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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.