No entertainment industry in the world does eager anticipation quite like top-level football. Ever since Sky Sports introduced the practise of advertising forthcoming fixtures during live matches, or giving their programme of weekend games alliterative nicknames, football fans have been experts at whipping themselves into a state of untrammelled frenzy.
It’s a big part – perhaps the biggest – of what makes being a football fan so exciting.
So, with that in mind, the build-up, or lack thereof, to this weekend’s FA Cup final has felt eerily empty and depressing.
Wags have suggested the FA would be happy to hide their ‘bad news cup’ beneath the rubble of all those stories created by the tremor of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
That in itself is an incredible indictment of how poorly the organisation – celebrating its 150th anniversary this year – has looked after its prestigious cup competition in recent seasons.
Their relentless tampering – with replays, kick-off times and semi-final locations – has served only to devalue the supposed Greatest Cup Competition in the World.
Which begs the question: if the competition was so great in the first place, why did it need all the modifications?
The answer, of course, is that it didn’t. Mostly they were made to appease sponsors or to accede to the demands of broadcasters, paying vast sums for the rights to show the games, at times which pull in the biggest audiences.
The primacy of the Premier League – and its gateway to the game’s most reliable golden goose, the Champions League –- further contributes to this vacuum of excitement surrounding this weekend’s final.
So what, if anything, can be done to avert the FA Cup’s stagnation?
In the short term, we need a cracker of a final on Saturday to reignite the passion surrounding cup final day. Something akin to the melodrama staged by Liverpool and West Ham in 2006 – when Steven Gerrard produced one of his Roy of the Rovers performances to help Liverpool snatch victory from the jaws of defeat – would fit the bill nicely.
And how about a win for the underdog to boot? It might seem unlikely – Wigan have the worst goals-conceded record in the Premier League and are sleepwalking towards this final, while Man City are starting to look ominously obdurate – but stranger things have happened.
40 years ago, in 1973, Sunderland memorably did for a Leeds team, then the greatest in the land. That was the last comparable giant-killing at Wembley, so it’s no understatement to say we’re due another.
Longer term, the FA needs a more prescriptive solution to this malaise. Efforts must surely be made to convince the Premier League to relinquish a Champions League qualification spot and make it available to the winners of the cup.
No more can it be acceptable that the race for fourth place in the league can overshadow cup final day, as it will again this weekend, with Chelsea and Spurs both in action.
That idea should be somewhere near the top of Greg Dyke’s to-do list when he takes the reigns as FA chairman this summer.
Success on that front would restore competitiveness, and verve, to what’s fast becoming a moribund competition, and could see Dyke win the hearts of football fans in the same way he did BBC staff during his time as director general.
Because in the end, football fans love the thrill of competitive, knock-out football in which the FA Cup has made a long and illustrious history. They crave the drama, the magic and, above all, the anticipation that’s been lost for far too long.
Ed Bearryman is features editor at Match of the Day magazine
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