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11 May 2022

Does the FA Cup need saving?

The competition, founded 150 years ago, has become a reflection of English football’s conflicted soul.

By Jonathan Liew

There have been five separate FA Cup trophies in the 150-year history of the competition. The first, created for the inaugural final in 1872, was stolen by a gang of thieves from a Birmingham shop window in 1895. The second lasted until 1911, and was recently purchased at auction by Sheikh Mansour, the Abu Dhabi-based owner of Manchester City. But it is the third trophy, with its iconic lid and smart silver handles, that remains the classic symbol of the FA Cup.

That third trophy, which lasted until 1992, went on quite a journey. During the Second World War, as German bombs fell on Portsmouth (who had won the Cup in 1939), it was stashed away in a local pub, where it was used as a potty by the landlord’s infant daughter. In 1947 the Charlton Athletic manager, Jimmy Seed, accidentally broke the lid while stepping out of his car and had to get it soldered at a nearby garage. Over the decades, countless triumphant players would pose with it, hold it aloft, hug it close, even drink Champagne out of it – presumably unaware of the potty episode.

In a way, the story of the FA Cup trophy is the story of the FA Cup, which is the story of English football, which to a large extent is the story of England. Once a magnificent piece of imperial hubris, then an expression of inviolable national pride, and now a time-worn emblem of decay which may actually have smelled faintly of piss the whole time. “Any institution that has been around for 150 years will have developed a few cracks in the masonry,” writes Richard Whitehead in The Cup, his illustrated history of the competition. “But in the Cup they are more like deep fissures.”

The days when the FA Cup final was the biggest fixture in the football calendar are long gone. For the big clubs, the Premier League and European football are the main targets. Smaller clubs measure their progress via promotion and relegation. For coaches the Cup is more often an opportunity to rest star players ahead of key league games. For supporters its function is often little more than decorative: a fun day out, nice if you win, but inessential. When Manchester City played Liverpool in the semi-final on 16 April – a Wembley showdown between perhaps the best two teams in the world – City manager Pep Guardiola unapologetically decided to leave out many of his first-choice eleven, while the stadium’s City end was notable for its large pockets of empty seats.

[See also: The sunny national story conjured by the 2012 London Olympics has clouded over]

To men of a certain age, weaned on the myth and legend of the Cup, its history and heroes, its rituals and rhythms, this is an unspeakable tragedy. For what feels like decades the FA Cup has been fighting this irrepressible ambience of romantic corrosion. The Cup, wrote FA chairman Amos Brook Hirst in 1949, is “as much a part of English life as the hedges around our fields and the slates on the roofs of our industrial towns and cities”. As early as the 1880s, the upper-crust administrators who ran the game were bemoaning the influx of professional clubs from the industrial north, who they felt were defiling this noble amateur sport.

Part of the reason the FA Cup has so readily lent itself to notions of decline is the basic paradox at its heart. Its ostensible purpose is to find the best football team in the country via a robust process of elimination. To this end it has employed all manner of rules and processes over the years – staggered entry points so the biggest clubs do not start until the later rounds; replays of drawn matches – which have mostly succeeded: the Cup’s roll of honour is dominated by the biggest names in the English game, from Arsenal to Manchester United, Chelsea to Tottenham, Liverpool to Aston Villa. Between them, these half-dozen clubs have won more than a third of the finals ever played.

Yet the contest’s official mission puts it at odds with the basis of its broad popular appeal: delivering shocks and upsets, toppled giants and heart-warming underdog tales. Ask the average fan who won the trophy in 1989 or 2014 and you will probably draw a blank. Ask them about 1988 or 2013, on the other hand, and you will instantly evoke memories of Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang and Ben Watson’s famous winning goal for Wigan Athletic over Manchester City. To this day Hereford United are synonymous with their 1972 win over Newcastle United, Wrexham with their famous 2-1 defeat of Arsenal in 1992. Put simply, the reason the FA Cup exists is the very opposite of the reason people like and remember it.

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Resolving the balance between these two insoluble ideals – the search for excellence and the lust for romance – has been the defining theme of the Cup’s history, ever since the FA secretary Charles Alcock established a new football competition based loosely on the house tournaments he remembered from his Harrow schooldays. Within a decade that amateur heritage – represented by early winners such as Oxford University and Old Etonians – had been usurped by professional teams such as Blackburn Rovers and Preston North End, introducing vulgar new concepts like training, tactics and paying footballers a fair wage.

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Miguel Delaney’s official history, also published to mark the 150th anniversary, skilfully tracks the evolution of the FA Cup from its very earliest days as a plaything for ex-public-schoolboys to the dream factory it would become. For Delaney, the waspish and knowledgeable football correspondent of the Independent, an essential part of the Cup’s appeal is its openness. In the 20th century there were no fewer than 34 different winners. Not since Blackburn in the 1880s has any club managed to win it more than twice in a row. This is “what the FA Cup represents more than any other sporting event”, he argues. “It has crowned teams, it has saved teams and it has humiliated them.”

To most fans, the classic Cup tales – the White Horse final of 1923, the Matthews final of 1953, Bert Trautmann and his broken neck in 1956 – are familiar enough. The beauty of Whitehead’s account is in the little details. The unemployed Tyneside labourer from the 1950s who would travel on foot to every one of Newcastle United’s Cup games. A potted history of the Cup-final single, a tradition inaugurated by Arsenal in 1971. Margaret Thatcher’s ill-starred visit to the 1978 final, after which the future prime minister was asked on BBC radio which player had most impressed her. “The Ipswich number ten, Trevor Whymark,” she replied immediately. Alas, while Whymark’s name was printed in the match programme, the man himself had suffered a late injury and didn’t even make it on to the pitch.

There are darker episodes, too: the crowd disasters at Bolton in 1946 and Hillsborough in 1989, career-defining injuries suffered by Blackburn’s Dave Whelan in 1960 and Tottenham’s Paul Gascoigne in 1991. Albert Johanneson of Leeds United, the first ever black player to appear in the final in 1965, never managed to escape the shadow of a poor performance in the biggest game of his life. Bobby Stokes, the scorer of Southampton’s winning goal in the 1976 final, never managed to escape the shadow of his greatest ever moment. Both men would eventually endure a sad descent into alcoholism, destitution and tragically early death.

Yet over the course of the 20th century the Cup never really lost its status as a shared national festivity, a liturgic May ritual, in non-World Cup years often the only live football on television. So what happened? Whitehead traces the regression to the late 1990s, the point at which the wealth flowing into the English game began to change it forever. The encroachment of satellite broadcasters and the inception of the Premier League enormously increased the amount of live football on television. The growing inequality between the biggest clubs and the rest has bred predictability: in the last 25 years there have been just eight different winners.

In essence, late capitalism ruined the FA Cup. The sport began to reorient its priorities towards the reliable revenue streams of weekly league football. An increasingly global audience wanted to see the biggest teams playing each other all the time, and were prepared to pay top whack for it. Delaney takes a more upbeat view, pointing to the recent triumphs of unfancied teams like Portsmouth in 2008, Wigan in 2013 and Leicester in 2021 as evidence of the enduring vitality of the competition – although it’s worth pointing out that for all the attempts to frame Leicester’s victory as a remarkable underdog triumph, they were the fifth best team in the country at the time.

[See also: Euro 2020 has provided a feast of football, but also a canvas for the continent’s political tensions]

But the wider point holds. The prevailing narrative of the FA Cup as an anachronism trapped in a death spiral has been accepted for so long that few pause to wonder whether it is actually true. Still wedded to free-to-air television, it continues to command huge audiences: 9.1 million for last year’s Leicester v Chelsea final on BBC One. Its financial model, which offers huge windfalls to smaller clubs and a generous share of tickets to travelling fans, is one of the few genuinely redistributive mechanisms in the sport. Of course it’s not what it used to be. But then, what is?

On some level, you wonder if for a certain generation the illusion that the FA Cup needs saving feeds into a more general nostalgia: the belief in a receding golden age, the idea that things were better and richer and more colourful in the past. But on Saturday 14 May, Chelsea and Liverpool will step out on to the Wembley turf to play this year’s final. For the first time since the pandemic, a full house will be in attendance. The old songs will ring out. The FA Cup trophy – the fifth iteration, but as recognisable as ever – will sit gleaming on its pedestal. And for two hours, once again, and just as it always was, the Cup Final will feel like the centre of the universe.

The Official History of the FA Cup
Miguel Delaney
Welbeck, 256pp, £25

The Cup
Richard Whitehead
Pitch Publishing, 256pp, £25

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This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer