Why are semi-finals, the veritable warm-up before the main event, played at Wembley Stadium, once only a home to winner-takes-all matches such as domestic and European cup finals?

I think we're alone now | Too often in its relatively short life, Wembley has seen swathes of empty seats at major football matches. (Image | The Guardian)

I think we’re alone now | Too often in its relatively short life, Wembley has seen swathes of empty seats at major football matches, a fate which again befell one of the recent FA semi-finals. (Image | The Guardian)

After all, a host of newspapers across all political and style divides have published articles in the past few weeks arguing that it detracts from the final and has a detrimental effect on both domestic cup competitions.

A poll by the Guardian newspaper found that 86% per cent of fans believe that FA Cup semi-finals should not be played at Wembley. That is a fairly conclusive figure by anyone’s standards. So why are they?

Cynics point to one reason, and one reason only: money. To some extent, this is backed up by the Football Association itself, in this statement on the scheduling of matches at the home of English football.

In it, the FA says: “Playing the semi-finals at Wembley is part of the stadium’s business plan which allowed the FA to build a 90,000 seater national stadium, but with the significantly greater number of tickets available this will allow more fans to attend each of the showpiece fixtures.”

So in essence, supporters are paying the price of building an extremely expensive national football stadium by having FA Cup semi-finals hosted in North London, to the detriment of the oldest football competition in the world.

The statement continues: “As with any game, preparation is the key to a successful event. In previous years, a decision could not be made on a neutral and favourable semi-final venue until the competing teams had been decided.

“Obviously, elements such as the safety and security issues, transport issues, policing, supporter awareness of the venues and television schedules cannot be decided until a venue is decided. With the semi-final venue established well in advance we can therefore prepare for all these issues with a great deal more confidence.”

Despite being a rather dour and practical note on which to base a decision about such an irrational, passionate sport as football, the FA is correct in pointing out that scheduling had been difficult previously, and delays vital decisions on aspects such as policing, transport and security.

“Persisting with sanitised, corporate Wembley would be a further indication that the views of supporters long ceased to have any bearing on the beautiful game.”

Given the shocking violence witnessed at the first of the two semi-finals, Millwall v Wigan Athletic, the policing argument is not as outdated and based in a bygone era of hooliganism as it would otherwise have appeared.

On this basis, Wembley is the ideal, central, easily-accessible location for all major matches, whether cup finals or semi-finals, play-off finals, non-league finals, full internationals, international friendlies and whatever else, to take place. So there you are. Case closed, and we can all go home.

Except the case is very much still open, for this London-centric argument ignores the fact that England, unlike the Ukraine, which had to build and upgrade its stadia prior to hosting the 2012 European Championships, boasts some of the best football arenas in the world.

Although the FA may like to create the impression that Wembley is some sort of footballing epicentre in order to justify, and recoup, the colossal amount of money spend on building it, this is simply not the case.

While the “new Wembley“, as it was once referred to, was under construction, semi-finals were hosted at Old Trafford, a stadium of not too inferior size, comparable facilities and far greater accessibility for the country as a whole.

Naturally, there should not be any suggestion that this interim situation, much like the managerial tenure of Rafael Benitez at Chelsea, should continue any longer than strictly necessary. Besides, the FA would not even consider it were the suggestion made.

However, there ought to be a real debate as to the footballing merit of, not the financial obligation to, hold semi-finals at Wembley. It is time for the good of the competition, and the game in this country, to be put before balance sheets. And while we are at it, how about considering the fans for once?

Smalltown boys | Not only were Wigan Athletic fans lumbered with appalling travel provisions, hosting semi-finals at Wembley fails to take into account clubs' ability to fill ticket allocations. (Image | The Telegraph)

Smalltown boys | Not only were Wigan Athletic fans lumbered with appalling travel provisions, hosting semi-finals at Wembley fails to take into account the capability of clubs to fill ticket allocations. (Image | The Telegraph)

Take Wigan supporters, whose inability to sell their full allocation of 31,000 tickets for last weekend’s clash with Championship side Millwall was perhaps the clearest indicator that the introduction of semi-finals to Wembley is not a good idea.

Some 10,000 seats were left unsold until opened to members of the FA’s online ticketing club, which probably says more about the unsuitability of Wembley for this level of fixture than the minuscule fanbase of the Greater Manchester club.

Furthermore, the scheduling of trains was hardly conducive to a larger continent of fans making the two-hour journey to London. This is not a problem unique to the Latics. Indeed, it would be magnified were Newcastle United or another North East team to reach a Wembley semi-final.

Disdain has long been the attitude of too many in football towards the FA Cup. It is a distraction, rather like the League Cup was irreparably branded years ago, and with the Premier League strangling all other facets of the game in this country, it will probably never capture its former glory.

Yet a little change could go a long way. Putting on FA Cup semi-finals at the Stadium of Light, Anfield, the City of Manchester Stadium, Villa Park, Molineux, the Emirates Stadium, Old Trafford, Carrow Road or the City Ground, depending on the size of clubs, their fanbases, and the likely demand for tickets, would give the competition a much-needed new lease of life.

Persisting with making sanitised, corporate Wembley the venue for games that do not end with a trophy being lifted would be another nail in the coffin of the FA Cup, and a further indication, if one were needed, that the views of supporters long ceased to have any bearing on the beautiful game.

Have your say | Tweet the author | @chriskking

Back to Football

Twitter | @armchairpundit2

Facebook | The Armchair Pundits

————–

Interested in writing for The Armchair Pundits?

We’re always on the lookout for aspiring journalists, click here for details on how you can start contributing.

Advertisements