Cup final days

I’LL tell you a personal story about the FA Cup; but first, here’s a question: When was the last time that the English domestic season concluded with the cup final?

Maybe the answer will surprise you: It was as long ago as 1983. On May 26 that year, Manchester United beat Brighton 4-0 in a replay, and there were no more domestic games until the following August.

OK, it was a little bit of a trick question. Since 1987, the English domestic season has finished with the Football League play-off finals. The three years before that are a little more curious, though.

In 1985 and 1986, the last game of the English season was the final of the Freight Rover Trophy (now the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy) at Wembley. Bristol City thumped Bolton 3-0 in ’86, a full fortnight after that year’s all-Merseyside FA Cup final and just seven days before the World Cup got underway in Mexico. In ’85, Wigan beat Brentford 3-1 in a game played on June 1. That’s right: June 1.

The final of the same competition, under the sponsorless title of the Associate Members’ Cup, rounded off the 1983/84 domestic season in less glamorous surroundings. Bournemouth beat Hull 2-1 at Boothferry Park, five days after Andy Gray had nodded the ball out of Steve Sherwood’s hands at Wembley.

So what, you might ask. So a few lower-division games were played after the cup final. Well, here’s the thing: It wasn’t unheard of for key top-flight games to be played after Wembley’s showpiece in the past either. In 1985, for instance, Coventry secured their First Division survival with a 4-1 victory over Everton, who had lost the FA Cup final to Manchester United eight days earlier.

Incidentally, there were also four First Division fixtures played on the Friday night before the ’85 cup final. The difference between then and now, perhaps, is that none of them were televised. Whereas once the cup final was a rare live TV match, now it’s one of several in a busy weekend.

Things are different in other ways, I suppose. Those four First Division games, along with the Coventry-Everton match, weren’t originally scheduled to be played so late; they were postponed from earlier in the season. But for the last two seasons, the Premier League fixtures have been planned so that the title climax comes after the FA Cup final. With TV companies demanding enough full weekends of league fixtures to satisfy subscribers in a calendar crammed with European and international fixtures, it’s hard to see that changing any time soon.

Meanwhile, the Championship play-off final has come to assume an enormous status, not only because it comes at the very end of the season, but also because of the fortunes on offer to the team that wins and gains a Premier League place. If the League Cup final was once christened The People’s Final by its creator, Alan Hardaker, the Championship showpiece might be better called the Capitalists’ Cup Final. Against that sort of competition, what chance does the FA Cup have?

For a lot of football fans, the decision to move this season’s FA Cup final from its traditional Saturday 3pm slot was seen as another boot to its dentures. But in television terms, at least, it worked: the 31st meeting between Chelsea and Liverpool in the last eight years drew a peak audience of 11million to ITV, twice as many as watched the final two years ago, and a hefty increase on last season’s viewing figures too.

In fact, it was the biggest TV audience for the FA Cup final since the days it was on the BBC. Of which more in a moment.

All the same, this year’s final did feel as though it was overshadowed by the weekend’s worth of Premier League fixtures that followed it, what with Manchester City edging to within one win of the title and Blackburn’s relegation confirmed amid a bizarre mix of protests and poultry.

A few football fans I know didn’t watch the final, either due to indifference or the fact that they were on the way home from one of the full programme of League One and Two fixtures that finished less than half-an-hour before kick-off at Wembley.

It’s a final I’ll always remember, though, because it was the first one I covered as a journalist. One of the newspapers I work for gave me a relatively minor role in their coverage – assigning the player ratings. And even though I’ve covered a Champions League final, a World Cup, several England internationals and goodness knows how many Premier League games, it still felt like a landmark.

Ratings can be a minefield for journalists, especially when the players read them. Which they do. A few years ago, Joey Barton took one reporter to task in pretty strong language for giving him a lower mark than Rob Styles. (In fairness to Barton, any player would probably take that as an insult.) Overcoming my natural urge to give every player six out of 10 and a comment of “Well, he did all right, I suppose”, I think I judged them fairly, marking Ramires high and Jordan Henderson low. You’ve every right to disagree with me. I was just glad to be involved on cup final day.

My first FA Cup final in a reporting role might have come a lot sooner. Six years ago, I almost commentated on the occasion for BBC TV.

I’m sensing you don’t believe that last sentence. It’s true, but perhaps I’d better qualify it by telling you the whole story.

In 2006, when I wasn’t doing much sports reporting work and often had free weekends, there was an opportunity to do some voluntary football commentary for blind and partially-sighted people.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) ran a competition called Soccer Sight, with the aim of training up commentators for just this purpose. To enter, you had to make a five-minute recording of yourself commentating on an England player scoring a World Cup final-winning goal against Brazil.

(This bit required more imagination than I could muster without assistance, so I recorded a televised Champions League match, pretended the teams were England and Brazil, then described the few minutes leading up to one of the goals with a large dose of hysteria.)

The competition’s first prize was, in the words of David Coleman, quite remarkable: The chance to commentate on the FA Cup final for the BBCi red button stream. I think the competition organisers knew they might get a few more entries with that offer. And yes, I was one of those who probably wouldn’t have entered otherwise, I’m ashamed to say.

To my surprise, I got through to one of the three regional finals, and made the short trip to Huddersfield’s Galpharm Stadium one Sunday to do some training. Here, we were taken through the basics of commentating for blind and visually-impaired people. In short, it has to be more descriptive even than the average radio commentary; the listener is relying on you totally, so there’s no scope for going off on whimsical diversions or reading out the rugby scores.

The course leader put on a video of a recent England game, we all took it in turns to do a few minutes of commentary, and he gave us plenty of valuable feedback.

Maybe a week or two later, I got an e-mail. It asked if I could make it to the FA headquarters in Soho Square on the final Friday in April for a presentation. Apparently, I had won my regional heat, and was one of three commentators in line for the first prize.

As it turned out, I didn’t win, although I did get to meet Garth Crooks. (Here’s the proof.) The overall winner was a chap called Alan March, who has gone on to become the country’s leading sports commentator for blind and visually-impaired spectators. I listened to his commentary as Liverpool beat West Ham on penalties in that year’s FA Cup final, and he was excellent – describing the action clearly and concisely. I suspect it wasn’t a difficult choice for the competition organisers to select him.

For one reason or another, the RNIB commentary didn’t happen for me; there weren’t any schemes that close to where I live, and I started to get more newspaper reporting work at matches over the following 12 months.

Perhaps that was a blessed relief to any potential listeners. To the surprise of no one who reads this blog, one of my commentary vices during my local radio days was a tendency to wander off on tangents. That’s not a fat lot of use when all you want is for someone to tell you whether Andy Carroll’s header has crossed the line or not.

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