This weekend’s FA Cup Final will be contested by Manchester United and Chelsea. Sadly, it is likely to be watched by fans of Manchester United, Chelsea and die-hard football enthusiasts only. To the rest of us, it’s just another game, slowly devalued by years of neglect. My one wish for domestic football is that they give us back our cup final.
The FA Cup Final heyday
Arguably, the FA Cup Final’s heyday coincided with the introduction of colour TV coverage in 1969 and throughout the 1970’s and 80’s. The whole day on TV, dedicated to bringing the most comprehensible coverage of the final. Not all of it good, but it all added to the importance, the atmosphere and interest of all football fans. With the obvious danger of sounding like someone who can’t appreciate change, I do, but some changes aren’t for the better. Allow me to reminisce before I look at the reasons for the FA Cup’s demise…
Cup Final day to me as a youngster was second only to Christmas/birthday in important yearly events. It really didn’t matter which teams were playing, you picked a side and enjoyed the day. The TV coverage started in the morning and stayed until the closing embers of laps of honour and player interviews. One of the iconic Cup Finals of the 70’s was the Leeds v Sunderland game of 1973 when BBC’s Grandstand commenced its coverage at 11.15 am. With commentator David Coleman flanked by Brian Clough, Bobby Charlton, Bob Wilson and Sunderland legend Raich Carter and the best part of seven hours in front of you, I was like a kid (well, I technically was) locked in a sweet shop. It’s hard to convey to those born after maybe the early 1980’s just how important and exciting this game was. The build-up to the big day included the team’s FA Cup Final song which was nearly always shown on the previous Thursdays Top of the Pops and nearly always bad. All the newspapers had special pullouts and every football fan I knew would be looking forward to it.
The morning of the game was met with anticipation. As a young child, you would be treated to special occasion snacks which you would try and save for the game itself, often failing badly. As you got older, the sweets were replaced by alcohol but the occasion was no less special. Cameras would be at the team’s hotel’s and if you were lucky enough, you would get to see some of the players, even find out what they had for breakfast. Then the later stages of the coach journey with players interviewed before the coaches entered the stadium. You would be treated, if that’s the right word by Cup Final ‘It’s a knockout’ where the two final teams fans would attempt to gain bragging rights before the real thing started.
We would get to “meet the managers”; enjoy goal of the season; the road to Wembley, which outlined both teams journey to the twin towers; meet the teams, then meet the teams in person as they went on to the pitch an hour before the game. Later versions would include “Cup Final Question of Sport” and “Cup Final Mastermind”.
With the game on both sides of the TV spectrum, one of the issues you had to contend with was whether to watch on the BBC or ITV? Most people I knew opted for the BBC version, despite the magnificent Brian Moore commentating on ITV. The 1970’s saw David Coleman take the BBC lead, with the emergence of John Motson in 1977. Maybe it was ITV’s adverts or that they tended to want to squeeze in the odd wrestling bout and horse race into the build-up but BBC with the newly acquired Jimmy Hill tended to win over. I can still hear David Coleman’s “One-nil” in 1972 and his “Porterfield” in 1973 if I close my eyes.
The other issue was with who to support on the day. Generally, it was the underdog unless either your own team (which was easy) or your local rivals, when you would support the other team. The BBC anchor of Frank Bough then later, Des Lynam was hard to beat, both understated in their own way but professional. Later issues with Frank Bough’s private life aside, you felt you were in safe hands with them both.
Cup Final day was also nearly always sunny, no matter where you lived. The only Final I can remember in the 70’s and 80’s that rained was the Man Utd v Liverpool final of 1977, but only up north as far as can tell as pictures show the normal scene of a sunny Wembley. At the end of the game, of course, we had the presentation of the cup, the players would be interviewed following their lap of honour, all of them holding and drinking a pint of milk.
Football memories often centre around certain cup final moments. The first one I properly remember was Manchester City’s 1-0 victory over Leicester. Following the Chelsea/Leeds Utd, 2-2 bad-tempered draw in 1970 I was out with my football, kicking it against the side of the house as others came out to join me to re-enact the match we had just seen. Who could forget Sunderland’s victory over the ‘mighty Leeds’ in 1973 or Southampton’s beating of the exciting Tommy Docherty inspired Manchester United team of 1976? Arsenal’s late 3-2 win in 1979 was the first Cup Final for me that involved alcohol while as we entered the 1980’s the Spurs v Man City doubleheader in 1981 was a classic. Coventry (3-2 v Spurs) in 1987 and Wimbledon (1-0 v Liverpool) in 1988 were two others that ensured shocks were still a regular occurrence. In those days we had replays and they weren’t quite the same, but still a great occasion. Some of the more classic finals have been replays, Chelsea v Leeds Utd (1970) and Man City v Spurs (1981) immediately spring to mind.
Why has the Cup Final lost its romance?
That question has been asked time and again in recent years. It arguably started in the 1990’s. When Manchester United effectively boycotted the competition in order to play in the World Club Championship, it sent a message that all wasn’t well. Little tweaks and changes then began to take effect starting with the decision in 1991 to play the Arsenal-Spurs semi-final at Wembley and the decision two years later to play both semis at Wembley. This making the Final just a little bit less romantic, removing some of the cup’s old magic.
The advent of the Premier League meant the cup final was no longer one of the few rare occasions live football was shown on TV. The TV coverage of the cup then expanded with matches nowadays taking place between Friday and Monday. The cup draw has been moved around so much it’s hard to keep track of it anymore. Then there’s the decision to move the time and date of the final. Playing it before the end of the season in recent seasons and nowadays a 5.15 pm kick off. In 2011, Manchester City’s victory over Stoke City was also a day when four other Premier League games were played. With the late kickoff, any side north of Watford has the struggle to get home in the event of extra time, should they choose to travel by rail.
The Champions League teams field weakened sides in the cup as do other Premier League teams whose priority is just to stay in the league awash with money. The spending gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ has widened. When there is an upset, it often seems like it’s not quite genuine. Cup Final upsets are even rarer and Wigan’s victory over Manchester City in 2013 stands out as the only one in recent memory.
The big change, however, is the expansion of Champions League to four places. It’s now worth much more financially to come 4th than to win the FA Cup. Ask fans of most clubs and they would choose a cup with over 4th place but it won’t attract players and money. In recent months and the unrest at the performance of Arsene Wenger, I’ve even heard radio commentators suggest that winning the cup three times in four years is a failure.
For achieving 4th place to be more important than winning the greatest and oldest cup competition in the world is a shame and shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. The FA Cup Final as a spectacle will never be like it was in its glory days of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Unless the Champions League is reduced in size or a place is given to the cup winners it’s unlikely to regain anything like its former glory. The spending gap means it probably never will. Still, while football has improved in most aspects in the last 25 years, those glory days will just be a distant memory, for those of us lucky enough to remember them.