Belfast Telegraph

It's a disgrace the FA does not cherish Cup final day

By Sam Wallace

The timing of the FA Cup final has not always been written in stone. In 1873 the game was delayed so the players could watch the Varsity boat race held on the same day, as many of the former public school boys involved had an interest in both.

Thankfully, these days the public interest in two boatloads of toffs doing Oxbridge degrees in colouring-in has waned. It is the FA Cup final I'm worried about.

It is no revelation that the prestige of the FA Cup has been on the slide for years but just in case there was any doubt that the old competition is firmly on the path towards mediocrity, now the Football Association is messing about with the final.

I am a child of the 1980s and the first final in my memory was 1982 and the two games between Tottenham and Queen's Park Rangers. The Eighties was a decade of glorious, often sweltering May finals. Gordon Smith and Gary Bailey in 1983. Andy Gray and Steve Sherwood in 1984. Norman Whiteside in 1985. Keith Houchen in 1987. That strange whirly thing Ian Rush did with his hand celebrating one of his goals in 1989. Great days.

No one can expect an institution to stay the same for ever, but the competition itself has taken a fearful kicking over the last 15 years. The consensus is that it has never been the same since Manchester United withdrew in the 1999-2000 season in order to play in the ill-conceived Fifa Club World Championship. But one could argue that once the Premier League was given two Champions League places in the 1996-97 season it became more important to finish second in the league than win the Cup.

Last season the day of the final itself hit a new low when the penultimate round of Premier League games were played on the same day meaning that – to some extent – United sealing the title at Blackburn detracted from Manchester City's triumph at Wembley.

Last year was the first final since 1954 that coincided with league fixtures and 1954 was supposed to be a one-off. The FA Cup final has withstood some assaults on its dignity over the years, including being temporarily moved to Cardiff, but until last season it stood inviolate as the final game of the domestic season.

This season the FA, in order to appease broadcasters, is petitioning for a new 5.15pm kick-off for the final on 5 May and it is trying to persuade the Premier League not to schedule any matches for that day. However, there will be more Premier League games that weekend, and the following weekend, as the final is swallowed up by the league season again.

The staging of the Champions League final at Wembley caused last season's clash between the FA Cup final and league fixtures. Under Uefa rules, the FA was forbidden from playing a game on the Wembley pitch within two weeks of the Champions League final. It is a stupid rule but because Champions League football is indisputably king these days there was no chance of the FA disobeying.

This season Uefa has struck again. It demands that domestic seasons must end four weeks before the start of Euro 2012. Why? Who knows? But once again the FA must bend at the knee. Next season it will be the same story. The Champions League final is back at Wembley which means the pitch cannot be played on within two weeks of the final.

As for 2014, that is a World Cup year so expect Fifa to enforce another stringent deadline for domestic seasons to end which will prevail regardless of whether or not England qualify. That leaves us looking ahead to 2015 before the FA Cup final can be staged in its rightful place, at the end of the season.

Of course, the FA could have said it did not want to host the Champions League final again next year because it wished to protect the sanctity of an end-of-season Wembley FA Cup final. The FA was more likely to appoint Captain Francesco Schettino as the next England team bus driver than turn down a Champions League final.

Wembley proved so lucrative for Uefa last year that the FA was invited to stage it again. In doing so, the governing body has to accept that it too is playing a part in the sad downgrading of its own competition's tradition. The FA Cup final has now been engulfed twice by domestic fixtures, which means that the taboo has been broken and it will suffer the same fate again and again.

The pragmatic point of view is that the FA had to accept something had to give – and that something had to be the FA Cup final. A report by Deloitte into the profits generated by the competition found that payments to clubs had fallen by 27 per cent over the last decade, largely down to a fall in television revenue.

But once an institution is changed, it is changed for ever. My generation might be the last to venerate FA Cup final day and those that come after will surely see it differently, and who can blame them? It has become a moveable feast slotted in as and when the authorities allow. Gradually the consensus view of FA Cup final day will shift to it being less important and less worth protecting.

It is a pity that after 140 years this had to happen on our watch but there is no changing it now. There were some great FA Cup ties this weekend at Anfield and Brighton but the diminishing importance of FA Cup final day for future generations of football fans is inevitable. Once started it is virtually impossible to reverse. It may still be a long way off the irrelevance that the Boat Race is to modern-day life but you can never be complacent.

Just get rid of pre-match handshakes altogether

The cancellation of the pre-match handshake between Queen's Park Rangers and Chelsea was done to defuse the John Terry situation but it is a suitable point at which to ask: why bother with the ritual at all for domestic games?

It is a relatively new introduction to Premier League and FA Cup games and is utterly pointless. It makes no difference in the players' attitudes towards one another. The pre-match handshake used to exist only in European and international games when there was an unfamiliarity between both sets of players and it was regarded as a welcoming gesture. It is unnecessary in domestic football and just adds to the pre-match flannel. Scrap it.

Do United really need Jose Mourinho's antics?

Boo hoo, Jose Mourinho wants to leave Real Madrid. We have been here before many times with him – especially at Chelsea – and the expectation is always that his club come running after him to mollify and reassure before Mourinho generously decides to grace them with his presence just a little longer.

This bloke is seriously high-maintenance. Yes, he has been successful in the past and no one would doubt his talent.

But at Manchester United it is just more reason to ask whether he really is the man whom they could trust with their club when Sir Alex Ferguson calls it a day.

On his day Mourinho is damn good. But the great managerial appointments are not measured in days, they are measured in years, decades even. Mourinho does not do that kind of timescale.

Belfast Telegraph


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