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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.

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

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.