Sam Lawton: It's a disgrace the FA does not cherish Cup final day

 

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The Independent Online

The timing of the FA Cup final has not always been written in stone. In 1873 the game was delayed so the players could watch the Varsity boat race as many of the former public school boys involved had an interest in both. Thankfully, these days the public interest in two boatloads of toffs doing Oxbridge degrees in colouring-in has waned. It is the FA Cup final I'm worried about.

It is no revelation that the prestige of the FA Cup has been on the slide for years but just in case there was any doubt the Football Association is now messing about with the final.

The first final in my memory was 1982 and the two games between Tottenham and QPR. The Eighties was a decade of glorious, often sweltering May finals. Gordon Smith and Gary Bailey in 1983. Andy Gray and Steve Sherwood in 1984. Norman Whiteside in 1985. Keith Houchen in 1987. That strange whirly thing Ian Rush did with his hand celebrating one of his goals in 1989. Great days.

The consensus is that the FA Cup itself has never been the same since Manchester United withdrew in the 1999-2000 season in order to play in the ill-conceived Fifa Club World Championship. But one could argue that once the Premier League was given two Champions League places in the 1996-97 season it became more important to finish second in the league than to win the Cup.

Last season the day of the final itself hit a new low when the penultimate round of Premier League games was played on the same day meaning that – to some extent – United sealing the title at Blackburn detracted from Manchester City's triumph at Wembley.

Last year was the first final since 1954 that coincided with league fixtures and 1954 was supposed to be a one-off. The FA Cup final has withstood some assaults on its dignity over the years, including being temporarily moved to Cardiff, but until last season it stood inviolate as the final game of the domestic season.

This season the FA, in order to appease broadcasters, is petitioning for a new 5.15pm kick-off for the final on 5 May and it is trying to persuade the Premier League not to schedule any matches for that day. However, there will be more Premier League games that weekend, and the following weekend, as the final is swallowed up by the league season again.

The staging of the Champions League final at Wembley caused last season's clash between the FA Cup final and league fixtures. Under Uefa rules, the FA was forbidden from playing a game on the Wembley pitch within two weeks of the Champions League final. It is a stupid rule but because Champions League football is indisputably king these days there was no chance of the FA disobeying.

This season Uefa has struck again. It demands that domestic seasons must end four weeks before the start of Euro 2012. Why? Who knows? But once again the FA must bend at the knee. Next season it will be the same story. The Champions League final is back at Wembley, which means the pitch cannot be played on within two weeks of the final.

As for 2014, that is a World Cup year so expect Fifa to enforce another stringent deadline for domestic seasons to end which will prevail whether or not England qualify. It will be 2015 before the FA Cup final can be staged in its rightful place, at the end of the season.

Wembley proved so lucrative for Uefa last year that the FA was invited to stage it again. In doing so, the governing body has to accept that it too is playing a part in the sad downgrading of its own competition's tradition. But the FA was more likely to appoint Captain Francesco Schettino as the next England team bus driver than turn down a Champions League final.

The pragmatic point of view is that the FA had to accept something had to give – and that something had to be the FA Cup final. A report by Deloitte into the profits generated by the competition found that payments to clubs had fallen by 27 per cent over the last decade, largely down to a fall in television revenue.

But once an institution is changed, it is changed for ever. The Cup final may still be a long way off the irrelevance that the Boat Race is to modern-day life but you can never be complacent.

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