To much excitement my ticket came through the post this morning and for the first time in 31 years I’m off to Wembley with West Ham. Although we journeyed together to Cardiff’s excellent Millennium Stadium for three consecutive years between 2004 and 2006, the League Cup final in 1981 was of a different football age. That match against Liverpool was the Hammers third visit to Wembley in two seasons following an FA Cup win against Arsenal and Charity Shield defeat to the same Anfield outfit. As an example of the different prevailing attitudes our then manager the late John Lyall (by every account a decent man) stole the next day’s headlines after he told referee Clive Thomas (a deliberately controversial referee) he’d felt “cheated” by a decision to allow an Alan Kennedy goal despite Sammy Lee lying in an offside position and interfering with play.
Not a season ticket holder at the time I’d had the presence of mind to claim tickets prior to the semi-final against Coventry via the Sunday league club I played for and unfortunately my dad and I were placed in the Liverpool end. As we watched Ray Stewart slide an injury-time extra-time equalising penalty past Ray Clemence I don’t think I would have bet on it taking over three decades for a return. I certainly wouldn’t have had any idea of the changes in the game I love in the interim. For a start it was another six years until play-offs came into being and not until 1990 were the finals played at Wembley. Even despite the present slight fluttering in my stomach which I know will slowly grow until peaking at dysenteric level some time next Saturday I believe play-offs to be inherently unfair.
Having played 46 games to decide an order of merit it is entirely perverse sides should then enter into a cup competition for promotion. As an example, my team benefited in 2005 from beating first Ipswich then Preston to gain promotion despite finishing sixth. Conversely this year’s final pits us against Blackpool, a team we beat 4-0 and 4-1 in the league. Perhaps there might be a justification if say, the top six sides played-off. But third to sixth seems arbitrary at best. The “reward” of finishing second in the table is less than our day out in Cardiff and doesn’t have the possibility of a trophy. Surely natural justice would legislate against the game of football rewarding failure in such spectacular fashion? But no, play-offs have been deemed a success by TV, and the hundreds of millions spent on Wembley need to be justified, so the FA collectively tug their forelock before counting the cash.
And let’s be absolutely clear about this, the flood of TV money since the second Taylor Report post-Hillsborough has done little for the game. Financial rewards are the highest they have ever been yet because of the huge disparity in reward between placings there has never been more debt – the Premier League alone loses close to half a billion pounds each season. Driven by the insatiable desire of supporters, clubs leverage themselves in order to grab the next rung on the ladder. So prevalent has the borrowing become any club remiss enough to keep a grip on finance is all but guaranteed a slide down the leagues – witness the recent demise of “well-run” clubs Charlton and Crewe. We are constantly told the play-off final is the “biggest prize in football” as if fans measure success in the folding stuff. The claim is of course nonsense either way – far from banking the money, boardrooms will immediately spend it on the wages of players needed to keep the side at their new level.
The ease with which competent foreign players can be bought in has led to a vicious circle of poor coaching in this country and a removal of the admittedly already waning local identity of clubs. As an example, the West Ham side that drew with Liverpool contained four home-grown players (five if you count Alan Devonshire) and seven born within the M25. In contrast, the Hammers XI that beat Cardiff in their play-off semi-final last week consisted of a notable three products of the youth team but a mere two native to London. Little surprise Canning Town-born Mark Noble’s No16 shirt is the club shop’s best seller.
For the fans who attend games the startling improvement in comfort of grounds has come at a heavy price. Although Dad and I are unlikely to forget the rivers of Scouse piss sluicing down Wembley’s rotting terraces, the cost of attending football has, in a total inversion of that which were told prior to the nascence of the Premiership, rocketed. My FA Cup final ticket of 1980 cost me £3.50 or assuming a 40-hour week just over an hours’ work at the then national average wage of £6,000. Today, even the cheapest ticket at £38 for an inferior competition would take around three hours’ work at an average wage of £26,000.
Once it was the Police who decided when games were to be played, now it’s Sky with scarcely a passing concern for supporters. This season’s away game at Brighton – pencilled in at the start of the campaign as a weekend away with or without the missus – was scheduled for a Saturday kick-off. Yet Sky moved the game to a Monday night only after tickets had been bought, travel arranged and hotels booked. So much for their doubtful advertising claim, “Football – we know how you feel about it – cos we feel the same.” Although a qualitative judgement, I doubt many who have experienced 30-years of football would say anything other than the atmosphere at games has plummeted, hence the ever more desperate attempts of clubs and TV to “sell” the game. Thankfully, the owners of West Ham have come out against pre-recorded goal celebrations – even if I suspect this to be a reprieve rather than full pardon.
As a comparison between the games that preceded it and our previous final 23 years earlier the 2004 play-off final against Crystal Palace was illuminating. It was my last match of a 56-game season – the only time I’ve been ever present throughout an entire campaign – and irrationally I felt my commitment should be rewarded with a win. However, unlike the semi-final home leg against Ipswich (brilliantly stage-managed by then manager Alan Pardew to produce an atmosphere) I felt more of a spectator than supporter. Mr Woo juggling a football prior to kick-off had nothing to do with my experience of football, nor did the various other “entertainments” on show, all of which belonged to TV. And despite the 30-odd thousand West Ham present there wasn’t any “heart” to the crowd as you get at Upton Park in the Bobby Moore Lower Stand or the gloriously named “Chav Corner” between the Alpari and Sir Trevor Brooking Stands.
Like John Lyall I felt cheated – and not least as Palace won to complete my worst day as a West Ham supporter. Worse than relegation the previous season and much worse than the shoot-out FA Cup final defeat to Liverpool two years later that didn’t feel like a loss at all. As joyous as it was to gain promotion with a play-off victory against Preston the following season, the post-match emotion was more vindication than victory. And that’s the biggest problem with play-offs – you have so much more to lose than gain.
None of which can stop me being just as excited over going to Wembley as I was 31 years ago. Maybe all this is my fault?