It is forty years ago this year that Sunderland AFC had one of its finest moments. Bob Stokoe’s team had finished the 1972/73 season in sixth place in the Second Division of the Football League, but had improbably battled their way to the FA Cup final to play Leeds United. They were massive underdogs, of course. Don Revie’s Leeds team were the giants of the era, a team whose failure to win more trophies than it did was a constant source of bafflement amongst the general public. They weren’t much liked outside of Leeds, but their abilities were seldom doubted. The mental images of that match linger long in the memory. Ian Porterfield’s close range goal, which gave Sunderland an unlikely first half lead. The Sunderland goalkeeper Jim Montgomery throwing himself into one of the greatest double saves that football has ever seen. And at full-time, with Leeds having been reduced to speculative long distance punts towards the Sunderland goal in a desperate attempt to break down this obstinate defence, the television producer left the camera on Stokoe, such an unlikely figure to be standing on the touchline for a cup final in a trilby, a raincoat and red tracksuit trousers, as he galloped across the lush green pitch to jump into the arms of the goalkeeper who had won him the cup.
It’s likely that a few of the older supporters present for Sunderland’s capitulation at the hands of Bolton Wanderers last night’s minds will have turned, perhaps involuntarily, back to that afternoon at Wembley four decades ago. As they looked around a half-empty Stadium of Light at the faded tip-up seats that have turned from red to pink over the last decade and a half, they could easily have been forgiven for wondering how it had all come to this, how a club whose recent history has come to be at least partly defined by that rainy afternoon at Wembley four decades ago could treat that self same competition with such lethargy. It’s not that Sunderland aren’t good enough. After all, they swatted West Ham United aside with room to spare on Saturday afternoon. There was probably something else at play at the Stadium of Light last night.
The decline of the FA Cup in recent years had been well documented, both on these pages and elsewhere. It’s probably no coincidence that this decline has come about during the two decades of the English game’s new behemoth, the Premier League, but the question of whether this is what supporters actually want is a fair one to ask. The likelihood of a club like Sunderland winning the Premier League in the foreseeable future is pretty close to zero. The polarisation of football’s finances in recent years has ensured that only a gilded few will find themselves at the top table, and as Manchester City supporters may yet find this season not even being fortunate enough to stumble across a gazillionaire who will throw money at your club is no guarantee of perpetual silverware. So, is the future for football clubs like Sunderland? If playing the half a first team and the League and FA Cups, getting knocked out of them early and then spending the remainder of the season hanging on for that apparently all-important lower mid-table finish in the Premier League (a process to be repeated until relegation eventually offers its sweet kiss – for this is approximately a thousand times more likely by breaking the cycle by winning the Premier League) is all that supporters of such clubs have left, it is small wonder that disenchantment with the game is growing at the rate that it seems to be.
There are plenty of quick fixes that are frequently offered when this particular subject comes up. Give the winners a Champions League place! Increase the prize money! Force the public to watch it under threat of the electric chair! The problem is that few of those that are made would work. The Premier League is not going to give up its Super Duper Who Will Finish Fourth marketing wheeze because the FA Cup is struggling. There is no realistic way that prize money could increase to cover anything like a significant proportion of the amount of money that clubs regularly chuck away on wages for players they never play. Even the electric chair idea might not work, if the number of people who spend the weekend whining along the lines of, ‘Where has my precious Premier League gone? I deserve better than this!’ throughout every round of the latter stages of the competition from the comfort of their sofas is anything to go by.
The problem that that FA Cup has is one of perception. The competition itself – apart from playing the semi-finals at Wembley, another innovation brought in to try and cover the ruinous cost of the new stadium and moving replay dates to the week after when they should be played, neither of which are going to change either – has scarcely changed over the course of the last half-century or so. What has changed has been the public perception of it. If supporters want the FA Cup back the way it was, we need to start believing that it’s important again. We need to start going to the matches. We need to start trying to apply pressure to our clubs if they treat it like a short vacation for their poor, underpaid players. If we do this, clubs might – and it’s only a might, but for those that care enough about it, it’s better than doing nothing – start to take it a little bit more seriously. But if all we can manage is to describe it as a ‘distraction’ (from that all-important thirteenth place finish in the Premier League), not pay that bit extra because we’ve already spent all that we are prepared to pay on our season tickets and then complain about all the empty seats on that first weekend in January, then we collectively deserve what we get. And if that means never getting the visceral endorphin rush that comes with seeing your club’s captain lifting a piece of silverware – which, we might innocently once have believed was something approximating the point of supporting a team in the first place – then so be it.
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