Does the FA Cup still matter?

Where once the TV schedule was built around the unfolding spectacle, now the game is scheduled to fit in with TV. The fans are corralled and the players know that staying in the moneyed land of the Premiership is a greater prize than lifting the cup.

Wembley’s iconic twin towers stuck in the mind. The arch that tops off the corporate glass and steel of the characterless modern stadium goes over most people’s heads. The FA Cup Final was once the showpiece weekend of the English football season, but in recent years it has become a focus for the sense of unease many have with football, or more precisely the football business.

Where once the TV schedule was built around the unfolding of the spectacle off and on the pitch, now the game is scheduled to fit in with TV, and the climax of the season comes the following weekend with the final games of the Premiership. The fans, whose contribution to the pageant and spectacle of the day was once celebrated, are now merely tolerated and corralled. And the players know that finishing fourth, or even merely staying in, the moneyed land of the Premiership is a greater prize than lifting the cup.

It’s almost too easy to set the current Cup Final day up as a symbol of a game that has lost its way, then posit it against a golden age when sporting pleasures were simpler. Golden ages rarely shone as nostalgia suggests. The FA Cup Final has long been a catalyst for discontent – in 1962, for example, fans of Tottenham Hotspur staged a protest in Trafalger Square about the allocation of tickets to supporters of the clubs that made the final. This year, some of the loudest grumbles are that the kick-off time, 5.15pm, makes travel for many fans of the two North West clubs in the final, Wigan and Manchester City, extremely difficult at best.

What has happened to the Cup Final tells us much about what is happening to football, and why there is such latent discontent with a game that has never – as it likes to remind us – been more popular. The FA has willfully neglected what the marketing people would term a leading brand. It has sold the cup to sponsors, allowed its leading side to drop out in an ill-fated attempt to bolster a bid for the World Cup, moved it from the final Saturday of the season and allowed league games to be played on the same day. The trip to Wembley is no longer quite such a rare prize for players or fans, as both semi-finals are played at the stadium too – it all helps to repay the £750m the FA spent building it. Inside the stadium, there are no colours allowed in the corporate sections, and an overbearing PA system drowns the crowd’s efforts to create an atmosphere in the build-up to kick-off. The terrace songs and banners once merited a dedicated section of the pre-match build-up on TV – now, like a bad DJ at a wedding, the announcer at the new Wembley urges the customers to join in with Hi Ho Silver Lining.

The American political philosopher Michael Sandel ventured the opinion recently that “The pleasure of sports has been diminished by its commerciality.” That is certainly the experience of many people, but is it commerciality that is ruining football, or just the type of commerciality? Many fans now say they “love the team, hate the club” as a way of distinguishing between the traditional sporting institution and the modern business. But football clubs were always run as businesses. The turning point came when the FA itself, supposedly the guardian of the game, allowed clubs to circumvent its own rules.

Rule 34 was introduced in the 1890s, as David Conn says in his book Richer Than God, “to preserve the club ethos, to prevent sharp-eyed businessmen treating them like any other normal business opportunity”. It restricted the payment of dividends and payments to directors, and specified that assets and surpluses must be used for sporting purposes. In 1983, when Tottenham Hotspur floated on the Stock Exchange, the club formed a holding company and made the sporting side a subsidiary. At a stroke the restrictions introduced to preserve the sporting nature of the institution were removed. Other clubs followed suit, and the FA abdicated the responsibility it had itself created to preserve clubs as sporting institutions rather than as vehicles for owners to make profits.

We’re told today that “football is a business like any other”. But why, then, did football clubs set up subsidiary businesses that owned the sporting side, rather than simply a new business? The peculiar and deep-seated loyalties of the football tribes had to be preserved if money was to be made. In any other business, customers follow the best offer. In football, even if your brand is offering an inferior product, changing it goes against the grain. So the subsidiary route enabled clubs to benefit from all that went with the sporting institution, while allowing it to pick and chose the responsibilities that also went with it.

This is not the first instance of popular culture being repackaged and sold back to the people who created it. But the extent of the process combines with the vast sums of money and the special place football occupies in the national psyche to create a deep feeling of discontent, a game not at ease with itself. Fans in Britain have begun to organise and articulate their discontent under the slogan Stand Against Modern Football, drawing inspiration and support from European fan groups in a reversal of the pattern which saw fans on the mainland tap into British terrace culture for many years. I’m conscious that media commentators are suckers for discovering new movements, so I should say this isn’t a movement, rather a series of criticisms of what football has become, and an attitude of mind that rejects the notion that fans need permission to organise and to show our support.

Alongside the often pithily expressed criticisms emanating from under the Stand Against Modern Football umbrella runs a more mainstream supporter activism that is achieving success at a number of clubs by replacing failed business models with plans based on mutuality. Taken together, these developments may yet put our increasingly unloved national game back into our affections by ensuring that football clubs once again become primarily sporting institutions.

Wigan Athletic training ahead of the FA Cup Final. Photograph: Getty Images.

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war