The FA Cup Final: Fings Ain’t What They Used T’Be

by | May 21, 2016

The Football Association Challenge Cup is the world’s greatest football cup competition. But the downward spiral of the final’s reputation is neither a surprise nor entirely the fault of those charged with its care. As a fifty-year-old, I am of the generation that was there when it happened and can understand that none of it happened because of the FA or the Cup but because of the changing world around them. I cite the FA Cup as the greatest because of the number of winners it produces, financially and emotionally. The phrase “money goes to money” is less an old saying than the main performance target for sexist Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore. So the FA Cup’s wealth redistribution is a throwback to times past, which can make fundamental differences to clubs, and often communities, nationwide.

These victories can be county league clubs reaching the fourth qualifying round (2016 prize money: £12,500), clubs such as mine (Isthmian League Kingstonian) reaching the competition proper and National League and lower Football League clubs reaching the third round and beyond. They can be emotional victories because “normal” people get to hear of your club, people other than anoraks and ground-hoppers. Financial victories partly from prize money but mostly from broadcast money. And both if you get “one of the big clubs” at whichever level your club operates.

Kingstonian might be “one of the big clubs” to certain FA Cup entrants, although recent FA Cup horror-shows have established a mini-tradition at the Non-League Paper where I sub-edit when they are desperately understaffed. More running sore than running joke, I am moved to annual surprise that the “FA Cup is still going” in October. I’ve experienced both sides of this FA Cup “coin,” as a Ks fan. Between 1933 and 1992, Ks found some imaginative way to avoid the competition proper, including 1960 when, as the previous season’s FA Amateur Cup finalists, they only had to apply. Around the turn of the century, with FA Cup legend Geoff Chapple as manager, the competition proper became the norm and we even outlasted Manchester United in 2000 and 2001 (although only technically in 2000, when Man Yoo didn’t enter).

We avoided “all” the “big clubs” in 2001’s third and fourth rounds, a suggestion at which only the most inappropriately-proud Southend United and Bristol City fans can balk. But the prize and TV money between 1998 (live on Sky at home in the first round proper) and 2001 (fourth round replay defeat, live on SKY) was well over £500,000. Seven months after our defeat to Bristol City, we lost in the following season’s second qualifying round (and entered administration six days later, for multiple other reasons). But even that produced an emotional and financial victory, as we were “giant-killed” of sorts by Wessex League Brockenhurst, who benefitted from the prize money and the massive post-match drowning of Kingstonian sorrows by our then inordinately numerical away following.

Between August, when the pre-qualifying, preliminary rounds begin, and the first round proper in November, the FA Cup can be as beneficial, respected and exciting as ever for competing clubs. Live TV coverage of the first two rounds “proper” has maintained much of the same perspective as the increasing numbers of full-time non-league clubs are temporarily minnows again. But, obviously, from then onwards, the “magic of the FA Cup” has become historic and sarcastic in equal measure. “The Cup is nice but the league is the most important thing” used to be a managerial cliché, (and palpable rubbish designed more to calm underdogs’ nerves, for teams outside promotion or relegation battles). With each Premier League place worth £1.2m more than the place below and winning the Cup Final itself worth only £1.8m, the second half of that cliché is truer than ever.

When Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger prioritised fourth in the league, and the attendant Champions League qualification, over FA Cup final victory (before successive such victories kept him in employment), it seemed almost sacrilegious. Now it’s a given (even for Louis Van Gaal’s job prospects…more than just Man Yoo fans will be hoping). The final itself has suffered more than any other game. This isn’t just down to changing priorities, finances, or even kick-off times. The origin of the final’s downfall can arguably be traced to October 2nd 1983, when Tottenham Hotspur came from behind to beat Nottingham Forest 2-1 at White Hart Lane, on ITV, in the Football League’s first-ever live televised match.

Until then, live club football was either the FA Cup Final or….the FA Cup Final replay. Big international games (and England v Scotland) were live, as were some, though not all, European finals. Otherwise, the FA Cup Final was literally as well as hyperbolically English club football’s showpiece game. And, as we were reminded annually and boastfully by TV people, the match was “beamed live” across the world, with 100+ countries receiving these beams. But once the live league stuff took hold, the Cup Final gradually became just another live game. Not immediately, though. The Spurs game had been entertaining. However, the BBC’s first live match of 1984/85, Chelsea v Everton, was a stinker, co-commentator Bobby Charlton reduced to hyping the atmosphere as Chelsea fans regaled viewers with tales of men going to mow meadows with their dog Spot (as tedious a song as it sounds).

And Wembley’s capacity was still nearly twice that of any English club ground– Old Trafford’s capacity was about 56,000 from 1975 to 1990 and was smaller still before it expanded to its current capacity. So the Cup Final still had an atmosphere and sheer noise all its own in a stadium still regarded as more iconic than rundown, despite the opposite being true. And for football fans my age, the Cup Final was a big deal until well into adulthood. The 1972 final was the first I can recall watching, at my friend David Lavington’s birthday party. Football hadn’t interested me until then. And it didn’t again for a bit. But by May 1973, Cup Final Grandstand was essential viewing; even the palpably rubbish Cup Final It’s a Knockout or the dull trips to the team hotels.

Like All-Ireland Gaelic Football and Hurling Finals were to become (both my parents are Irish), the match was a must-watch regardless of the finalists. I genuinely still recall my delight when David Coleman said there were only 18 minutes gone in the second half of the 1974 final. And when Coleman screamed “one-nil” you felt something big had happened, especially as four of my first seven finals finished “one-nil.” My memory says he rarely did BBC Match of the Day commentaries by then, so it was an event when we heard his voice. John Motson would have made “Goals pay the rent and Keegan does his share” the romance-less nonsense it was. Coleman somehow didn’t.

Liverpool and Newcastle United meant nothing to suburban Surrey schoolkids (Leeds were the glory-hunters’ team of choice in 1974). But we saw Newcastle’s Wembley banners and chanted “Howay the Lads” in the school playground for weeks after, free of context or relevance to the circumstances. The women who doubled as school dinner ladies and playground monitors were especially non-plussed. Fulham reaching the 1975 final was a big local deal as Craven Cottage midfielder Jimmy Conway went to our church (the Jimmy Conway Football Annual was proudly on sale alongside prayer books, bibles and Virgin Mary statues in the repository). But we still treated the second division side with disdain, singing “Fulham will win the Cup. What cup? The milk cup” (come on, we were nine years old), none of us imagining that within seven years the evils of sponsorship would make the “Milk Cup” a thing.

Two years later, every playground football goal celebration for months was Stuart Pearson’s clenched fist after he scored in the final. And even after 1978, when I started at a rugby-playing grammar school, the FA Cup Final meant more than any oval-ball game, certainly more than the Varsity Match we were forced five miles down the road to watch every December. Every 1980s final was a must-watch showpiece, despite the increasing volume of live league football. And after my three years at the Scottish Cup final (I missed three FA Cup finals that were all classics in their own way), the 1991 FA Cup final was a satisfying experience for the dozen-or-so games-per-season Spurs fan that I was between 1985 and 1992.

But the seeds of the final’s decline were sown by the increasing proliferation of Wembley semi-finals. In 1993, there were, gasp, thousands of empty seats at the Arsenal/Sheffield Wednesday replay, with a fourth Wembley trip for Wednesday-ites in under seven weeks taking just too much out of the bank balance for too little novelty value or sense of occasion. Those visible seats brought the Final’s decline to widespread attention (as well as revealing how crap Wembley’s seats were). And despite the quality of some subsequent finals, the match has suffered from being a literal “fixture” while football, sporting, broadcast and real worlds have expanded.

Until 1982, there were only three main TV channels in England and the Cup Final was on two of them. All other club football had finished and the cricket season on TV hadn’t begun. So the snappily-titled Sunday afternoon ITV highlights show How the Cup was won…or drawn had no competition for viewers, as “Sunday afternoon at home” was otherwise pretty much as Ray Galton and Alan Simpson imagined them in the Hancock’s Half-Hour episode of that name in 1958. Now the Cup Final kicks off, on one terrestrial free-to-air channel, at teatime. This year’s match is less important at chez Murphy than Dublin/Wexford in the Leinster Hurling Championship, the first live TV championship match of Ireland’s Gaelic Football and Hurling inter-county season. Indeed, I haven’t watched a whole FA Cup final since Chelsea beat Everton in…a year I had to look up (2009).

I also doubt that 100+ countries can give one damn between them about the game nowadays, or that 100+ ever did. Ex-colonies might have been interested. Scandinavia famously was. But did 100+ countries even have television capable of taking live football from London, or interested in doing so at 3am in Australasia or the South Pacific ends of the British Empire? How many countries had television at all? So the FA Cup Final is a victim of changing times as much as institutional vandalism or audience alternatives. Crystal Palace/Manchester United at Wembley maybe significantly less important in 2016 than it was in 1990. And a TV audience comparison with the Barcelona/Sevilla Copa del Rey Final on Sunday might be damning. But don’t let that detract from the FA Cup as a whole. That remains the greatest football cup competition in the world.