Before I go into a bit of a rant I’d like to bring up two memories from my childhood that as football fans (I presume) you will be able to relate to. Saturday 30th January 1988 and I took my first steps into a professional football ground as a 5-year-old to watch Newcastle United play Swindon Town. In all honesty, the excitement of the day and going to a match with my Dad means that in all the rush and clamour the day completely passed me by. I remember the noise and the swaying of the crowd, the fact it was freezing and the craziness that followed each Newcastle goal (all five of them!). However the thing that made the day really special was the fact that not only was it my first ever game with my Dad but it was in the FA Cup, the greatest domestic club competition in the world. I still have a programme from the day although I’ll be honest it’s not the one that me and Dad (well Dad really) paid for on the day but one I bought from the excellent Back Page shop in Newcastle. As I say, it’s a memory that will live with me forever. Another date for you that’s prominent in my mind is Saturday 14th May.
My beloved Newcastle had been knocked out of the FA Cup back in the 5th Round by some bunch of noggy cloggers called Wimbledon. However, the very same noggy cloggers were now running out at Wembley to face the then mighty Liverpool who boasted the talents of Hansen, Barnes and Beardsley. The build-up to the Cup Final was massive with every single TV programme seemingly wanting to be part of it. A boiling hot Saturday (as it always was on Cup Final Saturday) saw my Dad wake me up earlier to go for a kick around down the park, then to the shop for a paper and back home to get ready for the build-up. Dinner was eaten in time to make sure that by the time Cup Final Grandstand started we were sat on the sofa ready.
In the following years this routine was followed on Cup Final day and more memories came. The Forest-Spurs final when Gazza injured himself, the crazy Crystal Palace-Manchester United final that ended 3-3 and seeing the delight in my Dad’s face as Liverpool comfortably beat Sunderland 2-0. I even made my way to two Cup Finals in two years to see Newcastle put in weak surrenders in the faces of Manchester United and Arsenal in 1998 and 1999. Yes, these were Cup Final memories and Cup Final Day was the most special day in the football calendar bar none.
As I sit here typing this article I am also discussing this weekend’s fixtures. We’ve chatted about games that involved the relegation scrap, the Champions League 3rd and 4th place battle and of course the title race. Then the comment is made of “Oh isn’t it the FA Cup Final tomorrow” and in one cutting blow the reality hits that the FA Cup Final is no longer the prestigious finale to the greatest domestic club competition in the world it once was. Whilst I won’t doubt that Chelsea and Liverpool fans are eagerly anticipating tomorrow’s game the simple fact is that the Cup Final has been somewhat downgraded in the list of priorities for the majority of teams. I could be really lazy here and say it’s all down to Manchester United and their ludicrous withdrawal from the competition in 2000 to take part in the World Club Cup seemingly on advice from the FA. However the rot had set in long before Fergie took his side to Brazil to take part in a fledgling competition.
The growth of the Champions League and the riches that it brings has meant that the majority of sides in the Premier League would take a top four finish over a day out at Wembley and a potential shiny pot for the trophy cabinet. Imagine saying that back in the days when even winning the League Championship was overshadowed by seeing your team’s captain receiving the FA Cup from a random member of the Royal Family. Money and greed has taken hold of the FA Cup and forced it down the pecking order as clubs chase the Champions League dream.
Managers will rotate their squads even in the final in order to ensure that their players are fresh for vital Premier League fixtures or as in Chelsea’s case this year, an up and coming European game. Coverage of the game has been passed from pillar to post, with each TV company doing their best to replicate the excellent BBC coverage I remember from my childhood, yet consistently failing….yes even you Sky Sports. ESPN are doing their best to bring the Cup Final magic back by starting programming at 8am but deep down we know it just won’t be the same and that’s without even thinking about if it should go to pelanties (sic).
The FA has landed one final blow to the competition with the move to a 5.30pm kick off. Apparently, the authorities were placed under pressure by the TV companies to move to this new time due to some flimsy excuse revolving around research proving a 5.15pm kick-off as being more appealing to viewers and able to maximise the global audience. So in other words the FA is willing to devalue its own competition for the sake of money. I suppose we should hardly be surprised that they are showing such an attitude really. Fixtures should work around the FA Cup Final and it should be the main priority on the last Saturday of the domestic season. The competition has been taken out of the hands of the fans but maybe I’m just a traditionalist and deep down an old footballing romantic. However, there are some things you just don’t mess with and in my opinion the FA Cup Final is one of them.