I woke up this morning at 6am and just could not get back to sleep, no matter how tired I thought I was. Nothing unusual in the Spring or Summer months, I am usually so keen to get up and get outside into the garden, I think I just wake up with the sunrise. But today is FA Cup Final day and it used to be a very special day, especially when I was younger. Today could still be a special day given that there are 2 teams in the Final neither of whom have won any silverware since the 1970’s, Stoke City and Manchester City. Stoke have never been in the Final in their 140 odd years of existence, so their fans will be experiencing a mix of emotions, anxiety right now and maybe, just maybe ecstasy at about 5pm tonight. Or their fans and players will feel flatter than a pancake if they lose to their big money rivals, the Chelsea replacements in light blue. To both sets of fans winning will be everything today and losing, well just not worth contemplating. To both sets of supporters, may the best team win.
My how the game has changed though. This is the first time ever that the FA Cup Final has been played before the end of the Football League season (or indeed the Premier League) has actually finished. Worse than that, a stack of Premiership teams actually play today, all be it at 12.45pm. And even worse than that, the FA Cup Final is no longer on the BBC! Without being dewy eyed. things ain’t what they used to be.
FA Cup Final day was always special. Outside of World Cups and the occasional European Championship ( I say occasional that was because there was only 8 teams who took part, even up to 1992, and the home countries were rarely involved) and the much loved and much missed Home Internationals, which featured England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Island in a round robin tournament played over a week of 2 Saturdays and a Wednesday nigh match, there was no live football on TV.
I remember watching my first Final in 1970 – Chelsea vs Leeds which went to a replay the following week, which was great becasue it was another match live on TV. Chelsea won it and also won a legion of new fans, all about 6 or 7 years old. At school on the Monday after the Saturday draw, I remember getting punched by some bigger kids because when they asked me ‘who are you for the replay, Chelsea or Leeds’ I simply replied, ‘neither, I amWest Ham’. I think the die was cast even at an early stage in my life that I was never one to follow the crowds and certainly never one to support anyone else bar my beloved Hammers. In 1971 we saw Arsenal do the Double in colour for the first time and Charlie George lay prone after scoring the winner against Liverpool. Then in ’72 it was Arsenal back again, this time against the mighty Leeds, Mick Jones with a bandaged shoulder which looked like it had dislocated as he crossed the ball for Allan Clarke to nail the winner. I remember that year collecting the Esso coin collection celebrating 100 years of the FA Cup, and pleading with Dad to make sure he always bought Esso petrol and thus got more little blue printed paper packets with a precious silver coin inside. In ’73 it was that legendary game, Sunderland of the 2nd Division beating the mighty Leeds! No one could believe it. In 74 Liverpool thumped Newcastle 3-0 and Alec Lindsay scored a scorcher which was ruled out as offside. In ’75 it was West Ham against 2nd Division Fulham. Bobby Moore, the legendary number 6 played, but not for West Ham but for Fulham. In then end all my dreams came true when our FA Cup hero, Alan Taylor scored twice again and Billy Bonds lifted the FA Cup and I was happy as a happy thing for months. The following year, it was Southampton’s turn for a day in the sun and they beat hot favourites Manchester United with a solitary goal by Bobby Stokes. And so every year the memories just built. I have only ever been to 2 FA Cup Finals, 1980 when a 2nd Division West Ham beat 1st Division Arsenal and in 2006 when a 2nd Division (now rebranded Championship) West Ham took Premiership Liverpool to penalties after a 3-3 draw in 120 minutes, not at Wembley but in Cardiff. A great day and all that, one I will never forget, despite us being on the losing side.
Not only was the match live on TV in the old days, but the whole day seemed to be about the Cup. I think the BBC and ITV used to kick off about 9 or 10am and we would have Cup Final themed ‘Swap Shop’ (BBC) and something else on ITV, and the day was about one thing and one thing only. But these were different days. Yes the game meant everything, but it was played by players who earned good money, but not daft money. The gap between the fans and those players was not enormous. We were all working class people, joining together on the big day. We all wanted to win, but we all had a laugh or a cry and above all there was a feeling of a national togetherness. Even the managers were relaxed and full of banter. Nowadays it is all conflict and hype. Take a look at ‘Big’ Ron Atkinson and Jimmy Melia who were interviewed by the legendary David Coleman on the morning of the Cup Final. They are laughing and joking and at complete ease with each other. How refreshing that is when compared with some of the nonsense we see today.
Ok, we were younger and we had more vivid memories, but who could forget the FA Cup finalists, the players, the heroes and the villians. The sea of colours, the banners, the terraces at Wembley stacked with true fans paying fair prices and the perfect pitch, green and cut with what must have been nail scissors. Who also could forget the players, putting absolutely everything into a game, often played in blazing sunshine. Those same players with rolled down socks, discarded shin pads and fantastic 70’s and 80’s hairstyles, exhausted, many crippled by cramp and all connected to their fans and to the nation as a whole. Above all, the nation would tune in in to 1 of 2 channels and watch the game, ‘Abide with Me’ would bring tears to the eyes of the older ones, and us youngsters would be so excited we were also close to tears.
And then to the game. Everyone, and I mean everyone would be watching the game. It was just like Christmas Day, but without all the presents. Once the game was over, we would all go outside and then play football for hours, until the very last chink of sunshine allowed us to see an old rough ball. I will always remember that Sunderland team, managed by the man in the hat, Bob Stokoe, who really could not believe that they had beaten the best team in the country. These were the best of times and there were simply no ‘worst of times’. Today is a tale of two cities, Manchester and Stoke and let’s hope the best team on the day, the one who wants it most, wins. I have no fear that both sets of fans will be singing their hearts out as it will mean loads to them. Indeed one of my very good friends is an ardent Manchester City fan in his 60’s and he is taking his family and his mother a lifelong fan. Another old school friend will be there, hoping that his beloved City will win something at last. That for me is what football is all about.