Your first FA Cup Final, well the first one you remember, which year was it ? I’d be interested to know, especially if you are, say, over 30. Below is a link to the Wiki directory, it may help.
So we’ve established that you were 7 years old. If you weren’t, a huge number of people were, or at least within months either side. You may remember that May afternoon, the 12.00 Grandstand theme, the teams on the coaches, the long build up, and the magical game itself….
As regards the first final we remember, and the age we were, I accidentally realised this likely nugget of irrelevance on a drunken night out with some friends many years ago, and it seems to be endorsed by people I’ve asked ever since. So what of it ? And why just people over the approximate 30 ? Well, it is an appropriate foreword for my own personal views on the Cup itself, and its dreadful decline in the nation’s psyche in last two decades.
Now when I speak of decline, some may have arguments against. The television coverage of the tournament is pretty much unprecedented these days, a number of matches will be screened on every weekend it is played. Every goal will be shown on whatever channel owns the rights. Whichever organisation holds those rights will champion the viewing figures as an endorsing evaluation of their decision-but for me this is a hollow crown. It’s a bit like saying that because you have single item on the menu, and your restaurant is making a profit, then people love your food. But if you are the only outlet for miles around, and people are hungry, they will come. Folk watch the matches because they want to see football, or their teams playing, it doesn’t mean that they have any more than a passing interest in nourishing qualities of the event itself-it’s football.
There was a time when ‘the FA Cup’ was devoid of the limpet like prefix of the word ‘only’ and Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa, home or away, wouldn’t have been an easy draw for a lower league side. Identifying the reasons for its shift in importance is not a difficult task though, as they follow a simple, and inevitable, sequence of events.
Beyond English silverware lays the higher goal of European glory. 25 years ago the tournament structure was somewhat different to the one we see now. The European Cup, the fore-runner to the Champions League, was the senior trophy. The bizarre scenario here is that only champions of any given international league could enter the former, but eventually teams as low as fourth could enter the latter. The Cup-Winners Cup was the second most prestigious tournament, the winners of the respective national titles entering.
The UEFA Cup, although third in ranking, was still an important fixture too, mainly for teams who had finished near the top of their respective leagues- their achievement not going unrecognised. As winning the title of champions in most European nations was beyond many a side come the last vestiges of the winter, the Cup Winners Cup remained a noble goal. And naturally, because it was senior to the UEFA Cup, it contained huge clubs within. During the 80s winners included Barcelona (twice), Juventus, Dynamo Kiev and Ajax. By the late nineties, and the expansion of the Champions League to include extra teams from the more successful leagues, it was deemed surplus to requirements as the bigger clubs were entering the Champions League, and that remained their season long goal.
So from the later 1990’s, having once qualified automatically for the Cup Winners Cup, victory for the FA Cup winners meant entry to the now second ranked, and increasingly less important UEFA Cup, if they weren’t already there, and if they hadn’t found their way into the Champions League. In that case it would be the runners-up. Effectively the rewards had been lost and all that was left was the honour the title of winners bestowed. Yet the erosion of the FA Cup had already started a few years beforehand. But this is perhaps a mildly supporting and academic footnote to the most pressing reason for its decline. Money.
Whether we like it or not, a football club is a business. And where the money is, so the club will try to be.
Domestically in England a major change had began in 1992 with the carving up of the leagues within the Football Association. The First Division broke away to form the Premier League and thus controlled it’s own television rights. Within 5 years the sales had doubled in price and rocketed to the point that the rights from sale for the three seasons from 2013 realised over one billion pounds a year. Survival became the ultimate goal for many of its participants, relegation causing a potentially disastrous drop in revenue. In the FA Cup receipts would primarily come from the gate, as TV payments and prize money are linked to the quantum of rights fees received from The FA’s broadcast partners for the competition, and this has not grown much over the seasons. In 2015, winning the FA Cup will land a club an approximate total TV and prize-money of just over £3 million pounds. Cardiff City, who landed bottom of the Premier League in 2013/14, received £67.3 million pounds for their endeavours before gate receipts. Hull City, FA Cup runners-up of 2014, are believed to have scooped around £6 million pounds including gate receipts.
So, in the lust of new money, and the commercial attraction of higher bounties and wage demands, tradition has given way to hard faced economic reality. Rupert Murdoch knew we wanted football, and we got it. Consequently, the chase for the Champions League, and the desperate need for Premier League survival meant priorities changed. Even for the Championship sides (Second Divison-please) chasing promotion, with the play-off system making the season’s hopes last longer, is even more of a priority. The romance of the FA Cup seems confined to earlier rounds, and the ‘smaller clubs’ (such a demeaning but appropriate phrase) seem the only ones who still believe in its magic.
It could be expected that a rebellion may have ensued, and clubs would fined for playing weakened sides, yet a recent online survey showed that more than half of football watching folk are against any such fines. We could hope that the media would have tried to rekindle an appetite within the general football fraternity, that expressed incredulity at the chipping away of a public institution would be rife, but most people support bigger teams, and Rupert Murdoch owns a lot of the media coverage….
The fact remains that the gate has shut, and the cash cow has bolted. Younger generations of football fans no nothing of the glory of the FA Cup being born into a different era. So it seems that those of us with long memories of the days when a ‘giant-killing’ really was that, and the Cup draw was greeted with excitement and not indifference, are becoming less and less in number.
The FA Cup was once about the football in its purest sense, it was a beautiful leveller. A lower league team would have the opportunity to be drawn against a club with some of the best players in the land. And those individuals would be on the park too, because defeat was unthinkable. I hauntingly remember Malcolm Allison’s shame in 1980 as Manchester City were beaten in the mud of The Shay by Fourth Division Halifax Town-after he had claimed victory was simply a matter of turning up. Former Albion players Joe Corrigan and Michael Robinson were in the City team that day…
Being a Brighton & Hove Albion fan I have witnessed both sides of the coin. Non-League sides accounted for us on one or two occasions in the 70s and 90s, once with Brian Clough as manager, and then there was the fourth round victory over league champions. My abiding memory of victory was at The Goldstone in the fourth round of January 1984, when the League Champions, Liverpool, arrived with a full strength team and were despatched 2-0. Ten of that side started the European Cup Final in Rome that year, the other a substitute. They certainly didn’t see that loss as a minor irritation, and this meant that our victory was real, not a small fillip to the season..
It seems, that whilst the structure still remains in place and the lower leagues meet the mighty, the substance and emotion of the FA Cup has mostly departed. What was once part of the national fabric, a compulsive indulgence, is now an often inconvenient sideshow.
Whenever I rally in support of the tournament, I do get support. But tellingly, that support tends to come from people of a certain age. And it will get less over time. So for now, whenever the day comes around, I am left with the videos of yesteryear-and those wonderful memories of crowding round the radio on a Monday lunchtime to see who next lay in store for our magical journey.