Friday, 7 March 2014

Cup Matters

In recent years there have been plenty of reports and comment articles on the death of the FA Cup. In many ways those reports are premature. However there are times that you feel that the guardians of the Cup are determined to find new ways to inflict hurt on it year after year. The FA, in its own way seems to be putting the FA Cup through a long term form of euthanasia.
The FA call it "The most famous domestic cup competition in the world", which sounds great until you realise the status afforded to cup competitions in other major footballing powerhouses. With the odd exception, say the Coupe De France which has ten times the number of participants of the FA Cup, cup competitions in Europe are second class, midweek affairs with low crowds and little interest. It seems that the FA is set on a path of downgrading their own competition to that of the Coppa Italia or the Cofidis Cup in Belgium.
Yet on Sunday, one match shows just what makes the FA Cup important, why it is such a vital part of the footballing schedule. It was the fourth pick by the television companies, given an awful High Noon Sunday slot. It is probably the least attractive to fans looking in from the outside, obsessed with the Premier League and the big name players. You may not see the pretty football that many crave, you may not see teh most technically gifted players, yet it will probably be the only game where you see two full strength sides playing, where both teams see cup progressions as important, if not more important than what follows in the league. Sheffield United v Charlton should attract a capacity crowd of near 30,000 generating a raucous and vibrant atmosphere. The only empty seats being the result of over stringent segregation demands.
Over 5,000 Charlton fans will make the journey North, a tremendous effort for a match scheduled by television at a time, when there isn't a train out of London to get them to Sheffield for kick off. There are difficulties for local fans as well; with those playing or running Sunday league teams, managing junior football clubs or with sons and daughters taking part all affected. With park pitches unplayable for weeks following recent weather, another postponement is hard to justify or consider. But hey, why should the FA care about the grassroots of the game when they have their TV dollar in their pocket? Why should they care about the fans?
We already see matches moved to days and kick off times that make it difficult for fans to attend. Or if they do, it is damn near impossible for them to get home again. This does not just apply to the FA Cup, but there are glaring examples such as Coventry City's Third Round tie at Arsenal being played on a Friday night, to suit television schedules. Then there was moving the final to a 5:15 kick off to maximise the domestic/global television audiences. The FA were quick to claim that the 2012 final achieved the highest peak viewing figure The FA Cup Final had achieved under the current TV deal and a higher audience than that of Bayern Munich v Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League Final. Note the emphasis on "Current" i.e. the best for 5 years.
The move driven by UEFA rules on stadium usage prior to a Champions League final left the FA Cup as the denouement of a day of Premier League fixtures. So the final became just another TV game and those who had been at matches may have missed the final travelling back from supporting their team. No longer was the cup final a match everyone had the chance to watch, regardless of who they support.The global media market that the FA are striving to maximise actually found it more difficult to watch the game as a result, as matches slipped into the early hours of the morning in Asia and Australia.
Then the following year they used this same justification for keeping a 5:15 kick off when Manchester City and Wigan Athletic fans would have to miss the end of the match to be sure of getting the last trains North. The FA statement at the time was widely vilified, stating that " 5.15pm is a regular kick-off time in the football calendar" and that "This time was agreed with major stakeholders and broadcasters and has been used across the game for a number of years for televised matches". So they said that they had consulted with stakeholders, except they hadn't. Yet again the forgotten stakeholders of football - the fans - were ignored.
Many pinpoint 2000 as the turning point when the FA's grimly held belief in their ability to win the World Cup bidding process, led to them allowing Manchester United to withdraw from the competition to curry favour with FIFA and their bloated and expendable World Club Cup. Yet it goes back further than that. The move to play Semi Finals at Wembley in 1991 was the first steps on the road of devaluation. Arsenal and Tottenham playing there to cope with demand for tickets.
And Sheffield United fans played a part in the long term switch. When the North London Derby was again moved to Wembley in 1993, the people of Sheffield complained en masse that an Elland Road semi final would leave many fans ticketless and the opportunity to host a match in a stadium such as Wembley should be afforded to all. Although it didn't become established for another 12 years, the seeds were sown.
Having said that every other game seems to get played at Wembley these days. I have been twice to new Wembley for play off finals that could have easily been hosted at Old Trafford and would have proved more convenient and accessible for fans of both clubs involved. It has reached the stage where many would view the Championship Play Off Final as the biggest match to be played at Wembley each year. A sad state of affairs.
Then there is drawing the next round ties, before the current round of matches has been completed; on a Sunday afternoonbetween live games. How long before the draw is all pre-planned and your route to Wembley is shown as a series of if's and or's?
Despite all these negatives, the average attendance at this year's FA Cup third round ties was at a 30 year high. Bigger grounds and those red and blue plastic seats highlight the gaps much more clearly than dark coats on grey terrace steps. The fans are coming despite of the FA and their machinations. Sadly this will make them think their meddling is vindicated. I want the FA Cup to survive and succeed, but I also want the FA to realise how their ever desperate actions are killing off people's interest.
This is not some romantic paean to muddy pitches, Ronnie Radford, Bacofoil cups, pitch invasions and Cup Final Grandstand. This is more about remembering that once upon a time, not very long ago, the FA Cup mattered to all. Now it seemingly matters to a lot less. Football is all about money not glory - in Sheffield United and Charlton there are two teams that might keep some of those old fashioned football values alive.
They aren't fielding weakened sides with one eye on Champions League matches, neither are they battling to save themselves from the "disaster" of losing Premier League status, neither are they playing to make another £750,000 (the current reward for a position higher finish in the Premier League).
Charlton Athletic are in a relegation dogfight, but tell Chris Powell, the team and their fans that Sunday isn't important. Momentum and success can lead to more positivity - just look at what the Cup run has done to the Blades' confidence. United and Charlton will be fielding full strength teams, respecting each other, the competition and playing their hearts out for a trip to Wembley (albeit a round too early), because it still matters. If only that view was more widely shared.

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