Monday 9 March ~
When West Brom reached the semi-final of the FA Cup in 1977-78, their manager Ron Atkinson filmed an item for Football Focus in which he visited Wembley and walked up the steps to the royal box. While trudging up, he expressed the hope that his captain John Wile would be the first person to make the same climb after the final a month ahead. As it was, Albion lost in the semis to Ipswich and Atkinson had to wait another five years to lead a team to an FA Cup win, his Man Utd side beating Brighton in 1983. Atkinson's wandering around Wembley that day generated a lot of negative comment in the press over the next few days: Big Ron, it was felt, had broken an unwritten rule.
The prevailing reaction was summed up by former Spurs captain Danny Blanchflower in his Express column who suggested that getting to Wembley ought to be a pinnacle of a manager's career but that it would mean less to Atkinson than some of his colleagues: "After all, he's just been there, hasn't he?" Taking into account the play-offs and the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, there are twice as many finals played at the new Wembley than were staged by its predecessor 30 years ago. But these days "getting to Wembley" also simply means playing in a semi-final.
The decision to stage FA Cup semis at the new Wembley was taken several years before the stadium was opened in 2007. It was in part a consequence of the fact that the venue had cost far more to build than been anticipated – the final figure being around £760 million. With the stadium not equipped to stage other sports, the FA needed to claw back some of its outlay by committing to use Wembley a set number of times each year. Hence supporters of Chelsea, Man Utd, Everton and either Hull or Arsenal may be making two trips to the stadium in the space of just over a month.
The venue for the semi-finals used to be determined by which teams were taking part, with a stadium in the north-west usually staging match between teams from Manchester and Merseyside while Villa Park was often chosen for North v South ties; the all-Sheffield semi at Wembley in 1993 was a rare exception. While travelling to Wembley is not much of a hardship for Chelsea or Arsenal fans, it's a considerable expense to most supporters of the other three teams, a couple of whom won't even get to see their team in a final. Everton were last at Wembley in 1995 and their manager David Moyes was among those who would prefer to not be going back there until the end of May: "I don't think anyone likes it. I'd prefer the match was away from Wembley."
While Wembley is bigger than any club ground, the number of seats given over to corporate clients means that there won't be significantly more tickets available to fans of the sides involved than if the matches had been staged at the largest club grounds. Not that is an entirely new development – a significant number of tickets for the FA's showpiece event were always passed on to “neutral” spectators of various kinds, from VIP guests to representatives of county FAs. For all the mythology built up around the FA Cup final, it had often been said that League Cup final used to generate a better atmosphere because proportionately more tickets were acquired by the two sets of supporters. In changing times, at least one old football tradition looks set to continue at the new Wembley.