In under an hour, the first FA Cup Semi Final of 2012 will kick off in the sunshine at Wembley Stadium, in what is likely to be a passionate occasion, a Merseyside derby, as the red and blue of Liverpool compete for a place in the showpiece final in May. It is a game which is difficult to call, Everton have been in a fine run of form leading up to the game, boosted by the January signing of a seemingly decent goalscorer in Jelavic, and buoyed by the return on loan of the excellent Steven Pineaar. Liverpool meanwhile have been in something of turmoil, with the sacking of Damien Comolli during the week, and apart from the midweek win at struggling Blackburn, have been in a slump in form which means they are unlikely to be seeing European football at Anfield next season, and this is despite heavy spending in the summer.
However, away from the pitch, much debate has been about the timing and location of both games. We could discuss the insistence that Liverpool did not play on the 15th April, the anniversary of Hillsborough. In this piece, I do not wish to go into the reasons why the game should and shouldn’t be played on this date, that’s not my place to say. I would like to think that a Merseyside derby game would be a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives that horrible day, but again, the club have had their say and we have to respect it. And it is worth pointing anyone who still thinks we know all the answers to what happened that day in the direction of David Conn’s excellent book The Beautiful Game, specifically the chapter on Hillsborough – there are a lot of questions still to be answered. But it is hard not to feel a little sympathy for Chelsea (and believe me, sometimes it is VERY hard), having to play on Sunday evening with a vital European game against arguably the strongest club side in the world some 48 hours later. And I can’t help thinking it could all be avoided with a bit of common sense.
I think we are all aware that the FA have a huge bill to pay for Wembley Stadium, and therefore need as many events as possible to take place there. However, from a tradition point of view, I can’t help thinking having a semi final at Wembley takes a lot of the gloss away from the final itself (let’s not start on the fact there are now league games on the same day!), and logistically, getting thousands of fans all the way down from the North West for a 12.30 kick off is ridiculous. Old Trafford anyone?
The idea of the semi final at Wembley as I recall dates back to 1991 when Arsenal and Spurs were drawn to face each other. Both clubs were doing well and were well supported, so playing the game between two North London football powers at a stadium within 10 miles of both made sense, rather than trekking up the M1 to Villa Park. With that in mind, Spurs against Chelsea this year could make a similar case, although the construction of the Emirates stadium since then might make an argument the other way. The situation as it is now just shows what football has now become. Kick offs set by TV schedules, locations set by finances of the game rather than the finances of the fans. It wouldn’t be so bad if we knew the finances would be used in a productive or sensible way, but we know where a large proportion of football’s finances end up. If the Merseyside game has been set for Old Trafford, with the London game played either at Wembley or the Emirates, it wouldn’t have mattered which day the games were played, and it would have been an easier day for those that really matter for these occasions, the fans of each club.
But as to the games themselves, who will I be cheering for as an interested neutral? I’d like to see some success for David Moyes and Everton. As a Watford fan, I’m just about over them beating us in the 1984 Cup Final(!), and as a club that in comparison to others runs off limited resources, I think they are overdue something to show for it. Neither Liverpool or Chelsea have covered themselves in glory this season either on or off the pitch. And for my long suffering Spurs supporting friends, maybe they need something to smile about after an awful run of form that has seen them slump from European certainties and possible title outsiders to clinging on to the final Champions League spot. So for me, an Everton v Spurs final. Good luck to all involved.