The FA Cup final should be back at Wembley in May, but what was once the English game’s great showpiece is now almost a sideshow, argues Jon Spurling

On the eve of Leeds United’s defeat of Arsenal in the 1972 FA Cup final, captain Billy Bremner said: “I’ve won a Championship medal, a European medal and countless Scotland caps, but sometimes I think I’d swap the lot for an FA Cup winners’ medal.” A few hours later, Bremner professed delight “with my new prized possession”. How attitudes have changed. In his autobiography, Roy Keane described the showpiece occasion as “little more than an afterthought”, and Patrick Vieira admitted that Arsenal’s triumph in the 2005 final “can’t possibly make up for the disappointment of losing the league crown”.

The key to the Cup’s popularity was its sheer quirkiness or, in the words of Jimmy Hill, “its quintessential Englishness”. The draw on Monday lunchtimes was ridiculously inaccessible in the days before daytime television and the internet, and gave rise to the urban myth that teams from around the country huddled around a battered old transistor in feverish anticipation of hearing whom they’d play. There were (seemingly) regular marathon ties, with endless replays, encapsulating the never-say-die English spirit to which Hill referred.

Then there was the plethora of unlikely heroes that the final brought to the fore. Ipswich Town’s Roger Osborne – watched by 34 members of his immediate family in the 1978 final – proceeded to faint with the excitement of scoring the winner. The naff plastic hat worn by victorious Sunderland boss Bob Stokoe in 1973, a raft of even naffer Cup final songs and, on the morning of the final, the BBC’s special edition of Mastermind all simply added to the distinctive flavour of the event. “Aside from the sheer glory of winning it, there’s nothing else really,” explained Hill in 1974. “There are no financial rewards to speak of. It’s about pomp and glory, and English eccentricity. It works.”

Thirty years later, and the competition isn’t “working” particularly well. The last truly great final was in 1987, when Coventry beat Tottenham 3-2; the last major upset arrived a year later, when Wimbledon defeated Liverpool 1-0. The competition’s quirks have either been completely removed (marathon replays have been swept away due to “player fatigue” and “police advice” and there are no more Cup final songs) or tampered with (the draws were moved to Sunday afternoons to cater for TV, then largely shifted back to Monday lunchtimes in the past two years).

Each year seems to bring a new nadir: the 2005 final (a dire spectacle in keeping with the majority of recent finals) was the first to be settled on penalties. At least ten million watched Arsenal edge past Manchester United, bucking the recent trend of waning interest, with just five million watching the Gunners play Southampton in 2003. Contrast that with the 14 million who watched finals up to the mid-Eighties. Tarnished, over sanitised and increasingly devalued, the FA Cup just isn’t what it used to be.

The competition – in the eyes of the majority of Premiership and Championship clubs – simply isn’t worth the hassle any more. Clubs can expect to make around £3 million if they lift the trophy. Contrast this with the £10m on offer for reaching the Champions League group stages (which can’t be reached through lifting the FA Cup), the filthy lucre available for getting into the Premiership in the first place and the horrific financial implications of relegation from the “promised land.” Then there are the incremental bonuses for finishing in a higher Premiership position. The FA Cup is regarded as more of an irritation, where key players might sustain potentially serious injuries. Hence the trend towards fielding weakened sides. Little wonder that supporters, still charged the full amount to attend games, are staying away in the earlier rounds.

The full-blooded recent encounter between Burscough and Burton Albion revealed that the sheer kudos of reaching the FA Cup third round (not to mention the guaranteed windfall from an encounter with Manchester United) is undiminished among many clubs lower down the league pyramid. The final remains the most watched domestic football match across the world. Yet the competition’s stock continues to fall. In recent weeks, there have been rumours that a seeding system could be introduced, in order to separate bigger clubs in the earlier rounds, and on a recent edition of Jimmy Hill’s Sunday Supplement on Sky, Sunday Telegraph journalist Patrick Barclay advocated inviting Scottish and even South American sides to take part, a suggestion met with universal scepticism by the rest of the panel.

If the FA Cup is at least partially to regain its status, lessons need to be learned from various clubs’ approaches to the still more derided League Cup. Sunderland cut ticket prices for their recent game with Arsenal and allowed children in for £1. The result? Their first full house in more than three years, not to mention a much improved atmosphere. Others, the Gunners included, have also reduced ticket prices for League Cup games. A similar approach to the FA Cup, especially if clubs field under-strength teams, would at least ensure that a younger generation of fans are able to take some ownership of the competition, rather than hear their parents rant about the “rip off cup”, as it is known in some quarters. Tellingly, Sunderland’s commercial manager referred to “all-important profit margins dictating whether this becomes a more universally adopted approach”.

Much of the wide-eyed innocence and charm of the Cup disappeared long ago and hard economics make it unlikely that clubs will embrace it with the passion of former times. Yet the FA remain convinced that, with the final poised to return to Wembley, the competition will enjoy a renaissance. The nagging doubt remains: are leading clubs willing to put glory ahead of money and treat the FA Cup – not to mention their supporters – with due respect?

From WSC 228 February 2006. What was happening this month

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