The FA’s experiment will result in more TV coverage but increase empty seats in the long-term
6 April ~ It will no doubt be billed as a non-League “festival”, with the promotional blurb including “family", “community” and similar terms of togetherness. Yes, after years of indecision regarding the showpieces of non-League football, the FA has recognised their declining popularity and scheduled the Trophy and Vase finals for the same day, May 22.
On the face of it, it's a great idea; bring in supporters of all four clubs to Wembley to enjoy the ultimate non-League love-in, with the cameras present to bring the bonhomie direct to our living rooms. At a guess, the FA might be rewarded with a crowd of 40,000 or so in the first year, before people realise that staging both finals on the same day does justice to neither.
It's almost as if players, officials and supporters are being rushed through the stadium in unseemly fashion to accommodate the wishes of the authorities, so as to leave another Saturday free for more lucrative programming, like Madonna, or gridiron football.
Such a move would have seemed unthinkable in the Trophy's heyday of the late 1970s, when the Wembley showpiece was the non-League event, undiluted by play-offs or the demands of the football calendar. This season, the whole thing will resemble finals day of T20 cricket, with quantity diluting importance.
The purists, and I'm with them on this, would much prefer that the finals returned to adjacent days on the same weekend, with Vase and Trophy considered important enough to demand our undivided attention. The problem is, whatever the attendance on May 22, the new event will be deemed a success and is certain to be repeated next year in another backward step for both competitions.
Live TV coverage of the final has been a mixed blessing, affording casual viewers a touchline seat at the cost of plummeting crowds for the final (last year's Trophy final attracted 14,585, the lowest at the rebuilt Wembley), and giving the uneasy feeling of prying, half-interested eyes intruding on a private function. It has also achieved the rare feat of increased exposure and reduced interest, with the TV spectacle accompanied by acres of empty red seats, though with the latent support of Hereford and Halifax things may be different this year.
While sell-out games such as the FA Cup final or Community Shield justify live coverage, the Trophy and Vase, with final crowds currently between 10,000 and 20,000, have nothing to gain. Much like rugby league, non-League football has a mutually supportive, collective feel. Supporters understand the needs and priorities of the semi-pro game, and these do not include gimmicky scheduling or the corrosive attentions of TV. People such as myself realise that such complaints will go unheard, and that innovations like Sky coverage will not be reversed, but that doesn't alter the fact that on issues like this, we're right. Paul Caulfield
Photo by Simon Gill/WSC Photography: TV cameras and empty seats at Wembley