x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

There should only be one way to reach Wembley

The semi-finals of the FA Cup should not take place at the national stadium, says our columnist, and he preferred playing on neutral grounds.

Wembley is a long way for fans of Liverpool and Everton for a semi-final, as they will do tomorrow. In 1986, above, they contested the final, with Liverpool winning 3-1. The winners of tomorrow’s match will be back at Wembley in May to play the winner of Chelsea v Tottenham.
Wembley is a long way for fans of Liverpool and Everton for a semi-final, as they will do tomorrow. In 1986, above, they contested the final, with Liverpool winning 3-1. The winners of tomorrow’s match will be back at Wembley in May to play the winner of Chelsea v Tottenham.

There's no medal or shiny cup like if you win the final, but I enjoyed FA Cup semi-finals more than the finals themselves. Especially the ones at Villa Park.

Footballers and fans love Villa Park and at no time was it better than for a semi-final, with 20,000 fans from each clubs packed close to the pitch and making a racket. Since 2008, all semi-finals have been held at Wembley. It's not something I agree with.

Despite being bigger, Wembley has less atmosphere. Maybe the stands at the old Wembley were too far from the pitch, maybe the new stadium is too big. Villa Park felt intimate, despite the excellent pitch being big enough for an open game.

Playing the semis at Wembley dilutes the magic and prestige of the final there.

It is also not fair on the fans. The historic old stadium in Birmingham is far more convenient for travelling fans of the big northern teams who often reach the semi-finals.

Liverpool and Everton fans will face the time and expense of travelling 200 miles south this weekend to play at Wembley. That game could be played at Old Trafford, just 30 miles away. Old Trafford doesn't have Wembley's 90,000 capacity, but 76,000 is more than sufficient.

Reaching Wembley's Twin Towers used to be the incentive for a player, the prize for winning the semi.

Its not the same now, but the players of my generation grew up dreaming of playing in an FA Cup final more than any European or World Cup final. But now the game is all about money and the expense of the new Wembley needs to be recouped by staging more matches.

Wembley might be the best option to stage the other semi-final between Chelsea and Tottenham but I'm still not convinced.

One reason Wembley was cherished was because it was so hard to reach. Another was money. For me, reaching Wembley was all about the glory and the silverware. For the generations of players before me, there was the financial incentive. They weren't particularly well paid and reaching the cup final meant a financial bonanza from a players' pool swelled by cup final songs and cuts in profits from merchandise sales and win bonuses.

That has all changed too, but whatever happens in the semi-finals this weekend, the result will be known on the day because replays in semi-finals and finals have been scrapped.

I would have thought that the same authorities who wanted to maximise profits by staging more games at Wembley would have secretly been hoping for as many replays there as possible, but then there's not enough space in the football calendar. Chelsea play Barcelona in each of the next two weeks.

Semi-finals are now decided by extra-time and penalties if need be, which is the worst way to lose a game. There is no better feeling that winning one, though. I played in two, both for Manchester United at Villa Park.

In 1996, we beat Chelsea 2-1 and, along with David Beckham, I scored against a very good side starring Ruud Gullit.

The young United side had played at Villa Park early in that season, when our 3-1 defeat to Villa led the former player-turned-television analyst Alan Hansen to state: "You don't win anything with kids."

Alan had stuck the knife into me, too; he didn't have a good word to say about me at one point after I'd moved to Old Trafford.

So it gave me great delight eight months later when we beat Chelsea and were on the way to winning the double "with kids". It was doubly sweet for us and helped make up for the fact that I'd been cup-tied the previous year and missed United's run to the 1995 final.

In 1999, United met Arsenal in the last four, two games which were arguably the greatest semi-final matches. They were decided in extra time of a replay when Ryan Giggs picked up a poor ball from Patrick Vieira in his own half, then ran past half the Arsenal team before firing past David Seaman.

He took his shirt off to celebrate a goal which regularly gets voted the FA Cup's greatest.

I miss those replays, the sight of great teams going toe-to-toe and wiping themselves out in the hope of reaching the final, the sight of Giggsy and his hairy chest running into fans who had invaded the pitch.

The semis were easily better than the forgettable finals which followed. Better on the field and better off it.

sports@thenational.ae

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten


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