I’d love to be writing that I cannot wait until 3pm on Saturday. But I can’t write that and therein lies this tale.
Sunderland’s was my first Cup Final goal that I remember. The year, 1979, watching in my Grandparent’s front room. I was mesmerised at the colour, the vividness and the drama. I don’t know if I saw the whole game but there was no forgetting the end as Sunderland (Alan) after scoring the deciding goal for Arsenal in a thriller, ran like a weary man possessed, arms aloft.
My viewing of the 1980 final was therefore more meticulously planned in anticipation of this feast. This time my childhood house. My Dad in the garden outside, occasionally asking me the score. I think I watched most of the game alone, glued to the sofa. A dull affair only made memorable by Sir Trevor Brooking’s headed winning goal as second division West Ham overcame the odds to beat the much fancied Arsenal.
Then in 1981 we sat down to enjoy some Argentine wizardry and the artisan Glen Hoddle, always with his shirt outside of his shorts, even before kick-off.
Hot spring May Saturdays continued thus (is it just me, or was Cup Final Day in the eighties always hot?) for ten or more years. It became a tradition. An all-day television spectacular. Anyone under the age of 20 won’t remember this, but the Cup Final was, back then, the only club game broadcast live on the TV. This was an annual sporting treat to be cherished.
It wasn’t just the match we cherished. The pre-match build-up wasn’t just about retired footballers wearing tight fitted suits and issuing over the moon son platitudes. This was a kaleidoscope of random television across two of the country’s three or four channels. Saint and Greavsie, Smith and Jones, It’s a Knockout and I’m sure I even remember the occasional Question of Sport special. It seemed that build up started just after breakfast and a magical day was all set up.
My favourite part as a young boy was watching the team’s coach ride to Wembley. Let’s just pause here a second. The finalists used to allow a live television camera on the team bus on the way to Wembley. There would even be interviews with the players on said bus. There they were, your heroes, on a coach, off to play the biggest game of their season. And here they were taking part in a mini TV reality show on the way. Unbelievable.
The teams would arrive at Wembley (I guess this still happens). The twin towers. The on-pitch walk about and more pre-match interviews. Flipping back and forth between BBC and ITV. Wondering why the pitch on ITV always appeared in a brighter shade of green than on the Beeb. A marching band, Abide With Me, the National Anthem and off we went. The only tradition we could expect once the match started was cramp affecting the players, which year after year it seemed to do, the Wembley pitch sucked the energy out of them like no other.
As for the matches. Well, maybe this is rose tinted spectacle time, but it always seemed like an upset was possible and that an exciting game was guaranteed. Who can forget the Crazy Gang beating the Culture Club (Google it if you don’t know what I mean)? Brian “Killer” Kilcline lifting the Cup for Cov. And on a personal note, And Smith Must Score. Except he didn’t. But moreover it wasn’t just the fans who cared. The players cared, the managers cared, the owners cared, the club cared. And we all Knew. We Knew that this was The Cup. The grandstand finale to the season. It was a microcosm of what English (and Welsh) football stood for. We were proud of this annual event of football pageantry.
If it was a draw, they played again. Repeat – they played again. As a neutral, I used to hope for a draw in the final. Because then we could do it all again on the Thursday, but this time on a school night and under the Wembley floodlights. Just pause here. Between them the FA, Wembley and the Met Police managed to stage one of the country’s biggest sporting events on four days notice. Not any more – never again will we have a floodlit replay “Villa, Villa and its still Villa” replay moment – I’m not a Spurs fan but the memory of that goal and commentary still make the hairs stand on end.
There was nothing more wonderful for a young (and not so young) boy as Cup Final Day.
But then, perhaps like the great game itself, it began to change and not necessarily for the better. For me, it was in 1991, perhaps as Gazza lunged into the tackle that ended his Cup Final and ultimately his career, maybe that can be identified ad the turning point. Less pre-match build up. Single terrestrial channel coverage. No TV cameras on the coach. No BBC. No replays. Small teams switching their home leg to away grounds to maximise revenue on grounds of safety. Penalties to decide matches. Penalties to decide the bloody final. Man United choosing not to take part. Semi-finals at Wembley. Teams playing their weaker sides to save themselves for the league. No BBC (sorry, said that). Sponsorship. Predictable finalists. Cagey finals. The Premiership. The Fourth Place League (some call this the Champions League). Slowly slowly our great Cup became a second rate competition, when it once used to be the greatest club competition in the world. And no BBC.
A barrel load of tradition has incrementally been washed away under our noses.
And this year, we have to suffer yet more ignominy. Kick-off is on Saturday tea-time. TEA TIME! Simply so that this once great family friend of an event does not clash with Premier League games taking place earlier in the day.
I will still watch, I always do, it is obligatory really. But something tells me that Abide with Me at 5pm on a grey Saturday afternoon won’t sound quite as mesmerising as it would have done at ten to three. We used to talk about the romance of the Cup. The romance has faded over the years. Moving kick-off time is one more dent in the relationship the governing bodies should have with this competition. I’m not sure it can endure too many more.
Please, can someone make this competition great again before we regret losing this loveable old friend. Next year, 3pm please, let’s rebuild from there – and how about throwing in a Champions League place for the winner to kick-start this resuscitation exercise. Enjoy the game.