THE FA CUP used to be special. The final was listed as part of the social season in Letts diaries, a status that didn’t mean much to the man on the Highbury terrace, because “social calendar” meant the blazered types that turned up at major sporting events such as test matches, Ascot and Wimbledon without having too much interest in the sports themselves.
The FA Cup was a “grand day out” for the supporters of the participating clubs as far back as the late 19th century when the final was held at the Crystal Palace. Hordes of fans travelled down to south London – many via special trains – to see the match and often make a weekend of it. This peaked in 1913 when 120,000 saw Aston Villa play Sunderland.
In the post-WW2 years, the FA Cup final became a glorious celebration of the national game. And with the arrival of TV, millions perched in front of their boxes to see the climax of the season – although for many years, the final was not actually the last game of the campaign.
In the 1960s, with commercial and public sector broadcasting in full swing, the FA Cup final dominated both day and night viewing. Both BBC and ITV screened the final live, virtually the only game that did appear live in its entirety. The two competing channels often began their coverage as early as 10 or 11am. ITV even introduced a pre-final programme that asked, “Who will win the Cup?”.
Why did post-match interviews on TV always include players with bottle of milk?
The destination of the “little tin idol” was hotly debated in the week up to the big day. We all have our FA Cup final memories and for me, it started in 1967. Condovers camp site in East Tilbury, a sort of cub scout jamboree. Usually on cup final day. Tottenham v Chelsea. I especially remember one skinny, pock-marked kid sticking his nose in my face as we tried to glimpse the game in a huge marquee and telling me, “I hate that bloody Johnny Boyle”. John Boyle, one of the lesser known Chelsea players from the era, was on the Chelsea side that lost 2-1 that day. It was noted in the press that he was born on Christmas Day. From that final, I became a Chelsea supporter, but equally importantly, I became a big fan of the FA Cup.
A year later, the FA Cup final featured West Bromwich Albion and Everton. Chelsea had surprisingly been beaten by second division Birmingham City in the quarter-finals, thanks to a header from Fred Pickering. I was distraught. I had seen Chelsea slalom their way past Ipswich Town, Norwich City and Sheffield Wednesday and was convinced they would be returning to Wembley. My wall chart had been prematurely filled in to reflect a final for Dave Sexton’s men.
But the final of 1968 was the first I can recall well. In particular, we were all told that Jeff Astle, West Brom’s centre forward had scored in every round. He did it again in the final and became part of FA Cup folklore. Just as the final had been the catalyst for me in choosing my club of choice, the 1968 final was the moment my brother chose to support Albion and, for some reason, Clive Clark.
A year later was my real initiation into televised FA Cup final day. I remember it well because on the morning of April 26, 1969, my Dad had helped our neighbour, Danny, smoke out a family of rats from his extremely long garden shed. Danny lit a fire inside the shed and the rats came coughing out of the door, where my Dad bashed them on the head with a spade. A very scientific approach to pest control!
After this exercise, Danny offered my Dad a couple of bottles of Manns’ Brown Ale and asked if he was watching the Cup final. In between that neighbourly exchange and the match itself, Danny fell out with his very attractive wife, Carol, and was locked out. My Dad offered our living room as a grandstand seat for the final, although he hated football. But armed with Brown Ale and an ample supply of Rothman’s No. 6, my Dad (and Danny) sat through Manchester City 1 Leicester City 0. I was never offered any Brown Ale.
In 1970, my time had come. Chelsea were paired with Queens Park Rangers (Division two) in the sixth round. According to my calculations, if they got past Rangers, which indeed they should as Chelsea were in top-top form, they would win the cup. They won that one easily enough and then faced another lower level team, Watford, in the semi-final. Chelsea had avoided Leeds and Manchester United and won again, this time by 5-1, and would face Leeds in the final.
I prepared for the occasion with gusto. My Chelsea kit was freshly laundered and ready for me to wear for the game. I had the Daily Mirror Cup Final supplement – with its cartoon sketches of the players – at the ready and the latest editions of Goal and Shoot. My own note book, with all of Chelsea’s result for the season was at the ready. I made sure my Peter Osgood poster was firmly in place on my bedroom wall, my pennants pinned above my bed and I had asked my Mum for a tomato sandwich before the game. I had realised I had eaten a tomato sandwich on the days that Chelsea beat Crystal Palace, QPR and Watford in the preceding rounds. I had read that such lucky charms were part of the legend of the game and the FA Cup. For example, Jackie Milburn had something sown inside his shorts, Portsmouth’s manager had his lucky spats and certain players followed other superstitions before a game. The tomato sandwich was mine.
I was worried, though. Leeds United were formidable opponents and every one a current or future international: Sprake (Wales), Madeley (capped in 1971), Cooper (England), Bremner (Scotland), Charlton (England), Hunter (England), Lorimer (Scotland), Clarke (capped in WC 1970), Jones (England), Giles (Eire) and Gray (Scotland). Chelsea: Bonetti (England), Webb, McCreadie (Scotland), Hollins (England), Dempsey (Eire), Harris, Baldwin, Houseman, Osgood (England), Hutchinson, Cooke (Scotland). The odds were heavily stacked against Chelsea and what’s more, Leeds had thrashed Chelsea 5-2 at Stamford Bridge in January.
When it came to the game, my Dad was involved once more. He was suffering from chronic bronchitis at the time and watched the match from the sofa. Each time Leeds scored his condition improved, although Don Revie’s “dad dance” after their second from Mick Jones brought on a relapse, as did Chelsea’s two equalisers.
After an exhaustive day’s viewing – the game went into extra time on a dreadful pitch – we went out to play football to relive the final. Eighteen days later, Chelsea won the Cup and I ran the length of our high street in my Chelsea kit in an improvised lap of honour. My Dad’s chest got better and I delighted that I would be able to take my new yellow and blue away strip into Europe in 1970-71.
A year later, we watched Charlie George score the winner for Arsenal as they won the double. This was a landmark year – the FA Cup final programme was available in newsagents for the first time – this time we would be fully equipped, although the programme was always well out of date in those days.
George’s goal in 1971 and his reaction, falling to the ground in a messianic pose, was just one of many moments that live on in the chronicles of the FA Cup. Jim Montgomery’s spectacular save from Peter Lorimer will always be remembered as Sunderland pulled off a major shock in 1973, beating Leeds United 1-0.
This golden era was also characterised by some historic FA Cup giant-killings. Hereford United, for example, won their place in the Football League on the back of their FA Cup exploits. Part of the unquestionable charm of the competition is “being there” when FA Cup history is being made. It happens seldom in a spectator’s viewing life. The first time I saw an upset was in 1978 when Chelsea beat Liverpool 4-2 – Clive Walker will be forever remembered for his virtuoso performance that afternoon.
There are other, less happy memories that you accumulate on the way. In 1989, I was at Villa Park to see Norwich City v Everton in the FA Cup semi-final. That same day, Liverpool met Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough. We didn’t realise why the game in Sheffield had been held up until half-time, but by the final whistle, we were aware that a terrible disaster had happened. It sent a chill down your spine and completely distracted people from the result: Everton 1 (Nevin) Norwich City 0.
In 1989-90, I attempted my own “Road to Wembley”, starting local and ending at Wembley. My route began with Baldock Town v Cray Wanderers and then included Wycombe Wanderers, Stafford Rangers, Aylesbury, Northampton, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Aston Villa, Bristol City and a semi-final between Manchester United v Oldham Athletic at Maine Road. The semi-final was an eye-opener as I almost felt like an undercover journalist as I mingled with United fans who were Stretford End veterans.
United won through against Oldham and I followed them to Wembley for the final against Crystal Palace. I obtained my ticket from the Black Market. I had picked up a number from a work colleague and rang it, speaking to a gravel-voiced cockney character who said if I came to Plantation House in Fenchurch Street, I would be able to pick up a ticket. “£120 mate, ok?”
Plantation House was in the heart of the City if London and a short walk from my office. I walked in, took the first right and knocked on the door of a small office. Inside, half a dozen “geezers” in sheepskin coats sat around, smoking heroically for England. A bull-necked man in a sharp suit, cigar in his top pocket and Dr Marten boots paced the room, with a fistful of tickets in his hand. “What did we say, Buster?,” he said. He was talking to me. “Oi, Buster, what did we say, £150?”, he added, impatiently. “No, £120,” I replied, nervously. “OK. What about an extra £30 for a better ticket?,” he asked. “No, £120 is my limit,” Is insisted. “Ok, Buster. Ok Buster. Here you go. You’re in the Palace section, that OK?.” I was happy enough. “Stay lucky, Buster. Stay lucky.”
I later realised that I may actually have been dealing with Stan Flashman, the king of the ticket touts, but that was never confirmed. The game was a classic in terms of entertainment, ending 3-3. I queued for hours to get a replay ticket, but they sold out just as I was about to make my purchase. But, after years of watching the game, I had finally seen a cup final.
Being part of a club that makes an impact in the FA Cup is also an exhilarating experience. When I was involved with Hitchin Town, I was press officer when the club beat Hereford United in the 1994-95 competition. To run from the Preliminary Round to Round Two is no mean feat, but that’s what Hitchin did in that never-to-be-forgotten cup run.
A cup final can be ruined by being seated next to the wrong people!
I subsequently saw the 1992, 1994, 1997, 1998 and 2000 finals. In 1997, I arrived at my seat at Wembley as Chelsea faced Middlesbrough. When I sat down, I realised the person next to me was from Hitchin. We marvelled at Roberto Di Matteo’s first minute goal that brought Chelsea their first major honour since 1971. I was there again in 2000 when the Blues beat Aston Villa in the last final at the old Wembley and then returned to the new stadium in 2007 when Manchester United were beaten 1-0. Being among United fans made any celebrations rather muted.
It’s a lottery where you do get seated. At the 2011 final, I was among Stoke fans who were singling out anyone not wearing their colours and telling them to “fuck off out of here.” Similarly, a year later, the behaviour of some Liverpool fans was appalling – small children of seven or eight years of age standing on their seats, calling out to Fernando “Judas” Torres, “you Portuguese c***”, while being encouraged by his parents. I enjoyed singing “Blue is the Colour” that day and in beating Liverpool, managed by Kenny Dalglish, 2-1.
I had come across Dalglish in 1998 at Newcastle United. I had been involved with Stevenage’s press arrangements for their FA Cup tie with the Geordies, helping with the press box and also writing some “colour” pieces for the local newspaper, The Comet. After the 1-1 draw at Broadhall Way, I was told that Dalglish had not shaken Stevenage manager Paul Fairclough’s hand on the whistle. “They went straight to the station and hopped on a train back north.” There had been some bad blood before the game, mostly around Stevenage’s refusal to switch the tie to St. James’ Park.
The replay was equally tense and after Newcastle had won 2-1, the press conference began with my question to Fairclough: “Did Mr Dalglish shake your hand this time, Paul?”. Fairclough replied: “He did, Neil, as he did at Stevenage.” I gulped and gulped again when Dalglish came into the press room after he had watched the Fairclough interviews on CCTV. He went straight for me. “You didn’t need to ask that question,” he said, pointing to me. “But…but,” I tried to reply. His response was to the point and did not allow for any come back: “I’m not interested. Anyone who knows me, knows I always shake hands with the opposition manager,” or words to that effect. I was embarrassed and wanted to explain, but the reporters from the Mirror, Mail and Telegraph all told me. “Leave it…he’s not interested.” It was something of a lesson. I had been “stitched up” at Stevenage and Dalglish had me for supper.
In 1998, the FA Cup still mattered, but no matter how many people tell you it is still important, you have to question that. Most players who are putting on Premier League shirts are too young to remember when the competition was, indeed, a touch of magic. But someone, somewhere, will make a newsworthy story on third round weekend. And that magic could be coming to a club near you…