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What the FA Cup needs is men in towelling dressing gowns

Ah, the FA Cup. The romance, the magic and Rory Delap's absorbent vest.

This year's final was a tale of two Cities: Stoke City, twice plucky semi-finalists in the early 1970s but never further, and Manchester City, at Wembley 30 years to the day since "Tricky" Ricky Villa's replay slalom did for them.

That night in 1981, playing against Spurs, they were doubly wronged - beaten in a tie that they led more than once and by a goal that wasn't a patch on an edge-of-the-area fizzer from Steve MacKenzie. Who talks about MacKenzie's goal now? Not as many as those who still bang on about that magical South American. Historians may disagree, but Man City fans know that the war with Argentina 11 months later was sealed that night.

This year's 1-0 victory erased three decades and more of pain for Man City, who were easily a match for Stoke's not-so-secret weapon: Delap and his heat-seeking throw-ins. Stoke's stadium provides ball-drying towels (pictured above), but at Wembley he had to rely on his red pouch vest. As I said, magic.

The real star turn was Man City's Mario Balotelli, the troublesome Italian, whom you fancy was only put in the starting line-up to spare him another embarrassing encounter with a training bib (if you haven't yet seen it, go to YouTube).

Decline and fall

Yet watching the FA Cup final has become an act of duty for all but the fans of the two teams involved. It's tempting to channel Mrs Merton and ask: what has tarnished the reputation of the FA Cup sponsored by E.On? But corporatisation is not chief among its problems. At least, not directly.

The obsessions with qualifying for the Champions League and staying in the Premier League, as well as the saturation TV coverage of all the other competitions, are more responsible for devaluing the World's Premier Domestic Cup Competition™.

The never knowingly underscripted Clive Tyldesley did his best to keep spirits up on ITV by putting his commentary into hyperdrive. But he gave the game away the moment he declared, in his serious voice, that we had just heard "expert insight inside the Stoke camp from Danny Higginbotham", when, in reality, we'd heard an injured defender describe what we could see with our own eyes.

This year, in addition, there was some pretty appalling scheduling: not only did the final have to share the weekend with Championship play-offs, a Scottish title decider and a near-full round of Premier League games, but it was preceded by the game that clinched the English title for Manchester United. "Disgrace", declared 5 Live's Alan Green; "The final insult", thundered the Daily Mail - and it was difficult, on this occasion, to disagree with either.

But the Cup's decline runs deeper. Luckily, a solution is on hand, in five easy steps.

Impose a TV ban No other game must be shown 48 hours either side of the final.

No Wembley semi-finals Not a soul disagrees with this, so we need not detain ourselves any further, except to suggest:

No Wembley finals The FA can only have its semis in north-west London if the final goes on tour around the country. That's how it works in Spain
and Real Madrid's hordes had a jolly old time in Valencia last month. Remember that when Wembley was being rebuilt, England played to boisterous crowds at Elland Road, St James' Park and elsewhere.

Get Edmonds As in Noel. There was a time when the big day began with Multi-Coloured Swap Shop's Cup final special - and, as a warm-up act, it was hard to beat. Before the 1975 final, I recall, the Fulham goalkeeper Peter Mellor went head-to-head with a West Ham counterpart in a game of table football. That Mellor subsequently spilled the ball twice, leading to the two goals that decided the game, was but a professional tragedy for him - TV-based entertainment is king.

Bring on the dressing gowns The winners of the Dutch equivalent to the FA Cup, the KNVB Beker, get to wear towelling dressing gowns before they receive the trophy. It sounds like fun, so let's import it. Just don't tell Delap. He'll insist on wearing one during the match.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0