Op-Ed: EFL Playoffs have replaced FA Cup Final in English fans’ hearts and minds


I spent much of my youth growing up in Wembley, less than half a mile from the stadium. Unlike Raheem Sterling though, I knew from an early age I lacked the talent to ever actually play there.

However, I was hooked from a very early age by the fan experience, especially in the month of May. May was Wembley’s Mardi Gras. We had the non-league FA Trophy and FA Vase, an England women’s hockey international, the Rugby League Cup Final, the FA Cup Final and (for me) best of all, every second year 60,000 and more of my fellow Scots descending on the venue to see us beat England which we often used to do on those days.

Each occasion had its very own unique flavour. The Rugby League final was more family oriented with the beautiful northern accents of Humberside, Yorkshire and Lancashire dominating.

The women’s hockey international involved busloads of schoolgirls holding “Boys Wanted” signs to the windows as they passed before singing “I Am Sailing” so loudly, our house windows trembled.

The non-league fans were small town England at its finest with families of people just delighted to be in Wembley, being ceaselessly polite to the locals, and picking up their own litter.

And the invasion of the Tartan Army? That involved Rhodes Boyson MP for Brent North warning us all to bar our doors and windows in the Wembley Observer and car doors slamming at 5am as voices inquired in broad Scots accents “if the bevvy was in the boot”. It also usually involved me leaving the house, clinging to my Lion Rampant, and going to the game.

“The Championship play-off final has become a bigger game than the FA Cup Final”

Richard Foster, Author – The Agony & the Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Football League Play-Offs

But my personal allegiances apart, the FA Cup Final was the undisputed daddy of them all.

It may have been the award of England’s second most important trophy. The regularity of a David v Goliath storyline. A third of the entire nation watching it. Fans who dreamed of Wembley finally seeing their side play there.

That was the 1970’s and early 80’s, and Wembley’s function, as well as its appearance, has changed. The Twin Towers have been replaced by a striking arch. The Home Internationals are a thing of the past. But most of all, getting to Wembley is no longer quite as unique as it used to be.

In those days, you might be welcoming a team who hadn’t played at Wembley in 30, 40 or 50 years. Or ever before. Now both FA Cup finalists were last there two weeks before because they moved the semi finals there. That’s especially important because for the semis, both sides receive far more tickets than for the final.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that the FA Cup Final remains as an occasion for the great and the good of the administration of English football. Those who give their time throughout the year to the Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire Football Associations receive tickets, leaving the fans of the finalists with a far smaller allocation.

Still the FA Cup was special.

The singing of Abide With Me still makes the hairs on the back of my neck do whatever they are supposed to do. No fixture evoked memories of great goals or even saves like the final. Charlie George lying on his back in Arsenal’s double winning year; Wimbledon keeper Dave Beasant saving that Liverpool penalty; Laurie Sanchez’ goal in the same game; Spurs’ Ricardo Villa’s dribbling through the Manchester City defence in the days that was possible; cup winning goals by men remembered for the entirety of their careers like Trevor Brooking, and men remembered just for that one goal like Ipswich Town’s Roger Osborne, Southampton’s Bobby Stokes, and of course Sunderland’s Ian Porterfield.

Maybe I’m remembering with rose-tinted glasses but FA Cup Finals became less good in the 80s and 90s with less underdogs and Liverpool, Everton and Manchester United dominating. At the end of that spell of domination, the EPL arrived. It wasn’t till 2013 a genuine underdog won the cup again.

As the EPL has become more important weakening the gleam of the FA Cup, another interloper has entered the Wembley landscape.

Sides are promoted and relegated within the English league structure on merit, but there is also a play-off lottery that sides finishing as low as fifth or sixth can enter. Four are whittled down to two and those two slug it out at Wembley.

Eight clubs, therefore, earn themselves a Wembley play day, starting with those seeking promotion to League Two from the National League. This year that was an all-Lancashire final between AFC Fylde and Salford City. Last year, Tranmere booked an emotional return to the football league against Boreham Wood despite being a man down after just two minutes.

That day, the scenes among the Tranmere fans, so often in the shadow of Liverpool and Everton, were among the most emotional I have ever witnessed at a game, and I’ve been at a World Cup Final.

This year, I was perhaps fortunate in that my seat in the press box was among the Salford, Charlton and Aston Villa fans all of whom won. I experienced the raw emotion close up.

Midlands Day Out: Fans Gallery of Derby County v Aston Villa

The joy of those fans is something that will remain with me. Villa had reached this stage last year and froze, losing to Fulham. The day before, a much troubled club with a still uncertain future, Charlton Athletic were promoted despite losing a comical own goal at the very start.

As with Tranmere in 2018, there was a sense of the underdog even if the Goliath was the club’s own circumstances rather than the size of their opponent.

So have the EPL Playoffs become bigger than the FA Cup Final?

We asked Richard Foster, the man who quite literally wrote the book on the subject. He is the author of The Agony & the Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Football League Play-Offs.

After that interview was conducted, he wrote to us pointing out:

“This year’s FA Cup Final crowd was 85,854 and the Championship play-off Final was 85,826 but the allocation meant that only about 50,000 Man City and Watford fans could see the game as opposed to about 80,000 Aston Villa and Derby fans.”

He also notes that the amount of underdog fueled romance in the Cup Final is decreasing.

“In the last 33 FA Cup Finals, 26, that is 79%, FA Cup Finals featured at least one of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City or Manchester United.

“In the last 11 years FA Cup has been won by one of those 10 times. Wigan in 2013 is the outlier.”

Prost International Editor-in-Chief Tom Hardy was at Wembley for the FA Cup Final and has been many games at the stadium.

He noted:

“After the FA Cup final, many Manchester City fans began to make their way home during and even before their players’ traditional on pitch celebration.

“At one point, I looked out and there appeared to be more Watford fans still in the stadium than City fans, and they’d not only seen their team humiliated but were watching the men who humiliated them celebrate it.

“I felt that having won the league, this did not mean that much to the City fans. Additionally, they’d have justifiable confidence that they’ll be back at Wembley soon.

“But when will Aston Villa or Charlton have another day like this at Wembley, and for that matter how likely is it that they will achieve a parallel success within ten years?”

The EFL have done tremendously well in marketing these three games. They were fortunate this year that the six finalists; Tranmere Rovers, Newport County, Charlton, Sunderland, Derby and Aston Villa were all of above average support size for the divisions they represented.

Rotherham and Shrewsbury only attracted 26,218 for the League One play-off final in 2018 for example, although the appearance of the once mighty Coventry City in the League Two final of that year meant that this year’s attendance for Newport v Tranmere was lower.

But the best part of the marketing is the branding of the Championship play-off as the ‘richest game in history’.

We asked Foster about the veracity of that statement. He took it even one step further:

He pointed out that the difference between winning and losing the Champions League final was a mere £4m, compared to £180m for the Villa v Derby game.

That said, Aston Villa will not be looking to pocket much of that £180m given that a sizable chunk of it will be needed to bring in the players needed to stay in the EPL. Fulham spent roughly half that in their doomed attempt to retain their place in the EPL in their first season.

That challenge lies ahead of Dean Smith, Villa’s likable manager.

What no-one can take away from him or the legions of claret and blue clad Villa fans ,who shared the motorway and Wembley way, amicably with their midland rivals for a day is the joy and the memories of the occasion.

For them, it is unlikely that an appearance in the FA Cup Final would bring as much joy, as much raw joy, as I witnessed that memorable Monday. As Foster says, for the board members of the County Football Associations that have their big day out for the FA Cup, they will always have that day as a thank you for their efforts.

For the greater public however whether fans of the big clubs or the small clubs, for experts like Foster and for this long time, though now intermittent, resident of HA9, Wembley, Brent and Middlesex, that once great sunny day in May that is FA Cup Final day, even with all those great memories, now takes second place in English football’s hearts and minds to the three EFL play-offs.

For that alone, the EFL should be congratulated.

They’ve found the perfect answer to the EPL’s dominance.

The Agony and the Ecstasy is published by Ockley Books and is available to buy on Amazon.

Following the success of his World Cup Nuggets book last summer, Richard Foster turns his attention to the most popular league in world football. Premier League Nuggets is similarly packed with funny facts and strange stats encompassing all that is weird and wonderful about England’s top division. Each of the 49 clubs that have competed since 1992 are included and there are enough quirky quiz questions contained in this easy-to-read volume to keep every fan happy.

Premier League Nuggets will be published by Ockley Books and will be out in early August, in time for the start of the 2019/20 season. The book will be available in most good bookshops as well as via the usual online outlets such as Amazon and also directly from the publisher.


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