Football / FA Cup Semi-Final: Kelly defends use of Wembley: Henry Winter on the debate about where the semi-finals belong

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GRAHAM KELLY, the chief executive of the Football Association, yesterday defended the continued use of Wembley as a semi-final venue. The cost to fans of tickets and travel, added to the widespread feeling that the final itself was being devalued, has led to criticism from a growing number of quarters, a concern that has been lent support by the sight of a two-thirds full arena.

Had the FA sold out (unlike Wembley this weekend)? Kelly countered such claims. 'If we lived in an ideal world, and this country was blessed with numerous stadiums that could cater for football crowds of 60,000 and above, we would probably be somewhere else watching today's semi-final unfold. This would, of course, leave Wembley Stadium being 'saved' for the final,' Kelly wrote in an open letter prefacing the match programme.

Semi-final venues were traditionally midway between the two clubs, an arrangement which ended in 1991 with the north London derby at Wembley. 'The situation we faced this season made such a strategy almost impossible to seriously contemplate,' Kelly added. 'Since the Hillsborough tragedy in particular, the issues of crowd safety and security are paramount in our thinking . . . We will move heaven and earth to ensure we do not have a repeat of the Liverpool v Nottingham Forest semi-final of 1989. In that light, could these matches really be staged at venues with capacities of around 35,000?'

The overriding feeling from a quick straw poll yesterday was that using Wembley before the final did devalue the world's oldest cup competition, a sentiment Kelly disagrees with.

The club's failure to sell their allocations - the weekend total was down from last year's 151,627 to 116,388 - ensured an unreal atmosphere, the old stadium only really vibrating in a tumultuous second period of extra time. Four giant sections of the Oldham end were deserted and any attempt at a Mexican Wave would have quickly foundered.

Joe Royle had mixed feelings about Wembley semi- finals. 'I'm not going to say it's a correct or incorrect decision coming here,' the Latics' manager said. 'It's what the supporters wanted (following an Oldham phone-in vote). I felt against it at the start because I think Wembley should be kept for the final. But the players loved it.' The debate looks set to rumble on for another year.