x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

How the FA Cup lost its magic

The 129th conclusion of the world's oldest football competition will, sadly, be just another game in the eyes of TV viewers.

Blackpool's Stanley Matthews, left, known as the
Blackpool's Stanley Matthews, left, known as the "Wizard of Dribble", takes on the Bolton defence in the 1953 FA Cup final. The winger helped his side battle back from 3-1 down to win 4-3 in what would later be known as the "Matthews Final".

Football-mad schoolboys from my generation used to look forward for weeks to an annual end-of-season highlight on the sporting calendar - the ritual of spending a whole day in front of a black-and-white television screen witnessing the winning and losing of the coveted FA Cup. It was a rare treat in those days to be able to watch club football "live" on the silver screen and the 22 lucky players who survived all the way along the road to Wembley Stadium assumed the life of soap opera stars for 24 hours.

The cameras followed their every movement from breakfast in the team hotels until the triumphant captain finally disappeared from view clutching the famous trophy as his team bus crawled down Wembley Way. Today, the 129th conclusion of the world's oldest football competition will, sadly, be just another game in the eyes of TV viewers who have become spoiled for choice in recent seasons with wall-to-wall football available almost on a daily basis through the flick of a remote control button.

Two particular occurrences can be blamed for expediting the demise of the FA Cup from its exalted position as a worldwide highlight beamed to more than 100 countries to the comparatively humble status it finds itself at this afternoon when Chelsea, newly crowned Premier League champions and defenders of the FA Cup, and relegated Portsmouth walk out to do battle at the rebuilt Wembley in north London.

The first of those defining moments came on October 2, 1983. That was when Nottingham Forest entertained Tottenham Hotspur in an historic first Football League match to be televised live on ITV.It was not quite an opening of the floodgates towards the saturation point we have reached today but it began the steady flow towards armchair football which has been turned into a torrent by the desire of the subscription channels to secure as many screening rights as they can.

The second key date? That was June 30, 1999 when Manchester United, barely a month after completing a fantastic treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League, declared their intention not to defend what they regarded to be the least important of those three trophies. If that was not a mortal blow to a competition launched in 1871/72, when Wanderers became inaugural Cup holders at the expense of Royal Engineers, then it was a serious setback and one that has never properly been overcome.

United effectively devalued the Cup that day to a second-rate tournament, the Old Trafford hierarchy hiding behind the excuse of having to commit as European Champions to the Fifa Club World Cup in order to avoid damaging England's campaign to host the 2006 World Cup finals. It proved a futile gesture because those World Cup rights went to Germany. And England, a decade later, are still sweating on whether they will have the honour of opening their doors to the football world again in 2018. David Beckham presented their official bid to Fifa in Zurich yesterday.

What was to stop Sir Alex Ferguson, United's manager, following the frequent examples of his Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger in fielding a shadow squad in that FA Cup campaign of 2000, rather than tarnish the illustrious history of this most glamorous of knockout competitions? And that is some history. With the greatest of respect to those 19th century pathfinders from the likes of Wanderers, Royal Engineers and Old Etonians, though, the magic of the Cup can be traced to the iconic first final at the original Wembley in 1923.

It will forever be known as the White Horse final because of the role a mounted policeman played in bringing to order the masses of supporters who turned up to watch Bolton Wanderers overcome West Ham United 2-0. Officially a record crowd of 126,047 were in attendance that afternoon. Estimates range between 150,000 and 300,000 on the actual number of spectators present. The word "double" was added to my sporting vocabulary in 1961 when Tottenham became the first 20th century outfit to add the Cup to the League Championship by overcoming Leicester City 2-0. It was the first final I watched and naively thought that Spurs were entitled as holders to go back to Wembley the following year when they returned to retain the trophy by beating Burnley.

Growing up within easy travelling distance of the two Merseyside stadia, the first final to create a vested interest was Liverpool's extra time triumph over Leeds United in 1965. Everton, my favourite team, succeeded their neighbours the following year by recovering in thrilling fashion from a two-goal deficit against Sheffield Wednesday to prevail through Derek Temple's opportunist late strike. Curiously, it is easier to recall events in those early years than in more modern times, although a notable exception to that maxim was last year when Everton returned to the capital, this time to the new space age Wembley, to score the fastest goal in Cup Final history through Louis Saha.

Ahead from the 25th second to the 21st minute, David Moyes's gallant troops were eventually denied an upset victory over Chelsea through one of a long list of important winning goals by Frank Lampard, who has to be a strong contender to repeat that match-winning feat this afternoon. Another recent encounter which remains crystal clear in the memory banks was the last of the six finals staged at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium in the period between the knocking down of the beloved old Wembley and the building of the less romantic new one.

That was four years ago when unfancied West Ham were on the brink of a famous 3-2 victory only for Steven Gerrard, Liverpool's Captain Marvel, to produce the most stunning of last-minute equalisers, leading to a penalty shoot-out verdict in favour of Rafael Benitez's men. Of the 13 finals I saw "in the flesh" the most poignant was the 1989 meeting between Liverpool and Everton which took place five weeks after the tragic events at Hillsborough when 96 Liverpool supporters were crushed to death in the semi-final against Nottingham Forest.

For once, the Anfield anthem of "You'll Never Walk Alone" crossed the red-blue divide and the rendition by its original recording artist Gerry Marsden still brings a tingle to the spine. It was crucial for the salvation of a devastated city and a grieving nation that the match lived up to expectations. It certainly did as Stuart McCall snatched a last minute Everton equaliser only for Liverpool's master marksman Ian Rush to secure what many believed was a fitting result with the extra-time winner.

The most exciting of those baker's dozen Wembley visits involved Manchester United in 1983 and again in 1990. Both times they were expected to win comfortably; both times they came perilously close to defeat. The phrase "And Smith must score..." became part of FA Cup folklore and the title of a Brighton and Hove Albion fanzine after Gordon Smith somehow failed to accept a glittering extra-time opportunity to secure a 3-2 victory for the underdogs.

Peter Jones, one of football's finest radio commentators, coined the immortal line which was followed, less memorably when Gary Bailey made an instinctive save from the Brighton striker's tame shot by "But Smith doesn't score!" United, who went on to stroll home in the ensuing replay did the same seven years later when they were reprieved by a late leveller by Mark Hughes against a dominant Crystal Palace team before going on to win the replay with a rare goal from full-back Lee Martin.

There have been six replays in my lifetime, the best of them being the one Ricky Villa won for Spurs at the expense of Manchester City in 1981, the Argentina World Cup winner of 1978 going on a remarkable jinking run through the City defence to shoot triumphantly past a helpless Joe Corrigan. The most thrilling final I did not see must surely be the 1953 epic between Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers. It bears the label of the "Matthews Final" because of the role the legendary winger Stanley Matthews, the "wizard of dribble", played in helping Blackpool fight back from 3-1 down to win 4-3.

Matthews, who had been denied his lifetime dream in two previous finals, deserved the accolade but another Stanley (Bolton's Mortensen) must have gone to his grave 19 years ago wondering why the match was not named after him - the only player to have scored a Cup Final hat-trick. Nat Lofthouse, one of three Bolton survivors from that Matthews Final, took his consolation in controversial and unpopular fashion five years later.

The sympathy of an English nation lay with Manchester United that day after their much-vaunted "Busby Babes" were cut down in their prime by the Munich air disaster on the way home from a European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade. Lofthouse, England's marauding centre-forward, was considered to have added insult to injury, by brutally barging into opposing goalkeeper Harry Gregg to score the clinching second goal - a misdemeanour which could have brought the ignominy of the first Cup final dismissal, a stigma claimed 17 years later by United's Kevin Moran.

Gregg emerged with only his pride hurt that day. The same could not be said of his goalkeeping counterpart at neighbouring Manchester City two years previously. Bert Trautmann, a German prisoner of war who had been held in a Lancashire camp, became a genuine English hero by playing for the last 17 minutes of the match with a broken neck to help his team to a 3-1 victory over Birmingham City. The FA Cup has provided me and thousands like me with countless happy memories over nearly half a century. Whether it can continue to captivate those who are embarking on a football-watching life in the face of so many readily available counter-attractions is, sad to say, doubtful.

wjohnson@thenational.ae