When I was out walking the dog this morning, I was struck by the sky. Not Chicken-Little style by an acorn falling from above, but by its majesty. It was as if some Technicolor cinematic curtain had been pulled right the way across the eastern horizon. The contrast to the abiding grey made it seem as if I were walking near the Arctic Circle. Maybe the poor frozen people of Spitzbergen see something similar most days, but I doubt whether I’ve ever seen a winter sky quite so spectacular and – because I tend to heed shepherds’ warnings – quite so ominous.
I only mention it because it was remarkable. Like Luton beating Norwich yesterday in the 4th round of the FA Cup. Those of you who don’t follow sport in general or football in particular will probably shrug and turn off at this point. But this was Luton, a town famous only for its airport and for its links with Eric Morecambe, whose club played not so long ago in the old First Division but now play in the Blue Square Premier Division, which is the football equivalent of the Gulag Archipelago. Luton travelled to Norwich of the proper Premier Division, chaired these days by Delia ‘Cookbook’ Smith, and beat them nil-one.
It was the equivalent of David slaying Goliath with a single slingshot. It was the kind of result that causes commentators to behave unnecessarily and start squealing about fairy-tales. Even though I have no interest in either Luton or Norwich, and only a passing interest these days in football and its legions of overpaid oiks, I bathed for at least an hour in the warm glow of the upset.
It’s called ‘the magic of the cup’. Supposedly, there’s no competition in the world like the FA Cup (now with new added Budweiser sponsorship). I suspect that English spokesmen are a trifle biased, but it’s true that I wouldn’t know or even care what the French equivalent is. As a young boy in Belfast, I failed to get worked up about the local competition, even though Linfield, the local team, played just down the road and you could hear the resounding roar of any goal scored at Windsor Park.
Every May, however, I would park myself in front of the telly hours before the FA Cup Final was due to start to watch all the preliminaries: the interviews with players at their hotel; the chats with cheery fans on their way to Wembley; the highlights of the two teams’ routes to the final. And then there was the community singing led by some old bloke on a platform, before at last the two teams would emerge from the tunnel to line up on the pitch and shake the hands of whichever dignatory had come to sit like a Roman emperor and watch the match from the Royal Box. It didn’t really matter that much which teams were contesting it; that old FA Cup magic had got me in its spell.
From an early age, too. My first memory of a final was the one played out in 1961 on our old telly – with its green and grey livery and its minute screen – between Tottenham Hotspur in white and Leicester City in black and white. Those were the days when Spurs, like most other teams, had a big bulldozing centre-forward prepared to risk future brain-damage by heading wet leather balls (a man with the no-nonsense name of Bobby Smith), and a pair of predatory inside forwards: John White, the Scottish ‘ghost’, soon to be struck dead by lightning while sheltering under a tree on the golf course; and the mercurial Jimmy Greaves. In them days, you knew where you were with an inside forward.
My first final in our new home in Belfast the following year also involved Spurs, still playing in white, and a team playing in several shades of grey. I knew from my cigarette cards, however, that Burnley played in a fetching combo of claret and light blue. It didn’t do them any good. If my memory serves me well, Spurs – with a new no.10 to replace the now legendary ‘Ghost’ of John Whites past – beat them 3-1.
It was the first final I watched when I fully understood football and it was enough to cement my annual love affair with the Cup. But thereafter it becomes a blurr of highlights: Gerry Byrne of Liverpool playing most of the 1965 final with a broken collar bone (which pales into insignificance beside the feat of Burt Trautmann, an ex-Nazi paratrooper who became Manchester City’s goalie, who played through the 1956 final with… a broken neck, for God’s sake); David Webb of the Chelsea team of men with long sideburns, who liked to smoke, drink and party, soaring through the air like a big brawny bird to head the winning goal against Spurs; long-haired Charlie George of Arsenal spreadeagled on the ground to accept the adoration of his team mates after scoring the winner against Liverpool in 1971; the mazy run of the bearded Argentine, Ricardo Villa, to score the winning goal for Spurs (again) against Manchester City in 1981. And so on. And on and on through time.
As a typical British lover of underdogs, my most treasured moment is not that of the team I used to support hoisting the cup aloft in triumph, but the year, 1973, when 2nd division Sunderland slew the mighty, filthy-dirty Leeds team of champion foulers. It was the year when David Coleman bellowed Porter-field! to denote the winning goal, when Jim Montgomery made an astonishing double-save to deny the rampant Leeds, when I hid in the loo for the last five minutes while my brother conveyed the news of what was happening on the pitch, and when Sunderland’s genial Geordie manager, Bob Stokoe, came jigging out of the dug-out at the end like a pony in a trilby to embrace his heroic players.
And the wonderful thing is: anyone who’s as sick with nostalgia as I am can catch it all on glorious stop-go You Tube. No wonder the American novelist, David Eggers, refuses to have broadband in his house after catching himself squandering time on an old Kajagoogoo video on said You Tube.
Age brings a certain wisdom. Good sense got the better of all this spurious magic. I rarely waste an entire afternoon watching a final these days, now that we have a satellite dish, because I know that in all probably the two teams will be too scared of losing to serve up anything resembling a contest. I’ve certainly no time for all the preliminaries, which I can see clearly, now that the Cup has gone to ITV, as a mere pretence for advertising revenue.
But… as Alan Shearer punctuates his so-called analyses on Match Of The Day, I still like to know who has won and what if any deeds of derring-do have taken place on the hallowed turf of Wembley, because it’s part of the great panoply of sporting history. And that’s why, thankfully I believe, I can get so excited about lowly Luton travelling to Norfolk and beating Norwich at their own ground on Carrow Road. As an excitable commentator might yell when swept away by the moment, You couldn’t script it!
Play up, the Hatters!