The lifeblood of the game. That’s how supporters view themselves. It’s not shared by the football authorities or broadcasters; we have always been and always will be a number. Patrick Magoohan may have believed himself to be free man but watching football is anything but free, man.
Lest you had any doubt about our diminishing importance, the bloated carcass that each round of the FA Cup has become, exploded in our faces yesterday when the BBC – not the Football Association but the nation’s broadcaster – announced that Arsenal’s FA Cup quarter-final trip to Old Trafford would be reduced to the Monday night slot. That there is no public transport back to the capital after the match was not even a consideration to the BBC who want the viewing figures nor the FA who have taken the money and run.
Arsenal, in fairness, quickly announced that they would investigate the possibility of finding a solution; as Shaw Taylor used to say, “Keep ’em peeled” on the official website for more information. It’s okay to quote Shaw Taylor, isn’t it? I’m sure he hasn’t fallen prey to Operation Yew Tree although I have genuinely lost track of which ’70s TV personalities have such is the ever-expanding notoriety of that decades’ Great and Good.
One suggestion is the return of the Football Special. Those of a certain age will wince at their very mention. Others will wonder. They were specially arranged and timetabled trains that ran in the 70s and 80s in an effort to contain hooliganism and keep football supporters away from the general public. Actually, the trains had run for many decades before then but this was ‘my time’ of using them.
Dilapidated and rarely cleaned, the seats stained with god-knows-what whilst the floors bore the marks of you-know-what where toilets had been blocked by exactly-what has yet to be determined by science, even with the advances made down the years. They would stop at small stations built near grounds, affectionately known as Hooligan Halts, allowing the police to funnel supporters onto narrow paths and into the ground.
They were cheap, they served a purpose but if you had transported cattle in the same conditions, criminal charges would have been laid very quickly. Once Roger Cook had investigated, of course. I suggest that if they return, prices will be nowhere near as supporter-friendly, they aren’t on normal services now so with everyone else exploiting the football supporter, I am sure the train operators won’t miss a trick either.
Football’s fixture list has long been at the behest of television companies, whose voracious appetite for the game has led to Saturday 3pm kick-off’s being a sign of a football club’s irrelevance to a season, no matter the convenience it provides supporters travel arrangements.
The only logic behind the decision is ratings. Villa and West Brom take their local affair to the screens at tea-time on the Saturday, a kick-off slot which would allow Arsenal fans to catch the last train home from Manchester. Moving the West Midlands derby to a Monday is not going to inconvenience a great swathe of the crowd.
Perhaps the killing argument in all this is the lop-sided nature of the fixtures. Saturday has its slots, lunchtime and early evening, filled with two of the four. Why the BBC has not scheduled Arsenal and Manchester United’s clash for Sunday lunchtime is a mealy-mouthed excuse we wait to hear. I’m sure Countryfile or whatever is in the listings for that time, is used to being shunted at the whim of the management.
When television dictates anything, there will always be problems. The broadcasters know they will lose some of the crowd in football’s case, it’s a risk they are willing to take in return for the ratings their programme receives. Those who don’t travel, will tune in. On the commercial channels, the marketing coin is not affected by a half-filled stadium. Far from it; United v Arsenal still commands high viewing figures, irrespective of timings.
Football stared over the precipice last season and backed away when the trip to Hull was re-arranged at short notice. It’s something which will happen again in the future, more often as well. Dipping their toe in the waters didn’t hurt the TV companies or attendance as much as they thought. Righteous indignation fades over time. All the broadcasters need to do is bring the local authorities, e.g. police, on board and they are away. The fixture list is already at best general guidance; will it be an irrelevance in the future?
This issue is the downside to the mega-money deals being signed. The FA Cup is not in the premier league of broadcast deals and never will be. As the Champions League seizes a tighter grip, when fourth place carries greater weight in a season’s target, is there a point to the FA Cup for Premier League clubs?
Yes, it is a trophy to be won and perversely, as its shine dulls clubs are back to fielding strong line-ups but it is nowhere near the prize it once was. Arguably, like the Europa League, it harks to days gone by. Sorry supporters of Bradford and Blackburn but your ‘shocks’ this season will be forgotten in years to come, not so readily remembered beyond your locales as the high jinx of Walsall, Wimbledon and Hereford.
And that’s not your or their fault; the marketing men have won. I’ve changed, so have you; the English game now belongs to the world not just these shores. When I was growing up, the League Cup had shaken free of the poor cousin shackles and was considered a prize worth winning. The end of the UEFA Cup combined with the tightening grip of the top four on English football’s mentality signalled its demise, back to an irrelevance.
The FA Cup is following the same path. The only thing which will save it is elevating the winners into the Champions League. That needs Premier League approval, unlikely to happen even if most of the time, the FA Cup is the property of a top four side. But there’s the Wigan effect, the risk that it might all go wrong, a fear which will always stop the turkeys voting for Christmas.
Which brings us back to whether it matters if the broadcasters are bloating the FA Cup calendar? Supporting the cup holders, you would expect me to say yes. Knowing the problems this decision has caused to Arsenal supporters, I do say yes. But to be honest, if the Football Association don’t care about the integrity or appeal of their competition, why should we?