In 2000, the ‘old’ Wembley was closed and, eventually, demolished. Since reopening in 2007, all FA Cup Semi-Finals have been played at the stadium rather than at neutral league grounds as used to be the norm.
It was previously felt that as Cup Final Day was a special occasion, Wembley was only utilised for the culmination of the competition. The semi’s, meanwhile, had a uniqueness of their own in being played simultaneously at neutral league grounds.
This was a system that worked perfectly well until the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989, which was the last time that both semi-finals were played at the same time. Following this, the games were shown live on television with staggered kick-off times.
In 1991, the first FA Cup semi to be played at Wembley took place and this was followed by several other such matches before the old stadium was demolished. Here we will have a look at such matches.
However, before we get onto these games please allow me to indulge in a spot of whingeing. In fact, to be totally honest, I would like to beg your indulgence to whinge about the whingeing of others.
It is the constant harping on in some quarters that the ‘old’ Wembley was in some way superior to the ‘new’ one. Was it Horlicks!
The atmosphere, we are told by some, was second to none in days gone by. No, it wasn’t. It really wasn’t. The pitch was miles away from the stands – there was a full size track in the way – and large swathes of the ground offered up what could most generously be described as ‘restricted viewing’.
Then I look at the antiqued facilities, the amenities, the extremely dangerous steps leading to the turnstiles, and I think, “Really? That was better? Really?” Well, maybe it’s a sign of getting old but if a ‘better atmosphere’ entails paying 25 quid for a seat from which I can see 60% of the pitch and having to wade through ankle-deep urine in order relieve myself, then I think I’ll stick with modern comforts, if it’s all the same.
Anyway, back to the Valley.
In 1991, the final four teams in the FA Cup were Nottingham Forest and the London trio of Tottenham, West Ham and Arsenal. While Forest were drawn against the Second Division Hammers, the two North London teams were paired together.
Both matches were due to be played on the Sunday and shown live on terrestrial television, and so the venues needed to be decided upon. Forest and West Ham were allocated Villa Park, while a decision needed to be taken regarding the North London clash.
In the previous decade both Highbury and White Hart Lane had been used as semi-final venues but were both, obviously, now out of the question, Four years earlier Spurs had been drawn against Watford at this stage and the FA, in its infinite wisdom, had made both sides slope all the way up the M1 to Birmingham and Villa Park.
Then the FA refused to play the game at Highbury because Arsenal wouldn’t put perimeter fences up, and, presumably, they felt that Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge, a 1970s FA Cup semi-final venue, was no longer in any fit shape to hold such a prestigious match. To be fair, they probably had a point here as Stamford Bridge had descended into a bit of an eyesore by 1987.
Anyway, in 1991 the choice was to then send Arsenal and Tottenham out of the capital or to look at alternatives within. Twickenham was reportedly considered before being ruled out, and it was then that the FA made the decision to utilise Wembley for its first ever semi.
The decision was controversial on many fronts. It was felt that Wembley should be kept sacred for the final, and also that the winners of the semi would have an advantage when it came to the final over the winners of the other semi having already sampled the atmosphere (!).
Despite protestations, the match went ahead at Wembley as planned and Arsenal went into the game as huge favourites. Only beaten once all season in the league, George Graham’s side were chasing the double and were expected to brush aside Terry Venables’ Tottenham side. Not reading the script, Paul Gascoigne turned in a memorable performance and largely thanks to his heroics, Spurs prevailed by a 3-1 scoreline.
Two years later and the problem of where to play would be revisited. This time, the North London duo were joined in the final four by the Sheffield sides of United and Wednesday. When the balls came out of the magic hat decreeing that there would be two local derbies to contend with and so twice the trouble.
Immediately, the FA declared Arsenal and Tottenham would once again meet at Wembley. They also decreed that the Sheffield sides would square off at Elland Road, home of Leeds. This last decision was rejected by United and Wednesday who were united in their stance that they would only play at Wembley.
There then followed a game of bluff whereby the FA intimated to ‘reconsider’ before stating that their original decision stood. Again, this was rejected by the local rivals who once more made their position on the matter very clear: if the North London derby was going to be played at the Mecca of English soccer, then so was the Sheffield one.
Eventually, and having made a rod for their own back with their decisions regarding Spurs and The Gunners, the FA caved in and both matches did indeed take place at Wembley with the Sheffield game taking place on the Saturday and the North London match-up a day later.
Eventually, Sheffield Wednesday defeated their city rivals 2-1 after extra-time, and Arsenal gained a measure of revenge for two years earlier with a single-goal victory over Spurs.
With the genie out of the bottle now, there was no going back. Having capitulated to the Sheffield clubs in such a humiliating manner in 1993, the FA now had no choice but to dance to the clubs’ tune hence forward. So it came to pass that in 1994 both semi’s were held at the old stadium as a result of the clubs’ stated preferences.
Both Oldham against Manchester United and Luton Town vs Chelsea could, of course, been held at alternative venues, but by now the FA were stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Chelsea disposed of Luton easily enough by a 2-0 scoreline, but when Mark Hughes scored a last-minute equaliser for Manchester United against Oldham to force a replay, another quandary was thrown into the mix: where to host the replay?
in 1991 the powers-that-be had decreed any FA Cup ties would be subjected to a maximum of one replay and if the sides could still not be separated, then a penalty shoot-out would ensue. This was, supposedly, on police advice, as despite coping admirably for over a hundred years, police authorities now suddenly declared a minimum of ten days’ notice before games was required. This led to replays no longer taking place a matter of days after the original game.
However… in 1994 an exception was made, it seems. Just three days after clashing at Wembley, Oldham and Manchester United met again this time where they should have played the original game – Maine Road, home of Manchester City, and Manchester United won by a 4-1 scoreline.
After these rather farcical proceedings, the FA once again declared there would be no more Wembley semi-finals barring ‘exceptional circumstances’ and so from 1995-99 all such matches were held once again on neutral club grounds.
That took us up to the end of the century and the expiration of the original Wembley’s shelf life. Due to be pulled down in the autumn of 2000, the FA sensed one more significant payday. Or, as they put it, one more chance to experience the uniqueness of the place.
Either way, they decided to host both the semi-finals of 2000 at Wembley and so Aston Villa took on and defeated Bolton Wanderers 4-1 on penalties, while Chelsea defeated Newcastle 2-1 a week later in Sir Bobby Robson’s last game as a manager at the old stadium.
It remarkably was to be another seven years before the FA Cup Final was to return to Wembley as that was how long it took to demolish the old place and then build it up again.
During the period 2001 to 2007 inclusive, semi-finals were held at either Villa Park or Old Trafford with the exception of 2005 that saw both matches played at the Millennium Stadium, where the finals were held during this spell.
Not only did the rebuilding project end up going extensively over budget timewise, but financially the whole affair became a money pit. Such were the unexpected costs that upon its completion the FA declared that all future semi-finals would be held at the stadium for an unspecified period.
The first FA Cup Final at the new ground in 2007 saw Chelsea defeat Manchester United 1-0, and from then onwards every final and semi-final has been held at the new stadium. This, of course, has meant more people can watch the games live, which is an argument in favour of the decision, but it has often been at the expense and inconvenience of those very fans.
Merseyside and Manchester derbies have occurred since the reopening of Wembley and each time hordes of supporters have been forced to schlep hundreds of miles down motorways in order to watch their sides play when surely more viable alternatives have been present.
Whatever one might feel about Wembley FA Cup semi’s, they certainly do look here to stay.