Content To Be Consumed: The FA & Its Cup In The Twenty-First Century
In the year of its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary, we might have expected that the Football Association would want to make this year’s FA Cup Final a special one. In some respects, they have got a match that has a number of interesting enough back-stories. One of the competing teams is the former non-league club, the first ever to appear in the finals of both the FA Trophy and the FA Cup, and one which, although it has resided in the Premier League for the last eight years, fills the role of the underdog quite neatly. And then, on the other hand, we have the club fuelled by the petrodollar-rich billionaires, but this club is not yet jaded by the notion of winning trophies year in, year out. Wigan Athletic versus Manchester City is an FA Cup Final with a little bite to it.
All of this, however, reckons without the awesome powers of the Football Association to do their best to debase the very competition that bears their name. Their decision to play this season’s final at 5.15 in the afternoon would be funny, if it weren’t for the obvious ramifications of such a decision. Supporters from both Wigan and Manchester will have to make a round journey of around four hundred miles to get to this match, and the later the kick-off time is, the more difficult it will obviously be for supporters looking to get home on the evening of the match by train on a weekend that we already know will be disrupted by engineering work. A match kicking off at the time scheduled by the Football Association will finish at around 7.10 in the evening if there is no extra-time, giving Wigan Athletic supporters an hour and twenty minutes to get to London Euston railway station.
These sort of numbers sound like something approaching reasonable until we factor in that Wigan supporters at their first FA Cup final might want to see the winning captain lift the trophy, that getting to Wembley Park underground station from the full-time whistle may take a little while (two trips to Wembley this season have required around twenty minutes to half an hour, allowing for the size of the crowds all heading to one underground station at the same time), and that the journey from Wembley Park to Euston takes around forty minutes on its own. Factor in a further three-quarters of an hour for extra-time and the possibility of a penalty shoot-out, and there might be a lot of Wigan and Manchester City supporters sleeping rough in that part of London that night. Travel arrangements would not only be complicated for those travelling by train, either. Even if we set aside the question of whether the Football Association should be scheduling matches which encourage clogging up roads with thousands of cars and coaches, there is the matter of whether it is reasonable to expect the supporters of two clubs to not back from a match on a Saturday until the early hours of a Sunday morning.
On top of this, there is the clear warning that the FA was served at the same stadium last weekend. All-day drinking has been widely attributed to have been a contributing factor behind the trouble at the match between Millwall and Wigan Athletic last Saturday, and later kick-off times at weekend matches allow more opportunity for those who are subject to such impulses to drink a tankful of alcohol and, perhaps, pick up a few perceived slights on their way to the match. Were there to be alcohol-fuelled trouble at or near Wembley Stadium on FA Cup Final day, we can be reasonably certain that the FA would not be held responsible for this, and there is an obvious case to be made for saying that adults should be responsible for their own behaviour. Out there in the real world, however, we all know that there are those amongst us who get aggressive when under the influence and that the organisers of these competitions have a responsibility themselves to not create a situation which makes it easier for disorder to flourish.
Considering all of this, we might have expected there to be a damn good reason why the Football Association made such a decision. Over, then, to Alex Horne, the FA’s General Secretary, for an explanation as to why this decision, which the FA must surely have known would go down like a lead balloon, was made. You may want a stiff drink after reading this:
We’re now used to consuming our football in those time slots. It really works. Lunchtime kick-offs just haven’t got the same appeal. The 5.15pm kick-off for the final was really successful. We added a couple of million viewers. It’s a sensible compromise. When we designed the new national stadium, we knew we needed to put content in it. That’s what is paying for the stadium. Over time we are paying off the debt we had to incur to build the stadium. Investing in Wembley is investing in football. It’s a positive for all of football.
Well, if you ever wanted to see a microcosm of the seeds of disconnect that so many people feel towards the game these days, there it is, and all from the horse’s mouth that is the governing body itself. Supporters are being inconvenienced, it would appear, to satisfy television companies and advertisers, football is “content” which we “consume,” and the real purpose of the FA Cup Final is to pay off the ruinously huge debt that the FA themselves ran up in order build the new Wembley in the first place. On top of all of this, for once even the Premier League can’t be held to account for such a decision. On the eleventh of May, there is a Premier League match between Aston Villa and Chelsea which kicks off at lunchtime, but all other Premier League matches that weekend are already being played the following day. This is a decision that has been made for the benefit of television companies and, at a push, the armchair television audience and the value that they bring to those television companies.
It is more or less acknowledged that the FA Cup is damaged goods these days, and what is perhaps the most surprising aspect of this latest debasement of the heritage of the competition is that it is entirely self-inflicted. There is no Premier League and no Sky Sports to blame for this, and the Football Association should be made to wallow in its own discomfort over such a stupid, venal decision. If their showpiece competition in their one hundred and fiftieth year ends up being played in front of banks of empty seats, they will only have themselves to blame, and even those amongst us that have sought the defend it now find ourselves in the unwanted position of being unable to defend the indefensible. We do not know at this stage how ticket sales will fare for this match, but if further lasting damage is done to the competition by virtue of their own actions, the Football Association will only have themselves to blame, and we suspect that there will be very little sympathy for them indeed if they have to consume a considerable amount of humble pie over such an ill thought-out decision and a situation that it could quite easily have avoided with the application of a little common sense.
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