So, tomorrow will see Liverpool and Chelsea facing off against each other in the 131st FA Cup Final – the premier showpiece occasion at the end of the English football season. Or rather, not. You see, The FA Cup Final ain’t what it used to be. Let me take you back....
The time was when the FA Cup Final was the only club match that you could be guaranteed of seeing live on TV. You might also get to see the finals of the European Cup or UEFA Cup if a British team were involved, but that was about it. Even England international games weren’t shown live as a matter of course, as was gloriously illustrated in the famous episode of “Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads”, where they spent the whole day trying to avoid an England result before they watch the highlights in the evening. So the fact that a game was being shown live was an occasion of itself.
Cup Final day was one of the most exciting days of the year in a young boy’s life. It was just about the only Saturday of the year when you would willingly get out of bed early. The TV would go on at about 9:00 a.m., and there you would sit for the next 9 hours. First off would be such treats as “Cup Final It’s A Knockout”, “Cup Final A Question of Sport”, “Cup Final Mastermind” or ...well, you get the idea. There would be regular reports from the two hotels where the teams were staying, and about late morning Frank Bough or Dickie Davies (depending on whether you were watching BBC or ITV) would interview a couple of the players and the managers. This was mind-blowing stuff back then. Further interviews at Wembley with the likes of Tarby or Brucie or some other 70’s comedian would follow.
Early afternoon and we would have the joy of watching live as the two team coaches left their respective hotels on their way to Wembley. More discussion with the likes of Saint & Greavsie, Bob Wilson, Jack Charlton, etc would precede the arrival of the teams at the stadium amidst much talk of “going down Wembley Way” or “remember the White Horse Final” or “the Matthews Final”. Then Tony Gubba or Tony Francis would buttonhole the players as they took a look at the Cup Final playing surface. Excitement on the sofa was pretty much at fever pitch by this point. The living room would be steadily increasing its population as kick-off time now approached. And then the moment would arrive – the Cup Final itself. What a way to end the season, and to bid farewell to all things football for another three months. Those matches are seared onto my mind, as they are to every football fan who lived through that time. True spectacle, and a real feel of occasion permeated the whole day. The FA Cup truly was the greatest cup competition in the world, and the final was the biggest day in the football calendar.
But now? Well, now the Cup Final isn’t even the last match of the season. The Premier League carries on for another week afterwards and there are even league matches being played on the same day as the final. The match has now been elbowed to a tea-time kick-off with the TV coverage starting a mere two hours before kick-off. The teams competing during the season have often fielded weakened teams for their FA cup matches as the priority now is very much the Premiership or the Champions League. There is even a possibility that Chelsea won’t be putting out their very strongest team tomorrow as they rest players ahead of their Champions League Final appearance in a couple of weeks time.
The Final is now just one of dozens (if not hundreds) of matches shown live each season and fans are wearily familiar with every team and every player. The competition no longer holds the place in the football season that it used to – both literally and figuratively. The world has moved on I guess, but progress doesn’t always mean improvement.