The first time Wembley hosted an FA Cup semi-final, everyone was happy.
It was 1991, and Tottenham were taking on Arsenal. Was Gascoigne going to have a crack? He was, you know.
Two north London teams facing off in a north London stadium? Perfect. The decision was the right one, and not just in a financial sense. And the novelty of another televised game beneath the Twin Towers? Well that was just great, wasn’t it? A rare treat, if you will.
That was then, though, and this is now. And, in 2022, it is clear that something has to change.
Wembley’s days as a semi-final venue should be numbered, and not just because of the crisis which has emerged over the last 48 hours.
You may have heard about the situation facing Liverpool and Manchester City fans right now. One of travel chaos, hefty costs and long, inconvenient journeys.
English football in a nutshell, you could say.
The problem is, that’s Easter weekend, and what tends to happen in this country over Easter weekend is that rail networks plan “essential maintenance”, which leads to line closures, cancellations and significant inconvenience for travellers and commuters.
Sure enough, that’s exactly what’s happening this year.
So, if you are planning to travel from Liverpool or Manchester to London that weekend, then best of luck. You’ll have a job on your hands.
Avanti West Coast has confirmed that between April 15-18, no trains will operate to or from London Euston. Services will instead begin and terminate at either Milton Keynes, some 53 miles away, or at Rugby, even further north.
It means that for the vast majority of supporters, rail travel is impossible. Fans looking to travel from Liverpool on the Saturday would face a journey time of around six hours, featuring at least three train changes. Supporters heading down from Manchester, meanwhile, would need to do so via Sheffield or Banbury.
and on Monday evening it released a statement, together with Manchester City’s 1894 Group, calling for the tie to be switched from Wembley.
“More than 64,000 travelling supporters will be forced onto the roads, which will already be over-burdened with Bank Holiday traffic,” it read.
“For the other semi-final between Chelsea and Crystal Palace, Wembley makes sense. For Liverpool and City, it makes no sense.
“We are asking both clubs, the FA and Wembley to reconsider where this game is played and, for once, to put the fans at the forefront of their thinking.
“City and Liverpool are less than 40 miles apart and there are plenty of grounds big enough far closer than Wembley to stage such a prestigious game.”
Wembley Semi-Final Travel Chaos. Zero consideration has been given to fans travelling to our FA Cup semi-final with Manchester City. Link:
— Spirit of Shankly (@spiritofshankly)
The Football Association (FA), too, released a statement on Monday saying it would “liaise closely” with both Liverpool and Manchester City, as well as with Network Rail and National Express (the inter-city coach operator) to “find a solution so that supporters of both teams are able to travel to and from the fixture with as minimal disruption as possible.”
But it has since emerged that they were made aware of the potential for disruption to these semi-finals as far back as 2019, and that a request to consider changing the venue from Wembley was made last September. This is no last-minute shock, this was an avoidable situation.
GOAL understands that it is unlikely that the fixture will be moved.
Old Trafford, which would appear an ideal alternative venue on the face of it, is unavailable that weekend as Manchester United are playing Norwich in the Premier League, while other options such as Goodison Park, Villa Park or Elland Road would not be deemed big enough, despite all having hosted FA Cup semi-finals on numerous occasions in the past.
The likelihood is that both Liverpool and City, perhaps with input from the FA, will look to offer free, or at least subsidised, coach travel for supporters wishing to travel. The clubs will look to work with supporters, and are acutely aware of their concerns.
That, though, would only be kicking the can down the road. The wider question, surely, is how long will it be before fans are given the consideration they deserve from football’s governing bodies?
See you at Wembley!
— Virgil van Dijk (@VirgilvDijk)
Wembley semi-finals happened sporadically during the 1990s – remember Chris Waddle’s free-kick for Sheffield Wednesday against Sheffield United in 1993, or Mark Hughes’ dramatic equaliser for Manchester United against Oldham a year later? – but they only became a staple after the new, redeveloped stadium was opened in 2007.
A financial decision, naturally, as the FA looked to recoup some of the costs of the rebuild.
And while it has provided some memorable days out – for fans of Millwall, Barnsley, West Brom, Reading, Sheffield United, Hull and Wigan, for example – it is time the plans were reconsidered.
Forget money, think about people. Especially those who happen to live north of Watford.
Supporters already have to put up with exorbitant ticket costs, overpriced merchandise and kick-off times chosen to suit TV audiences, why continue adding to their woes?
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You might think that, having seen the game struggle on without fans for more than a year due to the pandemic, there might be a greater appetite from the governing bodies to make life a little more comfortable, a little more convenient for those who – and let’s have this right – make the sport what it is: a noisy, colourful spectacle, filled with passion and emotion.
So, if you’re reading this, FA executives, then please take action. Wembley as a final venue? Absolutely fine, no problem. That’s the tradition, and it’s a good one. But as a semi-final host, it’s had its day.
This year’s farce should make that abundantly clear.