FA Cup Semi-Finals 2010/11: That was then – this is now….
05 April 1975 – just another Saturday for most people, but for a 12 year old boy this was a day that was almost too incredible to believe was happening. It was FA Cup Semi-Final day and his beloved Fulham were within a game of reaching the FA Cup Final for the first time in their history. Second Division Fulham were up against First Division Birmingham City, Trevor Francis et al.
The Cottagers previous attempts in reaching the FA Cup Final had all ended in failure. In their first season in the Football League (1907-08), the team progressed to the Semi-Final after victories over Luton Town (8-3), Norwich City (2-1), Manchester City (3-1 in a replay) and Manchester United (2-1). However, the Semi-Final at Anfield against Newcastle United proved a game too far and Fulham slumped to an FA Cup Semi-Final record 6-0 defeat.
It was 28 years before the men from Craven Cottage reached the Semi-Finals again in 1935-36. The journey which never saw Fulham leave London contained wins over Brighton & Hove Albion (2-1), Blackpool (5-2), Chelsea (3-2 in a replay) and Derby County (3-0). For the first time during the Cup run the Cottagers had to travel away from the capital and they were duly beaten 2-1 by Sheffield United.
In 1957-58 Fulham hoped it was third time lucky in the Semi-Finals after victories against Yeovil Town (4-0), Charlton Athletic (2-0 in a replay), West Ham United (3-2) and Bristol Rovers (3-1). Their opponents were Manchester United, a club still coming to terms with the Munich disaster just 6 weeks after the event. The first game ended 2-2 at Villa Park and in the replay at Highbury, Fulham again failed to reach Wembley after a 5-3 defeat.
Just four years later, Fulham were back in Semi-Final action. Hatlepools United were dispatched in the 3rd Round 3-1 at the Cottage and Walsall were overcome 2-0 in a replay in Round Four. Round Five and Port Vale were beaten 1-0 and in Round Six a replay was required to see off Blackburn Rovers by the same score. Burnley were the opposition at Villa Park and Graham Leggat’s first half goal gave Fulham the lead going into the interval. However the advantage was quickly wiped out as John Connelly levelled for the Clarets. Once again a replay was required and once again Fulham came up short. A brace from Jimmy Robson put the Lancastrians on their way to Wembley as Jim Langley’s 90th minute goal was nothing more than a late consolation.
It was against this backdrop of Semi-Final failure that the Fulham faithful travelled north to Hillsborough in April 1975. My recollection of the day is dominated by a number of things. In my early teens I was not a great passenger when travelling by car as I was prone to travel sickness. So the journey up the M1 had me eating and drinking very little and sat clutching a carrier bag in case of emergencies. I also remember having a new rosette for the game which my mum had bought me. Black and white crinkled ribbon circled a silver foil replica of the most famous Cup in the World and a neatly printed piece of cardboard sat proudly below showing “FULHAM FC” in black block capitals. I remember too us parking near a massive estate of tower blocks and the walk to the ground. It was the biggest crowd I’d been part of, nearly 55,000.
Of the game itself, well the size of the ground, the noise of both sets of fans, the colour, the excitement and the tension of the occasion are all fresh in my memory. Fulham dominated and should have been ahead at the break, but then our reward came early in the second half with a wonder-strike from John Mitchell. We were going to Wembley for the first time and I was going to witness the historic moment. And then Fulham’s Semi-Final hoodoo struck again as Joe Gallagher brought the Blues level. Once again a replay was required. I cut a rather forlorn figure in the back of the car as I clutched my sick bag and we headed away from Sheffield. History shows that four days later Fulham broke their Semi-Final jinx in the last minute of extra time at Maine Road with possibly the luckiest, scrappiest, scruffiest, Semi-Final goal ever. Unfortunately I had to settle for listening to the game on the radio, but we were there and that was enough for me. Wembley beckoned for the FA Cup Final.
Roll forward to this weekend and it’s Semi-Final time again. However, these days things are very different. The games no longer take place on the same day. Both games are shown live on television and both take place at Wembley. I don’t agree with it. Wembley is the reward for the Finalists. That day in 1975 was special because a Semi-Final then had its own unique atmosphere – travelling to a neutral venue was like one foot on the podium. Now the podium has been flattened and in my opinion contributed to the devaluing of the FA Cup. I feel sorry for fans having to travel all the way down to London and all the costs and hassle that will involve to suit the needs of television and the FA’s Wembley debt. I know a Stoke fan who is caught in a quandary like many will be this weekend. He has a family to support, so going to both the Semi-Final and Final is not a financial option. What does he do? Does he gamble on not going this weekend and hope that the Potters get to the Final and then scramble for a ticket? Or does he go to the Semi knowing that if they win he won’t be able to see them in the Final?
For me football is no longer for the fans, it’s about the powers that be in positions of authority, whether that be the FA or the media organisations. Tradition? They have killed it and frankly they don’t care if they do. I’m glad I was able to experience the heritage and romance of the FA Cup back in 1975, because that now belongs to a different era and I’ll always cherish that day in April, 36 years ago.