Underneath the Arch

Much has been made about the FA Cup being marginalised this season due to the venue of the semi-finals, and the particularly bizarre kick-off time of the second semi between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea yesterday. But until 1989 the semi-finals kicked-off at 3pm on Saturdays, the same time as other League games, and with no live television coverage.

The events at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989 were heard in intermittent reports on BBC Radio 2 Medium Wave and on breaking news on Grandstand by people tuning to hear updates about a big match. That day the complacency and arrogance of ignoring the previous incidents at the Leppings Lane end in 1981 FA Cup Semi-Final cost 96 lives, and was compounded by lies, denials and “misplaced evidence” by the police, and smears by News International’s The Sun.

Last summer shed a light on later collusions between News International and police forces, but evidence of how their earlier propaganda worked was heard from large pockets of Chelsea fans around Wembley yesterday, who disrespected the “moments silence” for the Hillsborough victims and Piermario Morosini, who lost his life on Saturday while playing for Livorno. The apt response from Tottenham fans, who booed the Chelsea fans and were united in calling them wankers after the referee gave up on the Silence, was the real human element that the organizers at Wembley, who try to manufacturer atmosphere, could never dream of capturing.

After the rearranged 1989 semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest was broadcast live on a Sunday lunchtime on BBC1, FA Cup Semi-Final scheduling was never the same again, and the biggest domestic cup competition in the world was given a proper platform for the wider public to enjoy these massive matches live. The following season Crystal Palace beat Liverpool 4-3 in extra-time, again on a Sunday lunchtime on BBC1, in one of the classic Cup games in memory, before the next year, the first FA Cup Semi-Final to be played at Wembley, a North London Derby, Between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, also took place in the same time slot.

The move to Wembley for that game was right, as it was the only stadium that could meet demand, local to both clubs, and with Hillsborough fresh in the memory, safety was paramount. Having that semi-final at Wembley didn’t diminish from the Final either – Tottenham players that played in both games, including Paul Allen and Steve Sedgley, have told me it was like playing in two finals, and two of the greatest days of their lives.

When both Arsenal and Tottenham were drawn together again in the semi-final in 1993, Wembley again was chosen, but due to fears that it would give the winning side an advantage in the Final, the other semi-final, another local derby, between Sheffield’s Wednesday and United, also took place beneath the Twin Towers. The following season, for no apparent reason, both semis were played at Wembley again, as Chelsea played Luton Town, and Manchester United played Oldham Athletic, the last time the semi-finals took place at the old stadium.

A Chris Waddle free-kick for Sheffield Wednesday, a dodgy decision that went against Spurs in 1993, and a late Mark Hughes volley aside, none of the Wembley semis had much to remember them by since the cracking game in 1991, when Tottenham outplayed Arsenal, and won 3-1, with goals from Paul Gascoigne and Gary Linekar (2). Schoolboy’s own stuff.

The best semi-final since 1991 was a replay at Villa Park in 1999, as Ryan Giggs’ wonderful goal (from an unwitting assist from Patrick Vieira) took 10 men Manchester United through to a final against Arsenal in extra-time, who had missed a last minute penalty that would have won the game. But semi-finals at Villa Park, like semi-final replays, are now no more.

As part of a way to finance the new stadium, the FA are now hosting all semi-finals at Wembley. As Liverpool didn’t want to play on the anniversary of Hillsborough, this year’s all-Merseyside semi-final taking place at 12.45 on the Saturday seemed reasonable enough – the travel no worse than Spurs fans who had to travel to Elland Road to play Everton on an early Sunday lick-off in 1995. Chelsea, with Barcelona to play on Wednesday, wanted their semi-final moved to the Friday night, but as well as it being peak time for the emergency services in London, Tottenham had no reason to be willing participants in a move considering the lack of co-operation Chelsea showed Tottenham in April 2007, when after playing away in Sevilla on a Thursday night, Spurs then had to travel to play a League Game at 12.45pm at Stamford Bridge on the Saturday, a demand that would surely never have been made by the Premier League on Manchester United, Arsenal, or Chelsea themselves.

The 6pm kick-off on a Sunday though, while scheduled to not clash with the already arranged televised League Game between Manchester United and Aston Villa, and get a peak time television audience for ITV, inevitably led to all-day drinking, at least until some pubs ran out of beer as early as 4pm. The Ground only served the poor tasting liquid produced by the FA Cup’s sponsor, at exorbitant prices – in fact one pint was almost exactly a third of the price of a matchday ticket for the 1991 Semi-final.

And it is not just the pricing and the poor quality of the products of the New Wembley that leaves a bad taste, but the attempts to generate a spectacle: a blaring pitchside PA, imploring fans to be part of the entertainment for the corporate boxes and Club Wembley members, like performing muppets on a talent show, while going on to drown out actual singing with overbearing music from the tannoy, are awful. It is a slight recognition that paying supporters are an integral part of the game that is marketed to generate the bulk of wealth in the game, but not enough of an appreciation to reduce prices or provide a better service. For example, when fans (who had been drinking all-day) were fighting between themselves yesterday in the ground, the few lowly paid stewards that were on duty were nowhere to been seen for several minutes. Some of the issues from Hillsborough may have been acted on, but yet supporters are still exploited at every opportunity while there is under investment in matchday staff.

The semi-finals remain the biggest games of the domestic weekend, but yesterday’s match will be remembered for an awful decision by the referee on 49 minutes that affected the game; Tottenham, though one goal down, were the better side for the first-half, and even after that Chelsea’s gamesmanship, from Cech’s professional foul to Drogba’s play-acting when Chelsea were under-pressure in their own box, saw them through, as Spurs changed formation and opened up to chase a 2-1 deficit that should never have been.

The FA Cup Final was last year moved to a Saturday before the end of the Premier League Season, on the reasoning Wembley couldn’t be played on for two weeks ahead of the Champions League Final (which will probably be the case next season as well). This year though, there is no sense at all why the FA Cup is not being played on a Saturday after the Premier League season has finished, and when there are no other League Games, and so can have 3pm kick-off with an all day build-up. It is the FA’s failure to agree that with the Premier League, and make it a mandatory requirement when auctioning TV rights, that is really affecting the brand of the FA Cup.

And this season, with a final between Chelsea and a Liverpool, there will be little affection for either side from any neutrals. Both sides this season have been a reminder of the ugliness in the game. Sponsored by overpriced poor quality American beer that is now trying to associate itself with 140 years of heritage, and broadcast to the nation at 5.15pm in-between long commercial breaks and poor punditry, it feels like the stage they deserve.

MG

The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to buy for a Kindle from Amazon for £4.27 inc VAT, and for a number of other formats including as a PDF, an online download and for Apple, Palm and Sony hand-held devices from Smashwords. With recollections of matches including Clasicos, Milan Derbies and Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, it covers a journey over land and sea in the 2010-11 Champions League. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.