When I was a kid growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s it’s hard to imagine now for the younger generation but the FA Cup meant everything. Every Monday lunchtime that the FA Cup draw was taking place we’d be glued to the radio listening to hear our teams’ fate.
Every FA Cup tie was played in front of higher than usual crowds, often packed houses with every club playing their strongest side. As the rounds went by and your team were lucky enough to progress the excitement grew. Every step leading ever closer to the holy grail of reaching the FA Cup Final at Wembley the most prestigious stadium in the world.
Fans dreamed of it being their year and walking up Wembley Way. The two sets of fans either side making their way up to the iconic twin towers. Going up the steps. The click of the turnstiles as you handed over your precious match ticket and entered the stadium. Excitedly taking your place on the terraces. I was blessed to have experienced all of this in 1971 at my first ever cup final aged 14. Our end filling up with Arsenal fans decked out in yellow and blue hats and scarves with homemade banners. The singing of “Good Old Arsenal” growing ever louder in response to the sea of red in the Liverpool end singing their famous anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. The crescendo as the two teams emerged side by side out of the darkened tunnel into the sunlight to a cacophony of noise as the fans roared their teams into the arena like gladiators in Ancient Rome. It was such a proud moment seeing Bertie Mee leading our team out in those beautiful blue tracksuit tops. Alongside the legendary Bill Shankly. It brought a tear to my eye such was the tidal wave of emotion that hit me.
The day will forever be remembered for that thunderbolt from Charlie George that clinched the Double and the unique celebration that followed as Charlie laid flat out on his back on the lush green Wembley turf arms raised in triumph, making Charlie an instant footballing immortal. A game never to be forgotten not just by Arsenal fans but by football fans everywhere.
The FA Cup Final brought not just this country but the whole world to a standstill as football fans huddled around grainy TV screens or crackling radios as the BBC World Service’s tentacles reached every corner of the globe. The FA Cup Final was the showpiece of the season. The BBC and ITV schedules devoted the whole day to focusing on the game and competing for viewers as the football season reached its climax. That was the esteem in which the FA Cup was held. However, 49 years later this is no longer the case. Over the decades the glamour and magic of the FA Cup has waned. The traditions and customs have bit by bit been eroded and diluted.
At one time the FA Cup Final was the only show in town. The sole match that was televised live until England v Scotland was added to the TV roster. In fact, there was very little football shown at all on TV till “Match of the Day” made its bow in 1964. It wasn’t until 1983 that League football began being shown live. Despite this the FA Cup still remained a special competition.
However, the emergence of Sky and them winning the rights to show the newly formed Premier League in 1992 was the beginning of the demise of the FA Cup. Once the Champions League replaced the European Cup and it became a group format with more matches for TV revenue the domestic cup competitions began to become squeezed. The Premier League and Champions League were the big earners and the FA Cup and League Cup became less important.
In 1991 for the first time ever an FA Cup Semi-Final was played at Wembley stadium. That game was Arsenal v Tottenham and was probably bigger than the final itself which was Tottenham v Nottingham Forest. Before too long all the Semi-Finals were played at Wembley devaluing the Final. In the 1999-2000 season Manchester United the FA Cup holders took the unprecedented and unthinkable step of withdrawing from the FA Cup to enable them to take part in the FIFA World Club Championship in South America.
Due to the extra matches in the European competitions clubs began to prioritise and started to field weakened teams in both the League Cup and the FA Cup. TV companies dabbled with the kick-off times to now where we’ve reached a situation where this seasons Fifth Round fixtures have become like the League Cup and all the ties are being staged in midweek in the evenings across Monday to Thursday sandwiched between two weekends of Premier League games. The draw now takes place on a Monday night on the poxy “One Show” is nothing sacred anymore.
Some of my best memories are of FA Cup replays. Who could forget the 5-game marathon against Sheffield Wednesday in 1979, or the four epic matches against Liverpool in 1980? From the 5th round these days there are no more cup replays. Pep Guardiola has publicly called for them to be scrapped altogether depriving smaller clubs from much needed revenue all to suit the bigger clubs to make them richer at the expense of the smaller clubs and now the latest dagger to the heart of the FA Cup Jurgen Klopp is going to field his youth team and furthermore isn’t going to manage them in Liverpool’s 4th Round replay against Shrewsbury Town at Anfield.
This is so disrespectful and is no way to treat the oldest and greatest cup knockout tournament in the world. If the money men had their way, they’d scrap both the domestic cup competitions. they’re looked upon now as nothing more than an inconvenience. But I and many others remember the FA Cup in all its glory. Isn’t it worth preserving a competition where a tiny non-League club well down the football pyramid with average gates of maybe 200 people going all the way to the 3rd Round of the FA Cup and having a once in a lifetime opportunity of getting drawn against one of the giants of English football like The Arsenal or Liverpool or maybe the biggest club of them all Manchester United. Sadly I think it’s just a matter of time before all we’ll have left of the FA Cup are our memories of Charlie George, of Bob Stokoe running onto the pitch with his trilby hat and raincoat to hug Jim Montgomery and Ronnie Radford of giant killers Hereford United knocking Newcastle United out the FA Cup on a mud bath of a surface with hundreds of Hereford fans invading the pitch to celebrate.