incident, together with occasional skirmishes resulting from the inevitable segregation problems associated with such matches, highlighted the gap between such "traditional grounds" and the more controlled environment of modern stadiums. Reading are aware that Elm Park will have to be sacrificed if they are to progress and will shortly be starting work on a £30 million out of town site.