This post was originally completed in April. I just omitted to publish it!
The disheartening and yet also heartening number of empty seats at Wembley Stadium for the Manchester City-Sheffield United FA Cup semi-final brought the right noises from the pundits in the television studio (even the following day too, during the full house of Brighton & Hove Albion versus Manchester United) but these are grumbles the FA are braced for, and they are well-versed in staying quiet and riding it out; the day will end, the grumbles will dissipate, the next match will come, as will another semi-final in the national stadium next season.
Peter Schmeichel argued the most eloquently against the idea of two Northern teams being sent down to London in the midst of a ‘cost of living crisis.’ Crisis, what crisis, appears to be the reply, and in fairness, anyone who’d care to walk around my house for five minutes would think my family were exempt from everyone else’s struggle, with lights ablaze even on the brightest of days and the fan heater left on for hours, but it is this prepubescent attitude to reality that the FA seems to share.
16 years it has been since the arch regenerated from the Twin Towers, surely Wembley doesn’t still need the recouped cash? We know it’s down to money, and not, as they claim, about allowing as many supporters to see the match as possible. Even less people than were at Wembley for the Saturday semi-final would have been present at say, Elland Road, a likely neutral venue of days gone past, but the atmosphere would have been transformative, even in the event of a similar runaway win for City.
So, we have three strong arguments against the existing semi-final policy - adding into the equation the preservation of the Final’s prestige - but none of them are about making money, so are rendered pointless. The FA doesn’t care about scarring it’s own competition, wary as they are that it’s lost it’s fizz thanks to its teams happy to air other priorities through their weakened team selections, which come as a consequence of…money.
Schmeichal himself is steeped in FA Cup history thanks to his penalty save from Dennis Bergkamp in extra time of the 1999 semi-final against champions Arsenal at Villa Park that was followed by Ryan Giggs’ equally memorable winner for a Manchester United team by then down to ten but on their way to an unprecedented treble in England. This was the last replay in the FA Cup, the last replay allowed, as the first chips in the bodywork began in earnest. The following season United didn’t even bother entering at all.
So maybe we shouldn’t complain about these Wembley semis. Who actually really cares? If you can’t afford, just don’t turn up. And anyway, Brighton-Utd was a thriller, all the way to the penalties. And look at all those people who got to see it. City’s 1981 semi-final win over Ipswich Town, won like United in ‘99, in extra time and at Villa Park, may have stirred the senses but it’s just nostalgia, just the past. It’s all about the present, and United and City will be back down for the Final, won’t they, well, in amongst the neutrals. Something a bit skewed there.