It is now almost thirty years since Paul Power crashed in a remarkable shot from twenty-five yards out to send Manchester City to the FA Cup final at the expense of Ipswich Town. The 1980/81 season was rapidly unravelling for the team from Suffolk. Within weeks, they would be overhauled by Aston Villa to become the champions of England and would be left with just the UEFA Cup as a consolation when it had for a while looked likely that they would finish the season with a remarkable treble. Manchester City’s win on that warm spring day at Villa Park was a major surprise, but it was just one of a host of FA Cup semi-finals played at Villa Park during the 1980s.
Villa Park was considered at the time to be one of the safest grounds in English football, but the FA had a strange idea of what was “safe” in those days. Highbury was regularly used for these matches, but as crowd violence grew during the early 1980s, the FA stopped using it when the Arsenal board of directors refused to put perimeter fences around their pitch. Six years after Highbury’s last semi-final match, the perimeter fences were the major contributing factor in the deaths of 96 football supporters at Hillsborough during an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The fences came down forever afterwards.
These days, security has a slightly different emphasis at football matches. In the aftermath of Hillsborough, most grounds finally received the care and attention that they should have had at some point over the previous fifty years or so. Better use of police intelligence, the gentrification of football supporters themselves and a change in the culture of the stands itself means that it is now rare to feel in any immediate danger within a football stadium. At this remove from the Hillsborough disaster (which will be covered in more detail on here next week), the convenience of the football supporter should be one of the most important factors in deciding where to play a match which is due to be played at a neutral venue. It isn’t, of course. Money is. Manchester United will play Everton at Wembley in three weeks time.
The decision to play all FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley, of course, has nothing do with the best interests of no-one apart from the FA itself. Wembley went massively over budget, and the FA needs to recoup as much of the money that it cost as possible, and this means that the decision was taken to play all FA Cup semi-finals in London. Wembley offers the FA the opportunity to charge higher ticket prices, with a decent chance of a 90,000 crowd for both matches. Arguments are put forward that “more fans will be able to see the matches”, but there is only an element of truth to this. The vast number of corporate tickets and season tickets already sold means that not that many more tickets will be made available to ordinary United and Everton fans than normal. We shall watch with interest to see just how many empty red seats there are in the ten minutes before and after half-time.
Hosting the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley devalues the competition. In my mind’s eye, I can barely distinguish between the the two semi-finals and final played there last year, and that was at the end of one of the competition’s more exhilarating seasons. This year the competition has been less than thrilling, and the prospect of two semi-finals and a final, all being played at Wembley, featuring Manchester United, Chelsea and (probably) Arsenal in a competition that now probably ranks as a second rate consolation for the trophies that they really want to win.
Out of deference to a more innocent era, when FA Cup semi-finals still meant something, here’s a little curio for you all – a short wave BBC recording of the second half of the 1979 semi-final between Manchester United and Liverpool. It goes a little, umm, “psychedelic” in places – such was the nature of short wave radio, but it’s certainly worth a listen.