Charms of the Cup are missed on TV
The first thing to note about television coverage of this year’s FA Cup final is the 90,000 additional viewers. The fans, families and wellrefreshed corporate guests who would have made the trip to Wembley – before 2020 took over and encapsulated Philip
Roth’s description of history as the “relentless unforeseen” – but had to be content with a view from their sofa.
The task of recreating a Cup final day out for those denied its pleasures is an impossible one for broadcasters. A trip to Wembley is a many-layered thing, although not without its drags. The stadium’s design flaws guarantee turnstile logjams, the choice of public houses in the vicinity remains truly dire, and the DJ’s pre-match insistence on playing landfill pop music at a volume which could rouse the victims of the Black Death never gets less grating.
Nevertheless, it is a rare collective experience which binds us to the past: to the throngs of fans who walked up Wembley Way with their scarves and rosettes, paralysed with nerves just like us, but now long forgotten.
It is a folkish gathering of the people, not unlike the Epsom Derby in its heyday, with a certain spiritual resonance: a pilgrimage across the metropolis to English football’s temple on the hill. Unlike the Derby though, attending the FA Cup final is contingent on your team getting there and thus out of one’s control. For Wigan Athletic fans, it may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Manchester City supporters must be wearing out the train tracks to Euston station.
At least Arsenal and Chelsea’s fans had familiar faces to greet them: BT Sport assembled a lineup of Rio Ferdinand, punditry’s breakout star of the season Joe Cole and Robin van Persie, while the BBC had Alan Shearer, Ashley Cole and Ian Wright safely distanced on a Wembley balcony alongside Gary Lineker. This viewer opted to take in the action on the BBC, clearly a popular choice because its peak audience of 8.2 million made this the most watched game of the season.
The FA Cup final is possibly the only fixture to receive less television coverage and scrutiny over time. Gone are the days of 8.30am starts, with cameras poking around the team hotels as players munch on their cornflakes.
Cup final-themed editions of BBC staples such as Mastermind and It’s A Knockout are but a memory and their loss much lamented among fans of a certain
BBC’s Cup final coverage attracted 8.2m viewers, making it the most watched game of the season
vintage. As comedian Tim Vine pleaded on Twitter: “Please cover this event properly like you used to. Regards, Every single living football fan.”
It has been surprising throughout Project Restart that television companies – who after all are the ones paying to keep this show on the road – have not leveraged their immense power to demand greater access.
Experimentation has been in short supply, despite proposals for on-pitch microphones and footage of half-time team talks. Clubs have stood their ground and protected the dressing-room oath of omerta.
So we had more of the old classics instead: Lineker teasing Shearer about never winning the FA Cup, Wright’s ecstatic celebrations in his splendid caramel suit, and Cole rooted to his chair when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goals went in. The traditional Cup final hymn Abide
With Me was sung by Emeli Sande, who took social distancing measures to extreme lengths by standing on the roof.
A homage to London took us on a tube journey from the Emirates to Stamford Bridge and then Wembley, with West End Girls by the Pet Shop Boys and The Smiths’
Panic among a well-curated soundtrack.
This was also the Heads Up FA Cup final, a nod to the campaign encouraging people to talk about their mental health. Prince William, the campaign’s figurehead, watched the final on a big screen in a park alongside former Arsenal captain Tony Adams, who endured many dark nights of the soul himself and is someone whose counsel should always be sought on the subject.
For Arsenal fans, delighted though they were with the outcome, this final will always be the missing photograph in the album. At least Chelsea fans were spared the silent journey home.
Winning team: Gary Lineker hosted the BBC’s Cup final coverage, joined by pundits Alan Shearer, Ashley Cole and Ian Wright