I’m at the end of this series now, right up to the modern day, Cup Final Day 2016. At the time I’m starting this piece, we don’t yet know the Finalists: indeed, as I write, it was only yesterday that Manchester United even confirmed the semi-final line-up, beating West Ham United in a replay that took place exactly one calendar month after their original draw. This is the longest delay, excluding weather-related postponements, between tie and replay in the Cup’s long and no longer august history, and it is yet another symbol of its unimportance in this degenerate age.
United’s victory means that they are the only one of the ‘Big Four’ or ‘Five’, however it is to be defined, in the semi-finals. They face Everton, twice opponents in the Final. If United win, they have a shot at their first Cup Final win at the New Wembley, and at regaining a share in the FA Cup record, equalling Arsenal’s newly-set record of twelve wins.
The other semi-final will produce a record of some sort: whichever of Watford and Crystal Palace reaches Wembley, then they will produce either the forty-fourth Cup-Winner, or else the fourth team to have appeared in two or more Finals without winning the trophy.
Having opened the doors to sponsorship with the power company, E.ON, the Cup allied itself in 2012 with Budweiser. A beer company. An American beer company. Their name still came after ‘the FA Cup’, making it easier for purists like myself to shut our eyes and ears to it.
There was another record number of entrants, 763, and Manchester United exercised revenge for their semi-final defeat last year, by defeating holders Manchester City 3-2 on their own ground in the Third Round, though they were knocked out in the Fourth by eventual Finalists Liverpool.
As we’ve seen, the Cup has suffered tragedies off the pitch, at Bolton and Hillsborough, but in the Sixth Round, this season came perilously close to the most personal of tragedies, when Bolton Wanderers’ Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch at Tottenham Hotspur, having suffered cardiac arrest. Thankfully, the provision of medical support at grounds had only lately been enhanced, following an incident when Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech sustained a fractured skull. Muamba’s life was saved, though he could never play again. The tie, 1-1 at that point, was abandoned. Spurs won the rematch, but were defeated in the semi-final by Chelsea.
It was Chelsea’s fourth Final in six years, and their fourth win, beating Liverpool 2-1 with the aid of a winning goal by Didier Drogba, setting a new record by scoring in his fourth Final, more than any other player (though not equalling Ian Rush’s record of five Cup Final goals). And they went on to claim a Double, winning the European Champions League Final, the first London team to win that trophy, and the last English winners to date.
Sadly, the Cup was yet again degraded. The Final was once more scheduled for a day with a full Premier League programme, with yet more fixtures scheduled for the following week. This time, the decision was taken to provide a four week gap between the end of the domestic season and the 2012 European Championships.
This time, however, the Premier League fixtures were not moved around. They took precedence. It was the Cup Final that had to shift, to an unprecedented and utterly dismaying 5.15pm kick-off.
It was a disgraceful decision, ending 140 years of tradition that previously had only been disturbed by war. It showed blatant disregard for the Liverpool fans, who would be leaving Wembley and North London no earlier than 7.15pm, having to make their way home to the north west.
But the fans were of no importance. Television had made that plain from the very beginning of the Premier League: Sky selected Southampton vs Manchester United for their first Monday Night Match, leaving the visitors to start heading home at 10.00pm from the South Coast. The FA had sold out yet again. There would be no need the following year for the Cup Final to be played alongside a League programme. Indeed, it would be restored to the ‘showpiece’ position, but television, having noted the audience figures for 2012, insisted on the early evening kick-off. It suited them better, it made them more money. It stank on ice, but who gave a shit?
The following year there was a more orthodox controversy in the Second Round when Bradford City, after drawing at home to Brentford, were disqualified for playing an ineligible player, Curtis Good, whose registration had not gone through by the deadline hour. Playing an ineligible player is an absolute rule, as Droylsden found to their cost in 2008. Suddenly, it wasn’t: Bradford appealed and were reinstated, their punishment reduced to a financial penalty: one rule for some, eh? Natural justice saw to it that Brentford comfortably won the replay that should not have been permitted.
The same round also saw the draw pair M. K. Dons with AFC Wimbledon, the first meeting of the two clubs with an unwanted relationship. This caused great concern for Wimbledon, with talk of withdrawing from the fixture rather than extend recognition to the team many still called Franchise United. The game did go ahead, covered live on TV due to the rivalry between the clubs, with M.K. Dons, the higher situated team, winning 2-1.
Luton Town, once Finalists, once of the old First Division, got through to the Fifth Round before being eliminated, a more impressive feat for a club who had slipped into the Football Conference.
The semi-finals paired the Cup’s last two winners, with the unfancied Millwall and Wigan Athletic – one of the second tier, the other in grave danger of returning to that level – in the other tie. It was the two north-western clubs who prevailed, making Wigan the latest First-Time Finalists. Their prospects were rated no higher than those of Sunderland in 1973 and Wimbledon in 1988 – a good omen – or Sunderland in 1992 or Millwall in 2004, making history a very mixed blessing.
A long way back in this series, I teased the fact that the 1959 and 1960 Finals were linked by a bizarre kind of coincidence. The first half of this paid off twenty-five years later: Roy Dwight, scorer for Nottingham Forest in 1959, was carried off with a broken leg. His nephew Reg, better known as Elton John, was chairman of Watford when they were beaten as First-Time Finalists in 1984.
Dave Whelan, Blackburn Rovers defender, who suffered the same fate in 1960, had to wait over half a century, but this time it was he in person who came to Wembley as chairman of a First-Time Finalist.
And unlike the Dwights, the tale ended with unexpected but delightful glory. The game had reached injury time scoreless, and Manchester City had been reduced to ten men, Pablo Zabaleta having collected a second yellow card to become the third player to be sent off in a Final. Wigan sent a corner in from the left and their substitute, Ben Watson, who had been out of action for six months with a broken leg, sent a header over City keeper Joe Hart to win Wigan the Cup.
Wigan Athletic became the forty-third, and most recent club to win the FA Cup. Having been founded only in 1932, they also became the ‘youngest’ club ever to win the Cup. Their victory was marred, to some extent, when defeat in their final League match saw them undergo relegation from the Premier League, emulating the fates of Leicester City (1969), Brighton (1983) and Middlesbrough (1997), though unlike their predecessors, Wigan actually won the Cup!
City’s defeat came as a shock, though perhaps not to the same extent of those of Leeds and Liverpool, as the Manchester club were relative newcomers to prominence. It was also the last match in charge for their manager, Roberto Mancini, in succession to Bill Shankley (1974) and Tommy Docherty (1977), though it was an open secret throughout football that irrespective of the Cup result, Mancini was to be replaced.
Improbable as Wigan’s feat was, they came within a penalty shoot-out of back-to-back Finals, this time as a second tier club. Their conquerors were Arsenal, whose victory set-up a near-identical Final to that of the previous year: a well-established, leading club facing off against First-Time Finalists, this time in the shape of Hull City, the fifty-sixth and most recent team to reach the Cup Final. What’s more, Wigan beat Manchester City again, at their own ground, in the Sixth Round.
The Cup did enjoy another first in its earliest stages, with the first appearance of a club from the Isle of Guernsey, prosaically called Guernsey FC, though their landmark appearance only lasted as far as the Second Qualifying Round.
Hull’s opponents in their semi-final were third tier Sheffield United and both semi-finals had their kick-offs held back by seven minutes, in commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster.
The Final, once again, endured an evening kick-off, although this was slightly alleviated by being brought forward to 5.00pm. And for the first time since 2010 it returned to its rightful place as the last match of the domestic season. For an astonishing seventeen minutes, a repeat of Wigan’s bombshell looked to be on, as Hull took a two goal lead eight minutes after kick-off (and very nearly added a third!).
But Arsenal pulled back a goal comfortably early and went on to defeat Hull 3-2, in injury-time. It was their eleventh Cup win, drawing level with Manchester United as record-holders. They were also the first team to be presented with the fifth FA Cup. Once again, identical to the third Cup, this version is heavier yet than the fourth, and meant to be more durable in an era when the Cup itself spends as much time on the road and travelling to different events than it does in the hands of its current holders.
Arsenal also concluded an unusual Cup Double when their Ladies team won the Women’s FA Cup Final, a fortnight after this victory.
As Arsenal had already qualified for the Champions League by virtue of their League position, Hull City took the Europa League slot available to the FA Cup. They are the last team to do so to date: changes to UEFA rulings now bar the Cup runners-up from qualifying for Europe in that role.
Last year saw a host of minor issues. Rights to terrestrial coverage returned to the BBC once more, though this made no difference to the kick-off time of the Final, which went further back yet, to 5.30pm. However, the BBC did revive the old-time tradition of an entire day’s programming based on and around the Final, starting at 9.00am.
To rub further salt in Droylsden’s wounds, a second League club fielded an ineligible player, in the Second Round, but instead of being expelled, were simply ordered to replay the tie. The discrepancy was further emphasised by Chesterfield being the beneficiaries: they beat M.K. Dons 1-0 in both versions of the game.
In the same round, a new record was set for a penalty shoot-out, with thirty-two kicks needed to separate Worcester City and Scunthorpe United, the latter winning 14-13.
Arsenal, having knocked out Manchester United away in the quarter finals struggled to overcome second-tier Reading in the semi-final, needing an extra-time goal deriving from a goalkeeper’s mistake to return to Wembley, where their opponents were Aston Villa, the former record holders, in only their second Final since establishing that record fifty-eight years previously.
Though Villa had performed prodigies to defeat Liverpool in the semi-final, Arsenal’s Final was as easy as the 4-0 scoreline suggests. It was only a surprise that Villa held out until the 40th minute before conceding the first, and once Arsenal scored their third, confirming victory beyond any shadow of a doubt, I switched the game off, missing the injury-time fourth goal, that equalled Manchester United’s twice-held record victory margin in a Wembley Final.
Arsenal’s win did however send them clear of United as record Cup winners, and Cup Finalists, with a twelfth win from a nineteenth Final. Their win was blighted during their victory parade when midfielder Jack Wilshere made an obscene reference to rivals Tottenham Hotspur (not a first offence) bringing down a misconduct charge on his head.
The current season has progressed (at the time of writing this section) to semi-final weekend: in six hours from this moment, Everton play Manchester United in the first such match, at the New Wembley.
There have been no especially memorable stories to date in the competition. FC United of Manchester reached the First Round for only the second time, in only their tenth year of existence, but were comfortably beaten at home by, ironically for my personal history, by Chesterfield. It has not been a season for non-Leaguers: only Enleigh featured in the Third Round.
Nor has it been a competition with any great giant-killing feats, the closest to that being Watford’s Sixth Round defeat of holders Arsenal at their home in the Sixth Round, putting paid to the serious talk at Arsenal of winning a third Cup Final in succession.
But the Sixth Round also threw up another example of the Cup’s decline, with the month-long delay between the drawn Manchester United vs West Ham United tie and its replay. The delay was due to the inability to find a suitable date. In addition to the Police stipulations about providing security, there was the UEFA demand that televised matches should not clash with rounds of European competition.
In the end, the date did clash with the Champions League, the best the FA could do being to order the tie to be played at 7.00pm, heedless of the convenience of the fans, because that way only the second half would overlap.
In addition to the various possibilities I’ve outlined above, there is a double possibility of a repeat Final stemming from this weekend’s results. A Manchester United victory this evening could set up a repeat of the 1990 Final if Crystal Palace overcome Watford, whereas if the results both go the other way, we’re looking at a repeat of the 1984 Final.
And if the first option should come off, then there’s the possibility of a United win not merely pulling them level again with Arsenal as record holders, but also of Crystal Palace duplicating the unique achievement of Queen’s Park, of failing in two Finals – against the same team!
And the outcome was a repeat of 1990, Manchester United vs Crystal Palace. In addition to the possibilities I’ve set out above, this will be the third time United have played a repeat Final, more than any other club, and given the club’s current struggle to regain their domestic fortunes after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, there’s an echo to this year’s Final.
Not only would a United victory see them equal the record number of Cup wins, exactly as it did in 1990, but a United victory over Palace was the first trophy of the Ferguson era, and a repeat performance would be the first trophy of the post-Ferguson era.
A lot rests on this year’s Final – for both teams. Remember too that Palace Manager Alan Pardew is also deeply connected to the first meeting, having played for Crystal Palace in both Final and Replay.
The Final will be played on 21 May 2016, and will be the 135th Final in the Cup’s 145th year.
And with extra-time required, a sending-off and having to come from behind with ten men, Manchester United beat Crystal Palace for the second time to regain a share in the Cup Final record, immediately equalling Arsenal’s new record set last year. Only Blackburn Rover of the previous record holders and sharers have returned from being overtaken.
Palace are now the fourth team to have played in more than a single Final without winning the trophy, fifty-five years since the last team to fall into that category, Leicester City.
And Chris Smalling became the fourth player to be sent off in a Final, and Manchester United became the only team to have experienced two such red cards.
(all Finals played at the New Wembley Stadium)
2011/12 Chelsea 2 Liverpool 1
2012/13 Wigan Athletic 1 Manchester City 0
2013/14 Arsenal 3 Hull City 2 (aet)
2014/15 Arsenal 4 Aston Villa 0
2015/16 Manchester United 2 Crystal Palace 1 (aet)
Only half a decade has passed. Nine clubs have appeared in the five Finals to date, and there have been four different Winners, Arsenal being the only team to reach and win two Finals. In doing so, they set a new record, although Manchester United recovered immediately to regain a share in that record). There have already been two First-Tine Finalists, and one First-Time Winners. Wigan Athletic also became the only team to win the Cup and be relegated in the same season. The last Final to date is a repeat, with Manchester United prevailing again. The Cup’s future lies ahead. In light of the last two decades, it is hard to imagine it ever recovering the pin-sharp brightness of previous decades. A personal hope: after their remarkable first League success, I would love to see Leicester City finally win the Cup, and eradicate its most painful record.