Norwich City versus Manchester United in the FA Cup. The romance of an unfancied side pitting their wits against one of the giants of the game, in the most famous and storied domestic cup competition in the footballing world. Except this isn’t the first of the quarter-finals this weekend but 1959, and the Canaries, from England’s Third Division, somehow overcome Matt Busby’s all-conquering Red Devils 3-0 in front of 38,000 incredulous fans at Carrow Road. Norwich’s 1959 run to the semi-finals changed the whole way the Club and the city saw itself.
That’s the ‘Magic of the Cup’ right there — the dream of a communal experience at Wembley. Even though they lost 6-0 to Manchester City in last season’s final, most Watford fans will tell you the journey to get there, right up to the 26th minute when David Silva scored, was absolutely worth it.
So the prospect of this year’s Emirates FA Cup being played out behind closed doors is arguably more saddening than watching the Premier League with no fans. And someone who knows exactly what an FA Cup final means is Mike Summerbee, who won with Manchester City in 1969.
“That day was very special,” remembers the Blues’ Club Ambassador, whose cross to Neil Adams led to the only goal of the game. “I was brought up in football, I remembered the famous Stanley Matthews final in 1953, so to walk out into this electric atmosphere was something genuinely amazing. I really felt like the fans and our team were in it together.”
Summerbee is confident that when Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City travel to Newcastle on Sunday, they will do so with the frame of mind that there’s a trophy to win, with fans in their hearts rather than their eye lines. And he should be — as ambassador he’s actually been to all City’s behind-closed-doors clashes so far. He’s been impressed.
“Pep has got them playing so well, you’d never know there were no fans there,” he says. “Obviously the FA Cup final is all about the fans going and whoever is in the final will miss all that this season. But take it from me, if a player scores or contributes like I was fortunate enough to, they will never forget it — and the fans won’t let them either, even if this year they didn’t see it in the flesh.”
At least City supporters have memories of magic Wembley days to call upon — and probably the prospect of many more. For Norwich fans though, the possibility of having to watch a final — in which they have never competed — on television is almost too much to contemplate.
“I was eagerly looking forward to the Manchester United game, but now I just can’t get excited,” admits Robin Sainty, chairman of influential fan group The Canaries Trust. “The key thing about the Cup is passion and atmosphere.
“The prospect of Norwich playing in an empty Wembley if we got that far would be utterly soul destroying.”
Which was also the attitude of Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad, this year’s Copa del Rey finalists. They couldn’t countenance playing the game without their supporters, so lobbied the Spanish FA to postpone the game until they were able to go.
“The desire and will of both clubs has always been, now and before, to play and enjoy the final match along with the supporters,” said their joint statement. “This is what we would like most. A final to be lived with our supporters in the stands.”
Surprisingly perhaps, the Spanish FA agreed in principle — as long as the game is played before the end of next season. The only sticking point is the Europa League place which goes to the winner, but again the teams have indicated they’re prepared to forgo it if necessary. Could we see Norwich asking something similar if it came to it? Sainty doubts it.
“It would be great, but I don’t think it’s realistic — firstly because the broadcasters would never accept it, and also because it’s tough on players who may be out of contract soon and could therefore miss their chance to play in a final. Football without fans is nothing more than a contractual obligation being reluctantly fulfilled.”
So until next year, maybe, the FA Cup will be a much-changed experience for everyone.
“You know, it will still mean so much for a Manchester City player to say they got to a Cup Final at Wembley,” says Summerbee. “Without the FA Cup, the thread of the history of football is lost. Which is why we have to play it this year. Even if it’s sad that fans can’t enjoy it in the stadium, City will just have to try and win it for them.”
FA Cup fixtures
Norwich City v Manchester United, 8.30pm
Sheffield United v Arsenal, 4pm
Leicester City v Chelsea, 7pm
Newcastle United v Manchester City, 9.30pm