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The final insult

Nothing better reflects the drop in interest in the FA Cup final than the absence of Kenny Lynch, believes Cameron Carter, and Brian Dowling is no substitute

The Guardian’s Donald McRae concluded his preview of last month’s FA Cup final with the challenge – “Fireworks and fisticuffs, and a few sublime goals, are the very least we expect.” I expect Donald was as disappointed by the absence of all three as anybody, but, for others among us, the most unsatisfactory aspect was the continued shrinking of the pre-match build-up on terrestrial television.

I realise the olden days of football on television weren’t always better. Yet FA Cup final day, as covered simultaneously by BBC1 and ITV, was an orgiastic celebration of the living world in comparison to the mean little coffee morning we’re palmed off with today. Both Cup final specials commenced at around 11 in the morning, the build-up to kick-off gluttonously filled with trivia, foppery and banter.

There was so much banter in those days. Whether it was Saint & Greavsie, Little & Large in Man City gear (remember that banter isn’t necessarily funny, it is laugh-fighting between two or more men), or Jimmy Tarbuck and his golfing mates, you could rely on a heart-dilating dose of the stuff every 20 minutes or so for approximately four hours. Banter was in the studio panel, on the team coach, in Tarby’s Celebrity Friends Bar of ’86 and ’87 and in the footage of the players at their relaxing country retreat (disappointingly for rationalists, both sides would stay at lucky hotels). Every year since its mid-Seventies heyday, the banter has been reduced, little by little, until all we were left with in 2005 was Ian Wright on a plastic chair.

BBC1’s build-up this year contained nothing that wasn’t soberly and directly connected to the match. There was no room for Supporters’ Mastermind or Cup Final It’s A Knockout (once an annual standby for the BBC, the team whose fans won always seeming to lose the final); Rod Stewart trying a bit too hard in a celebrity game; Brian Moore having his handwriting read by a psychic, Gerald Sinstadt asking the cast of Coronation Street for predictions, Brendan Foster triumphing over a string of famous athletes in a race around the Wembley track – the permutations of celebrity, ex-player and established television format were endless. In the old days it was as if everyone in the country, from Magnus Magnusson to Kenny Lynch, was connected, made brothers, by football for one day.

In 2005, Cup Final Grandstand finally started at 1pm and was eight parts tabletalk to two parts recorded interview. Even down to the irritatingly chopped-up editing of the occasional action sequences, this was merely Football Focus stretched to breaking point. No round-by-round review of the Road to Wembley, just Adrian Chiles swiftly voicing over his top five highlights of this year’s competition. Instead of Tony Gubba kneeling in to catch the nervous jabber from young players on the coach, we had Gary Lineker struggling to identify a team bus from an aerial shot. The one feature that demonstrated any thought or effort was the review of the 1979 final, with revealing contributions from key participants.

However, this shaft of illumination was offset half an hour later by Around The World in 80 Seconds, in which a chap with a microphone in a Soweto bar stated how popular English football is in these parts, seemingly unaware that only four other people were with him, two of them playing pool. There was apparently time for this kind of nonsense and endless studio speculation concerning the Vieira-Keane confrontation, yet Dennis Bergkamp’s career was dealt with in a jerky montage sequence of 40 seconds and there was no time at all for the traditional players’ profiles, as presented by their captains. Back in 1979, I learned from this item that Gordon McQueen’s nickname in the Man Utd camp was Go-Go, owing to his penchant for discotheques. No such revelations now.

There was precious little Cup fever elsewhere on the BBC. A Question of Sport had some themed questions on Cup finals on Friday evening. Radio One dangled a possible link-up with Lineker in the Millennium Stadium throughout Saturday morning, but ultimately I couldn’t face waiting through several hours of R&B and Brian Dowling’s celebrity gossip to experience this scoop item. As so seldom happens, John Motson hit the nail on the head with the random statistic that, when the clubs last met to contest the trophy, the FA Cup final was one of only three live matches on television in 1979. The specialness has gone, you see. John was trying to tell us this in his oblique, Zen-like way – and the BBC are out to ensure we get the message.

From WSC 221 July 2005. What was happening this month

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