Just 11 months ago, in the midst of a global pandemic, a defining moment in football history – in this country but also across the continent – came to pass.
Last April, six Premier League clubs, along with a further six more European teams – announced plans to form a European Super League. It sparked outrage among fans and numerous protests across the country. It was an idea proposed by the rich that would benefit only the rich, the concept of a closed-league structure comprising solely of the ‘elite’ totally at odds with the history and spirit of the game.
Fans took to the streets en masse and lobbied their clubs to withdraw; within 48 hours they had and the big boys’ club was dead in the water. It was a significant moment, one that showed the average supporter that change can happen from the ground up, that fans are the most important stakeholders in the game and can achieve anything when they unite.
READMORE:Man City and Liverpool FC fans unite to demand FA Cup semi-final is moved from Wembley
A series of apologies from the six English clubs involved – Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham – followed in the aftermath, a form of damage limitation and supposedly humbled gesture. The FA, opposed to the project along with the Premier League, issued a statement acknowledging the role supporters had played in bringing down the Super League.
“We would like to thank the fans, in particular, for their influential and unequivocal voice during this time, holding true the guiding principles of football,” it read. “It is a powerful reminder that the game is, and always will be, for fans.”
There was optimism that going forward clubs and governing bodies would think twice before disregarding the interests of supporters. They are there to be listened to and respected, they hold the “true and guiding principles of football”, after all.
Well. But that optimism is no more.
Less than a year after the FA published those words, the governing body has shown a blatant disregard for supporters of City and Liverpool with its scheduling of the FA Cup semi-finals. The match is set to take place at Wembley Stadium on the weekend of April 16-17, when there are no direct train services running from either Manchester or Liverpool to London.
Instead, ticket holders from the two cities would have to take a series of trains to get to Wembley and back, increasing the financial outlay at a time when the cost of living has reached unprecedented levels and many are struggling to make ends meet. If the match kicks off in the late afternoon – as has been the case for a number of years – then to get home on the same night supporters would have to leave Wembley at half-time to stand any chance of catching the last train.
At first, it might seem harsh to blame the FA – after all, they are not responsible for rail engineering works. However, a rail industry source has told the MEN that National Rail scheduled these engineering works over two years ago, and that the FA were informed of them in November 2019.
The source also claims that National Rail wrote directly to the FA in September 2021 to warn them that there would be significant disruption on the West Coast mainline during the FA Cup semi-final weekend, and ask that they consider changing the proposed dates to avoid a clash.
The FA Cup semi-finals have not coincided with Easter since 1910, so can this clash really be down to error or incompetence? It’s hard to imagine that the custodians of English football unwittingly scheduled a showpiece fixture for the same weekend as major travel disruption; it is less hard to imagine that the difficulties fans would face were recognised, and then dismissed.
After all, the FA must grasp every opportunity it can to make use of the national stadium. It is still paying off the £757m construction bill, and high-profile fixtures like FA Cup semi-finals bring in plenty of commercial and sponsorship revenue, not to mention Club Wembley members who pay thousands to attend the biggest events.
Over the last 24 hours, there have been widespread calls for Wembley to be removed as hosts and a venue more accessible from Manchester and Liverpool be picked, with supporters’ groups 1894 and Spirit of Shankly releasing a joint statement calling on the clubs to pressure the FA into action.
On Monday the FA released a statement saying that they are “liaising closely with both Liverpool FC and Manchester City FC on all match arrangements, including supporters travel for the upcoming Emirates FA Cup semi-final fixture at Wembley Stadium.” Not exactly a ‘we hear your influential and unequivocal voice and we’re on the case’ is it.
Depressingly, match-going supporters once again being shafted seems the most likely outcome from all of this. The sensible solution would be to move the game to a nearby venue like Old Trafford – it was only 20 years ago that semi-finals were routinely played at neutral venues not in northwest London.
If City and Liverpool do side with their fans it would send a huge message, but don’t hold your breath. If the clubs don’t intervene and the FA sticks with its decision, then clearly the promises made as the Super League wreckage was cleared were all just a pack of lies.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.