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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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.