Like many people I grew up with the FA Cup Final. It was the highlight of the football calendar. Those were days when you had just two live games on tv per year. England v Scotland Home International was the other.
Back then both BBC and ITV covered the game and during the seventies they attempted to outdo each other on attracting the largest audience. All sorts of ‘celebrities’ were brought on to try and lure the lounge viewer to their channel. This didn’t diminish the attendance at Wembley which always seemed to reach the 100,000 mark. It always seemed to be hot and sunny too. Both channels tried to put on entertainment for the whole family in a time when football was still very much ‘a man’s game’.
The first game I remember was 1976 when Second Division Southampton pulled off a shock beating Manchester United. United were a Second Division side themselves barely a season before but their worldwide reputation was unaffected by such a blip and were still considered one of the biggest clubs in the country. I remember the 1975 Final being on in the house but don’t really remember whether I paid much attention to it.
During the late 70’s and 80’s the whole event grew in stature and importance. It was beemed to televisions around the world and there are people in Scandinavia, Australia and South America who still talk about the FA Cup with great reverence.
Once skytv came along with its money and choice of channels, the television event was curtailed. There was still a build-up, longer than any other match but sky had started to add an hour build-up to ordinary League games, so the Cup Final struggled to stand out. But with its stellar history the Cup Final was always held in top billing.
One thing that we, in England, always manage to underestimate is how our game is viewed around the world. There is only one Cup Final just as there is only one FA. Think about it. It is always the Scottish FA or the Football Association of Ireland or Norway, but the term ‘the FA’ is only saved for one organisation, and that is from England. It’s the same with the Cup Final. Many countries have their cup competition as a secondary event, where few clubs take it seriously. UEFA used to have a competition for the cup winners of each nation, called the European Cup Winners Cup, but eventually that was kicked into touch for lack of sufficient competition within the qualifiers.
With skytv and channels devoted purely to sport, it is much easier to clear the schedules to concentrate on the occasion itself. Terrestrial television has to compete with so many other tastes yet the Cup Final has had the ability to attract those who would not normally sit and watch a game. Attendances at Wembley dropped off during the late 80’s as they did in most grounds around the country and once converted to all-seater, attendances would only be down to just under 80,000. But the ground always seemed full.
Even during the ‘Millenium Stadium years’ the match was able to attract a capacity crowd. With the new Wembley even a match between two clubs who commanded lower levels of support, Portsmouth and Cardiff, would produce the highest attendance figures in the re-built stadium.
In 2011 The FA set a precedent. Wembley Stadium was due to play host to the Champions League Final that season, so the Cup Final was brought forward two weeks. This meant a clash with a full Premier League programme as the League season still had a week to run. The following season the Cup Final had to contend with creating sufficient space at the end of the season for the European Championships. It was scheduled on the same day as many Premier League matches and so The FA took the ‘unique’ decision to put back the start time to 5.15pm to make sure all attention was focused on their match. The match attracted its highest tv audience since 2007, as an estimated 8.9m viewers watched the match live.
But this year The FA has announced the match will again be played at 5.15pm. It is again scheduled for a week before the Premier League season has finished and it seems as if The FA has conceded victory to the Premier League in providing ‘the must watch’ date in the football calendar. But what reason is given for this? Apparently, according to The FA ‘people like to consume their football at that time’. Really? I don’t know what the viewing figures from sky are but I would be surprised if a 5.15pm kick-off commanded greater viewing audience than either 4.00pm or 12.30pm.
What is more surprising is that just one Premier League fixture is scheduled for the same day, Aston Villa v Chelsea at that is to kick-off at 12.45pm, which would still leave time for a 3pm kick-off. If sky, who are due to broadcast that match, were concerned about a clash why don’t they move the fixture to the Sunday when seven other Premier League fixtures are scheduled? Sky are very quick to re-arrange the fixture schedule once they know the progress of clubs in cup competitions so why not now?
Is it a battle between ITV and Skytv? Is ITV worried too many may prefer to watch Aston Villa take on Chelsea rather than Manchester City and Wigan?
But what about the fans who want to go to Wembley? During a recent documentary on people who work on the railways, we witnessed the difficulty Liverpool fans had in getting back up north after last season’s game with the last train being much earlier than many had considered. This situation was made worse for the travelling fans as many had not realised this was a ‘dry’ train and all their newly-purchase booze was confiscated. But for the 89,102 at last season’s Final, only one club’s fans were travelling north. What about this season when both clubs are from the North West?
Assuming the match is settled in the standard 90 minutes that means a finish at 7.00pm. If there is time added on in either, or both halves then you could add on another 10 minutes to that. What if your team wins, then you’ll undoubtedly want to watch the presentation and that could easily add on another 30-45 minutes at least. You may not leave the stadium till after 8.00pm. Of course, if there is extra time spectators are left with the unenviable decision of whether to stay and watch, or make their way home. This whole situation is compounded by the fact that the last train leaving Wembley Stadium for Manchester Piccadilly is at 7.33pm.
The FA could easily counter this argument by claiming that when they put on matches at 8.00pm (internationals for example), they command a decent crowd even for a midweek game. Whilst that maybe true, that type of fixture is able to attract an audience from all the clubs throughout the country. There may be some who go to a Cup Final despite their team’s absence, but they are unlikely to be the majority of fans.
So supporters attending the game are left with the choice of;
a) Stay overnight in London.
b) Stay overnight somewhere outside London, such as Birmingham.
c) Drive and try to find somewhere in London to park at an affordable price.
d) Drive and park somewhere outside London, such as Uxbridge and then catch the train to Wembley.
e) Stay at home and watch on tv.
The FA was able to offer an alternative option. Its own partner, National Express coaches!
This is Wigan Athletic’s first ever FA Cup Final but not their first trip to Wembley. They won the Football League Cup in 1985, known as Freight Rover Trophy and in 1999 when it was known as the Auto Windscreens Shield with both matches played at Wembley. They also reached the 2000 Second Division Play-off played at Wembley, losing to Gillingham. You could forgive some of their fans for wondering when they’ll reach a stage like this again and could well find their only option is to watch on tv. When they failed to use their ticket allocation for the Semi-Final, for a match which also kicked-off at 5.15pm, this should have been a strong enough message for The FA to adopt a different stance on the start time.
In my opinion, the FA Cup Final should hold centre stage in the football calendar. It is a game I’ll watch regardless of whether Liverpool is playing or not. I have only missed two matches since 1976, whereas the League Cup Final is less attractive to me, if Liverpool is not present. Interesting to note the League Cup Final is not a game that supporters ‘like to consume at 5.15pm’ as it kicks off at 4.00pm these days.
In a time when the FA Cup Final has to compete with wall-to-wall football on television it is definitely the wrong time for The FA to back down in the face of this competition. Many have sought to forecast its demise, yet the competition still manages to garner interest from around the world. If you ever want to understand the attraction of the Cup then listen to some of the players from abroad who get to play in the Final, then you’ll understand what a gem we have and for something so precious it should be nurtured and looked after, rather than moved aside for a less wholesome, more money-orientated product.
So come on FA, let the millionaires have their playground. Give the Cup back to the masses.