FA CUP final day was always special when you were a kid. Perched in front of the TV all day, absorbing everything from “How they got there” to “It’s Knockout”, by the time 5pm came around you were exhausted and only wanted to get outside and recreate the final with your best Frido ball.
With Leicester City reaching their first FA Cup final since 1969, memories flood back to those halcyon days of Grandstand, World of Sport and cup final teams swigging milk from a bottle after the final whistle.
In 1969, the world was still largely black and white, but Manchester City’s red and black-striped kit was something of a continental delight. City’s Tony Book, a spindly-legged old fellow who enjoyed a late-summer career in the big time, and the veteran barrel-chested Dave Mackay were joint Footballers of the Year. Leicester City, struggling at the bottom of the first division, had somehow worked their way through to Wembley, but they did have Allan Clarke, Britain’s most expensive player, as well as Peter Shilton and David Nish, who was the youngest captain of a cup final side at that time.
My Dad wasn’t a football fan, but he said he would watch the final from the vantage point of his armchair, accompanied by a ladder of cigarette smoke climbing up to the stained ceiling. But Dad had a job to do in the morning. Our neighbour, Danny, was clearing out his abnormally long shed and he was aware there were some nasty brown rats inside. He asked my Dad to help him get rid of the pests. “In Denmark, we used to smoke them out and then clump them on the head with a spade,” he said. “Ok, Bob (his name was actually Børge), I will light a fire just inside the door and you knock them as they come out coughing.”
Watching from a bedroom window, we gazed as smoking came billowing out of the shed door. Emerging through the haze, the rats staggered out, Dad hitting them one by one. In total, there were 20 of the little bastards. Danny was elated, even though the fire got a little out of control. “Watching the cup final, Bob?” asked Danny. “Yes, I suppose so, not interested really, but may as well.”
Minutes after saying farewell, Danny called over the fence. His TV had packed up and not even the customary thump on the top of the set could cure its ills. Dad invited him in and Danny, a regular at the Prince of Wales in South Ockendon, brought in two handfuls of Manns’ Brown Ale. Dad and Danny sat quaffing the beer from the bottles, which disgusted my easily-offended mother.
I was sat in my Chelsea kit from the BBC’s 11.25 am start to the day, even though I was worried about a green fireball that had soared across the sky the night before. “I don’t think it was an alien spaceship, more likely a meteorite,” I told my Mum. “I’m looking forward to Look and Learn coming out next week, because there might be something about in there.”
Meanwhile, the build-up continued. “Not a Leicester fan are you?”, asked Danny. “No, Chelsea, but I am supporting Manchester City today. I like Colin Bell,” I replied. After a while, Danny was getting rather expansive, comparing Joe Mercer to one of the rats that had crawled out of the shed and complaining that Malcolm Allison should really be manager of West Ham (Danny’s club).
I informed Dad and Danny how both teams had got to Wembley. Leicester has beaten Barnsley, Millwall, Liverpool, Mansfield Town and holders West Bromwich Albion on the way, while Manchester City had disposed of Luton Town, Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers, Tottenham and Everton. City, who had won the Football League in 1968, had not defended their title well, and Leicester were bound for relegation. “City should win 3-0,” I told everyone. My calculations were based on a sophisticated set of algorithms allied to current form and FA Cup history. Also, I quoted the Daily Mirror’s preview, telling them that City had a varied and fluent style while Leicester were good in the air.
The match wasn’t memorable, but I wrote down every incident for my post-match report. The pitch looked poor and the City chairman had described it as a cow meadow. Danny had decided by now that looking through the empty beer bottle was more interesting than the football (he was more interested in darts), while my Dad was dozing away. “How old is that Lochhead fellow?” asked Danny. “He looks like 60 at least.” I quickly flicked though my “Who’s Who in Football”. “He’s 28. Used to play for Burnley and he has been capped by Scotland under-23.”
I made a note about Lochhead, just in case I could include a recommendation in my next letter to Chelsea manager Dave Sexton. “Good at heading but looks old. If he had more hair, he would play for Scotland.”
Neil Young, who didn’t go on to be part of Crosby, Stills Nash and Young, scored the only goal of a lack-lustre game to win the cup for City. “Who was the last team to win the league and then cup the following year?,” asked my now blearily awake Dad as he lit his next Players’ Number Six.
“Liverpool,” I quipped. “No, Spurs,” he came back. He was wrong, but given he showed no interest in football, I let him think he had given me some valuable information. I entertained them by naming every FA Cup winner since 1946.
As predicted, I was eager for a game of football afterwards. I went out onto the allotments behind our house for a kick around. A neighbour’s cat, “Pickles”, was chewing something. It was long and brown with a snake-like tail. A rat that had got away. It was an omen. A dog named pickles had found the World Cup in a bush in 1966. My brothers joined me for a game on the allotment and I scored a hat-trick as Manchester City beat Leicester 3-0. I was right all along.