Wed. Aug 5th, 2020

Man Utd

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Wembley stage is set for four clubs who get fired up for the FA Cup

5 min read

Chelsea manager Frank Lampard was not quite two years old when his dad Frank Snr won the FA Cup in 1980.

Manchester United assistant Michael Carrick used to talk dreamily to his brother about what it would be like to play at Wembley, and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola confessed on Friday to watching the final every year on TV in Spain.

This weekend, then, the FA Cup is in safe, appreciative hands.

The Covid-19 crisis has not managed to de-rail the FA Cup but it will be behind closed doors

The Covid-19 crisis has not managed to de-rail the FA Cup but it will be behind closed doors

The Covid-19 crisis has not managed to de-rail the FA Cup but it will be behind closed doors

It will feel strange. How can it not when Wembley’s stands will be empty as City take on Arsenal on Saturday night and United and Chelsea meet on Sunday evening?

But at least it is on. At least we will have a final and, in a fortnight, a winner. In these uncertain times, that feels important.

The last world event to get in the way of an FA Cup competition was the Second World War. The Covid-19 pandemic has not managed it and thankfully our semi-finalists are clubs who still take the FA Cup seriously.

‘My memories of English football are watching the FA Cup final, not the Premier League or Champions League,’ said Guardiola. ‘In Spain we could see the English final, the tradition, everything so nice.

‘The Spanish Cup is interesting but here hundreds of small teams start out in this competition. That’s what makes it special.

‘In this country, tradition is part of culture and the tradition of the FA Cup is great. We cannot play with our fans, so it’s not perfect but it’s good enough. We are so excited to go and play the game.’

Pep Guardiola confessed on Friday to watching the FA Cup final every year on TV in Spain

Pep Guardiola confessed on Friday to watching the FA Cup final every year on TV in Spain

Pep Guardiola confessed on Friday to watching the FA Cup final every year on TV in Spain

The FA Cup has undoubtedly been damaged as football has changed. The Premier League and the financial rewards offered by European football have diverted the attention of teams. Semi-finals at Wembley and the shifting of kick-off times have not helped.

The record TV viewing figure for a final is the 28.5million who watched the Leeds v Chelsea replay in 1970. Last year 7.5m saw Guardiola’s City dismantle Watford. Even as recently as the 1990s, you could regularly add another 5m to that figure.

So this decline is the worry. Speaking before their quarter-final defeat by City, Newcastle captain Jamaal Lascelles stressed how much he wanted to win the Cup but admitted he was too young to understand what the competition used to mean.

If the current generation, raised on a diet of bigger, more glamorous competitions, are to tune in, it will take more coaches such as Guardiola, Lampard and Carrick to lead.

In his autobiography, Carrick suggested the FA Cup ‘makes heroes’ of players and spoke of the physical thrill of lifting the trophy after United beat Crystal Palace four years ago. 

Michael Carrick says the FA Cup 'makes heroes' of players and spoke of the thrill of lifting it

Michael Carrick says the FA Cup 'makes heroes' of players and spoke of the thrill of lifting it

Michael Carrick says the FA Cup ‘makes heroes’ of players and spoke of the thrill of lifting it

‘It was an amazing life moment,’ said Carrick. ‘When I was a kid the FA Cup final was the biggest day of the year. Memories come back of being five and watching Keith Houchen’s diving header for Coventry in 1987. My dad used to tell me about Ronnie Radford.

‘The Cup took hold of my imagination from an early age. So no, I don’t buy the argument that the FA Cup has lost its shine. I know the Champions League is so big but players still love the FA Cup.’

As time passes, one wonders whether that last statement is true. Do Premier League players from Africa and South America really have a place in their hearts for this stuffy competition when there is much in their own football culture and heritage to cherish?

Guardiola seems to think so, at least. So too Carrick.

‘I always found talking to the foreign lads at United, they all knew about it,’ he said. ‘The Cup is famous throughout the world.’

This weekend’s four managers have their own history with the competition. Between them, they have won it nine times.

Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta was captain when Arsene Wenger’s team won it in 2014 and said: ‘It is still important. A lot of clubs used to use this competition to give opportunities to young players or change the squad. But look at the semi-finals this year. Look at how much everyone wants to win it. 

The FA Cup has undoubtedly been damaged by the riches of the Premier League and Europe

The FA Cup has undoubtedly been damaged by the riches of the Premier League and Europe

The FA Cup has undoubtedly been damaged by the riches of the Premier League and Europe

Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta was the club's captain when Arsene Wenger's team won it in 2014

Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta was the club's captain when Arsene Wenger's team won it in 2014

Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta was the club’s captain when Arsene Wenger’s team won it in 2014

‘The big clubs know how difficult it is to win the Premier League and the Champions League. So they need this title and they throw everything at this competition.’

Again, it’s possible to query the viewpoint. Analysis of the teams fielded in the FA Cup’s early rounds tells you everything you need to know about how survival in the top division replaced a yearning for Cup glory long ago. Still, these four have an FA Cup tradition.

One of the most welcome parts of Guardiola’s four years at City has been his instinct to take both domestic cups seriously.

For Lampard, an FA Cup triumph would not be a bad way to end his first season as manager of Chelsea. ‘It would be a fantastic feeling,’ Lampard said. ‘I was fortunate enough to win it and I grew up on it and those wins for my dad in 1975 and 1980 (with West Ham).

‘I have a strong feeling for what the FA Cup is all about and that has never changed for me. I will be very proud on Sunday.’

It was not long ago that talk of resuming the current season seemed overly optimistic.

That we have reached this stage at all sometimes still feels like a miracle.

It is time to cherish semi-final weekend, whatever it feels and looks like.

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