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Published on April 16th, 2013 | by Seb

Fans an afterthought in FA Cup final scheduling

I’ve spent quite a lot of time swimming against the tide over the past couple of years, defending the FA as the constant barrage of criticism has come their way. Be it their reluctance to re-referee games after the event, their handling of alleged racism from players and fans alike, or even (very) occasionally their policy on ticket prices, I’ve played devil’s advocate and argued that they are not Satan incarnate, and not always the bad guys (and girls) they are painted out to be.

But there comes a point when you have no energy left, when you realise that resistance is futile and when you realise that perhaps they didn’t deserve your support after all.

The latest hammer-blow through the collective heart of the English football fan came today with the announcement that the 2013 FA Cup final would kick off at 5:15pm, on Saturday May 11th. This was exactly as I suspected, but the lack of surprise should not take away from the considerable anger. Yet again, the “soul” of the game, the humble fan, is disregarded for a quick buck. As the Guardian journalist Jacob Steinberg commented, it’s hardly a surprise that some people now treat the FA Cup with indifference if the FA can’t be bothered protecting it and fans.

We’ve been here before of course, namely last year, when the final kicked off at the same time. Not surprisingly, the change was spun by the FA as actually being a good thing, and something that many fans preferred, as a “spokesman” explained at the time:

“Research showed that 5.15pm was more appealing than 3pm. 5.15pm obviously gives people a chance to attend or play in a game earlier that day before watching the final on TV.”

Engineering work scuppered Liverpool fans’ chances of getting home last year, and this year, two north-west teams will travel down to London with no chance of getting back by train the same day, with no night services planned between London and Manchester and beyond (last train to Wigan – 8:31pm. Last train to Manchester – 9pm).

Of course, maybe we’re being too picky. After all, with a quick dash from the stadium and favourable tube times, those last trains can be made. You’d have to leave right on full-time of course, but then who wants to see their team lift the FA Cup? You can watch that on TV when you get home, along with any extra-time or penalties should it come to that (#sarcasm).

But with no Premier League or Football League games at 3pm on May 11th (there’s one game all day, at 12:45pm), there can be no viable argument put forward that it was done with the attending fans’ thoughts at heart. It has been done for armchair fans around the world, and it is once more the fans that are actually going to the game that are barely an afterthought. You sometimes wonder if those in charge actually want people going to matches. We’re just irritants, making life difficult for broadcasters, the FA and the Premier/Football League alike.

The police probably won’t be too happy either. Inevitably the assembled fans will be that little bit more refreshed with every passing hour that the kick-off is put back, but early-kick offs still result in trouble and the odd horse being punched, so it’s hardly a major factor.

But have no doubt, this is about money, and it’s about money for the broadcasters. As that FA spokesman also said last year, “the later time also maximises a bigger domestic and global TV audience for broadcasters”. Commercial broadcasters have done their research, and they know that the global viewing figures for a 5:15pm kick-off comfortably exceed those for a 3pm match. And thus, commercial revenue goes up as they can charge more for advertising slots. Commercial broadcasters would push for a 3am kick-off if there was money in it, but the sad thing is that the leaders of our game seem unwilling to resist this particular branch of commercialisation. The FA’s general secretary has commented that the football fan is used to “consuming our football in these timeslots”, but I’m guessing he’s never had to travel 200 miles home by public transport afterwards.

As for the date, well that’s about money for the FA. Another lucrative Champions League final at Wembley means once more moving English football’s showpiece game to before the end of the season, as UEFA require full use of that stadium for a fortnight. And with a £900m white elephant to pay off, you don’t turn down two Champions League finals in three years, and you ignore piffling little things like tradition.

All this is just one more small chip away at eroding the match day experience for the modern football fan. The outgoing FA chairman David Bernstein recently called football fans the “lifeblood of the game”. He said, “the professional game does not exist without the supporters who flock to our football stadia. They are our heartbeat. Without these passionate fans there is no football and we must ensure we treat them with care and respect, and make football accessible to all….. (fans) are the constant.” Words are cheap. For once, those that run the game in this country need to put empty rhetoric to one side, and actually treat football fans in this country with a modicum of respect and consideration. The next chairman of the FA Greg Dyke would do well to put fans before money, because the FA are quickly losing what few supporters they had, whilst the tipping point for the fans moves ever closer, the day that they say enough is enough and stay at home.

Howard Hockin

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