Spurs (& Manchester United) Are On Their Way To Wembley
Disclaimer: I support Tottenham Hotspur. I did, after all, spend the first five years of my life in Upper Edmonton, less than a mile from White Hart Lane. However, as I try to do with everything that gets written around these parts, I’ve sought to leave tribal affiliations at the door for the purposes of writing this.
There is something inevitable about the fact that, in the one year that Tottenham Hotspur came to be using Wembley as a temporary home while the new White Hart Lane stadium is built, they should have reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup. Their comfortable win in Saturday’s quarter-final at Swansea City – featuring a performance so listless from the home team that one have been forgiven for thinking that Carlos Carvalhal rested his players by fielding eleven dustbins wearing Swansea shirts – couldn’t have been more comfortable, but otherwise they’ve made pretty hard work of getting this far despite favourable draw after favourable draw. A routine home win against Wimbledon in the Third Round was followed by successive banana skins at Newport County and Rochdale that Mauricio Pochettino only narrowly avoided. It’s difficult to avoid the feeling that, despite having made it this far, Spurs have have considerably harder work of doing so than most of us would have expected.
All of this causes a little embarrassment for the Football Association, because this means that, for the first time in the history of the competition, an FA Cup semi-final will be played at the “home” stadium – albeit a temporary one – of one of the two competing teams. Protests are being led, unsurprisingly, by supporters of Manchester United, who Spurs will face in this match, but there is a sense that supporters of many clubs are happy at such a perceived advantage being given to one of the four sides remaining in the competition. It’s a groundswell of opinion that has grown as Spurs have made their unsteady progress through the competition, but what is simultaneously surprising and unsurprising that this whole situation is being used as a stick over which to beat Spurs’ head. It obviously isn’t their decision where the semi-finals of this particular competition are held, and it seems unlikely that anybody connected with the club were the match to be played at a neutral venue. That, however, is the nature of modern football. Anything to denigrate your opponents.
The banterbus, however, is the banterbus, and it might well be argued that both football supporters and clubs will always find something to complain about. If we acknowledge this and the obvious fact that some sort of advantage may be conferred upon the team that plays on a pitch regularly throughout the course of a season, though, the questions that remain concern the extent to which the complaints that have been made have any basis to them, and why this possibility – which, on the basis of Spurs’ improvement over the last few seasons or so, can hardly be considered surprising – seems to have flown clean over the heads of anybody associated with the Football Association at the time that the decision to allow the club to use the stadium for a season was granted or when the rules of this year’s competition were drawn up.
Historically speaking, it is true to say that this situation is completely without precedent. For the first ten years from the inception of the competition in 1872, all semi-finals were played at the Kennington Oval, which has never been the home venue of any football club. For the 1881/82 season, however, the match between Blackburn Rovers and The Wednesday was played at St John’s Ground in Huddersfield, whilst the other match between Old Etonians and Marlow was played at the Oval. From then on, every FA Cup semi-final has been played at a neutral venue. Where possible, the policy of the FA seems to have been to try to select a venue equidistant between the two towns or cities concerned, although this hasn’t, of course, always been possible. For example, when Manchester United drew Liverpool in the semi-finals of the 1984/85 competition, the FA chose Goodison Park as the venue for the match, but when that ended as a draw the venue decided upon for the replay was Maine Road in Manchester. It wasn’t an ideal situation, of course, and one might argue that the FA got a little lucky when the first match ended in a draw.
The FA’s decision to play all semi-finals at Wembley is, of course, contentious enough in itself. Ironically, Spurs were one of the to teams to play in the first FA Cup semi-final to be played at Wembley in 1991. This decision was taken for not insensible reasons – to allow as many people as possible to see a match which had considerably greater importance at the time than any FA Cup semi-final would have now – and, after the two clubs drew each other again two years later alongside a match between Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday, both semi-finals were held there. Using Wembley for such matches, however, was hugely unpopular, and after Manchester United and Oldham Athletic drew a semi-final there the following year (the replay was played, considerably more sensibly, at Maine Road) the idea was dropped until the year 2000, when both semi-finals – Aston Villa versus Bolton Wanderers and Chelsea versus Newcastle United – were played there, whilst in 2005 both semi-finals were played at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
FA Cup semi-finals were permanently moved to the new Wembley Stadium upon its completion in 2007 for the 2007/08 season. The reason for this was, of course, money. Construction of the new Wembley was, of course, horrendously expensive, and part of the cost of funding this weirdly vainglorious project was borne by Club Wembley, corporate tickets sold at a price of up to £37,200 per year which include entry to England home matches, the League Cup final, the FA Cup final and, you guessed it, FA Cup semi-finals. These tickets are sold over varying amounts of time, and it seems unlikely that anyone at the FA would wish to upset anyone paying the amounts that Club Wembley members pay in order to accommodate the wants of the “ordinary” fan, and that’s before we even get onto the small matter of whether the FA would be in breach of contract to Club Wembley members, were they to move any one match that has been included in that package. We might not like this state of affairs. We might not even like the new Wembley Stadium. But the simple fact of the matter is that it isn’t going to change, regardless of whether it should or shouldn’t.
Perhaps the FA could have notified Club Wembley members that, for this season only, they would have to go elsewhere for this one match if they wished to attend. But they didn’t, and it would be highly surprising if that changed now. And that’s the problem with so much criticism of FA Cup semi-finals being hosted there in the first place. It is, and has always felt, futile. Section 28(a) takes care of the location of semi-finals in stating that, “The Association shall determine the ground for all Semi-Finals, and shall have direct control of the arrangements.” They could play these matches elsewhere – and presumably this rule is as vague as it is to cover the FA should Wembley not be usable for reasons beyond their control – but the likelihood of the Football Association listening to complaints from Manchester United supporters and acting upon them even if it upsets their corporate tickets seems to be slim to none. This doesn’t, of course, mean that they shouldn’t complain about something that doesn’t give much impression of having been properly considered by the FA.
But what is “home advantage”, and how much of it might Tottenham Hotspur be able to claim when they take to this familiar pitch in a few weeks’ time? Well, the irony of much of this is that they will be the designated “away” team for the day because they were drawn after Manchester United last night. All Spurs livery will be taken down for the match and Manchester United will, on account of the specifics of the draw, have the home dressing room for the match. The factors behind “home advantage” have been studied extensively over the years, and in this case the most significant found by researchers – climate, altitude, extreme crowd hostility, distance to travel – don’t really apply. Will Spurs benefit from a familiarity with the exact dimensions of the pitch and other specific characteristics of Wembley Stadium? Possibly, yes, but the question of the full extent to which Spurs have an unfair advantage over Manchester United for this particular match may be unanswerable. After all, Spurs supporters approached decamping to Wembley for a year with a degree of trepidation, considering their poor recent record there, and this seemed to be borne out but the team failing to win any of its first three Premier League matches there, not picking up three points there until a narrow one-nil win against Bournemouth in the middle of October.
Spurs have remained unbeaten at Wembley in the Premier League since then, beating Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United there in the Premier League since, but Manchester United supporters might take some solace from the fact that both of their opponents’ exits from cup competitions, both in the League Cup against West Ham United and in the Champions League against Juventus, came with defeats there. Spurs have settled at Wembley in the Premier League, but this was always likely, considering the talented players that Mauricio Pochettino has at his disposal, players which ended last season as runners-up in the Premier League to Chelsea. Cynics might even argue that Jose Mourinho, a man feted for contorting logic to almost impressive degrees in order to insulate himself from criticism when his team misfires, might have been quietly pleased at a draw from which he might be able to pitch himself as the underdog, albeit an underdog with the two most expensive players ever signed in the history of the game in this country.
This feels like an intractable position for all concerned. Spurs will receive brickbats over it, even though this state of affairs has little to nothing to do with them. The FA will be criticised over it even though it’s highly unlikely that they will – or even can – do anything about it now. This criticism does feel warranted. Whether they can do anything about it now doesn’t absolve the FA of responsibility for the fact that it is fundamentally unfair that a competition that has used neutral venues for its semi-finals for almost a century and a half should halt that for so much as one season. It’s possible – perhaps even likely – that the effects of this “home advantage” will be over-exaggerated over the coming weeks, but to suggest that this is anything but an undesirable situation would feel disingenuous. Ultimately, though, where there is fault over this, it probably rests with the FA, who might have given this matter greater thought when offering Spurs use of Wembley a couple of year ago, or perhaps when they took the highly contentious decision to move them there in the pursuit of money in the first place. And should Spurs beat Manchester United when they meet, we can expect it all to start again for the final.