Simon Tyers reveals the farcical pre-match build-up of the 2009 FA Cup final

Now that every ultimately meaningless mid-table game shown live on Sky gets at least three quarters of an hour of build-up, it’s odd to feel nostalgic about old FA Cup final broadcasting marathons. Yet if it hadn’t happened already, this was the year when the Cup final became self-referential.

For weeks ahead ESPN advertised that their coverage would last 12 hours, “reviving the tradition of broadcasting all day”. Of course, the reason why coverage from Wembley would start so early was because of facile one-upmanship between the two major terrestrial channels, backed up by the knowledge both had programming and star names they could work into the coverage. Now, however, ESPN’s live coverage rival ITV only started at 1pm. ESPN’s Talk of the Terrace, a kind of junior Soccer AM, was pitched against the real Soccer AM on Sky. ESPN also had Robbie Savage, in charge of Breakfast at Wembley from 8am – much earlier than operations ever began in the 1980s. While as lively as expected, his schtick seemed to involve never being quite sure of what he was doing while co-presenter Mark Durden-Smith grinned smugly.

Before long they were being challenged to cook in the corporate suite, where they failed to master an electric whisk and dropped eggs (“You’re used to egg chasing!” chided Savage, which was quick of him). Their special celebrity guests were Archie Kelly, an also-ran actor from Phoenix Nights, and Imran Sherwani from Great Britain’s Olympic hockey gold medallists of 1988. Shortly afterwards a wine writer talked about beers local to Manchester and Stoke. No wonder ESPN’s hard sell was so optimistic.

At 8pm, by which time viewers of the whole day’s output would have felt like a soldier crawling in the desert seeing a mirage of civilisation on the horizon, they were interviewing their own main host Ray Stubbs. Ray had spent pretty much the whole coverage standing behind a very thin table that he might have been able to transport by hoisting it over his shoulder, so you’d have thought he’d have preferred a rest.

ITV were all too willing to look back in their approach, although one sensed Adrian Chiles hedging his bets. “It feels like a proper Cup final from the Seventies,” was his opening gambit. As fans began to arrive half an hour later he commented: “It’s got the feel of a proper Nineties Cup final.” The insinuation that Cup finals were only “proper” in the past and by logic of association this one wouldn’t be worth your valuable time was probably unintended.

Even in the midst of the event Adrian seemed easily distracted when he made at least two jokes about Liam Gallagher, who also showed up on ESPN before and after the game demonstrating that famous easy charm and zen-live calmness. Liam had at least combed his hair before Stacey Solomon, from 2009’s X Factor, sang the national anthem as if she was still competing for show survival. Maybe it was the influence of prime-time ITV, but it almost seemed as if they’d won the trophy themselves when their cameraman went up the Wembley staircase ahead of the Manchester City players.

Alongside innovations like players swearing in post-match interviews, some old traditions were retained. Budget restrictions may have done for helicopter shots following the coaches to Wembley, but ITV had a player from either side talk about their team-mates in a stilted fashion, while ESPN had a reporter at each hotel. After a fashion, at least, as Manchester City’s residence would only allow Georgie Bingham just inside the perimeter fence while they were resident and her promise of “exclusive access to this beautiful five-star facility” turned out to mean an interview with a club chef recorded the previous day. That was better than Alex Gordon-Martin managed with Stoke, though, having to stay at a completely different hotel with no news forthcoming. By his second report he was playing table football with his producer.

At least the FA Cup remains a standout date in the calendar. The Nations Cup was almost embarrassing from the televised perspective. The Wales fan contingent watching them play Scotland was so small they only managed to cover the “I” in “AVIVA” on the seats. The Irish derby wasn’t much better, which Gerry Armstrong attempted to posit was due to the domestic fans all having gone to the Heineken Cup final. Presumably he thinks the Champions League final crowd would have been louder had it not clashed with the PGA Championship.

From WSC 293 July 2011

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