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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”