The Magic Of The Cup

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!

Thanks, Alison. How bizarre it seems that you were watching it in New Zealand. But I guess the final got beamed around the world. It was marvellous, wasn't it. Managers run onto the pitch all the time, but no one did it so memorably as Bob Stokoe.

Beautifully written Mark - thank you! I also remember 1973. It was the middle of the night over here (NZ), but I was feeding a baby and so it just worked out that I watched it. My husband got up too but fell asleep, whereas I lasted the distance! My abiding memory is that of the manager running on at the end. Utter jubilation!

Yes, indeed, Brian: thanks, Don. Amazing what a bit of cosmic dust can do. And thank you for enlightening me, Johnny, about cup magic in France. It's not that I'm partisan, it's just that football in France remains so much of a mystery that I don't feel inclined to investigate. It could become another interest to deflect me from what I want to be doing in life. One of these days, I might give in and accept that what I want to be doing in life is simply to be interested.

Brian, how good of you to mention Peter Bonetti: a wonderful goalkeeper who suffered a lot of bad press because of one bad game in Mexico. If Banksy hadn't been around in that era, PB might have won 100 caps or so. I have to say, though, that I thought Lev Yashin was known as 'The Cat'. Or can one have two cats playing in the same era?

Peter, I remember Geoff Barnett. He didn't really look like a goalkeeper, but was probably solid between the sticks. I'm always hard on Leeds, but Terry Cooper was wonderful. And so was Eddie Gray. That left flank was potent. I can believe that Carrow Road can be freezing. I've rarely been colder in my life than the time I visited a friend in Cambridge and felt the wind blowing off the Urals.

We have a beautiful view into the valley of a brook called Le Belingou that starts in Cadouin and finishes just about in front of us. It is forested hills and dramatic at any time but the sunrises over the last few months, when there has not been heavy cloud or fog at least, have been stunning. Walking my dogs I stand just staring in wonder sometimes. Now, thanks Don, I know why they are so different.

I was up early an caught a picture of this sunrise. I am involved with an astronomy project which is tracking upper atmospheric phenomena. These red sunrises and sunsets are suspected to be the result of the upper atmosphere loading up with cosmic dust, a great deal of which is comet residue. Earth is currently passing through a dusty bit of space. There is more in this cosmic debris than just dust. Reported fireball sightings (meteors and meteorites), all over the planet, have dramatically spiked in the past 36 months, with lots of sonic booms reported everywhere as these objects break up and explode in the atmosphere.

Peter, the Cat, Bonetti was one of my soccer heroes and I got to meet him about 10 years ago! My wife is from the same Swiss town as his family and was asked to visit him when we went to Mull to visit some friends (the wife of the couple who then lived just near him is an old school friend of Diana Byrne-Craigie who is a member of SFN, so small world). She took some kind of gift from some of his Swiss relatives I think, but I got to shake his hand; the same one that had had the unique drop and throw kick that could put a ball almost in a goal mouth!

Yes Johnny, Charlie George got a mention. Tommy Docherty should be remembered for inspirational management.

can't be any colder than Carrow Road with the howling northeasterlies ? as a Yarmouth lad I got used to it but for people from other parts of the country it must have ben a killer !

I don't think there are any smaller. i think it is capped at bout 7,000 or 8,000 now. I can remember being there when they played Nottingham Forest in the 3rd round FA Cup, late 60's, with a crowd of over 29,000. Elf and Safety would never allow that now. probably a good thing.

Yes it was cold in August, but we were hardy souls. Not like now, after living in South West France for a few years, we have acclimatised and need our hats and scarves for a summer visit to the UK

yes John but what you failed to mention was that it was freezing cold at Kenilworth Road in august !!! isn't it still officially the smallest ever Ist Division/Premiership ground ever ?

The Man City team of the late 60 s was class a school mate played a few games for them before suffering a bad leg injury and having to give up the game at 19 ! For me the best footballing team of that era has to be Leeds Utd - so much class and Terry Cooper probably the greatest attacking fullback ever - he started off as a winger because of his speed and the old story (which is true) about him turning up at the training ground at Leedss as a raw 17 year old awith his boots in his hand and going up to Revie and saying "give a chance to show what I can do Mr Revie" Revie duly obliged and the contract was signed quickly after - Revie turned him from auseful winger to an exceptional attacking fullback

biting my lip I have to concede the Gooners were a great side too - the reserve keeper wasa guy called Geoff Barnett who got a game if Bob Wilson (great keeper) was injured - Barnett came from a family business which made & sold rope, string & twine etc and he was like the travelling sallesman for the company so he mixed that job with the pro footballing job -a nice guy, he used to come the factory every few weeks to get an order turning up in his swish yellow E Type Jag ! - a real crumpet wagon...and a bit better than my willow green mini van.....

As a Lutonian who spent most Saturday afternoons in the 60's and 70's,standing in the freezing cold at Kenilworth Road, Luton' ground, your comments are very much appreciated. It warmed my heart to see a lowly team like Luton take out a Premiership side, just goes to show, never underestimate the minnow.They are playing for the prestige, not a multimillion pound pay packet. Mind you the earnings from the game are useful to a poor club. French football is, fortunately, not quite as money orientated as in the UK, probably why all the good players go abroad, although it has started with PSG. Used to go to Stamford Bridge in the late 60's as well, as I too liked Chelsea. Bonneti, Osgood, Hudson etc. What a shame it is not going to be a Luton/ Chelsea 5th round. Still there is always round 6........if Chelsea win their game.

Chopper Harris, oh yes! What short memories we have... Back to the days when on pitch violence was really hard and refs had none of the back up they have today to catch 'em.

Fascinating stuff, Peter. Yes, I had that Ron Flowers as a Bassett's sweet cigarette card and I remember the Wolves of Mike Bailey, the Doog and Peter Knowles ('Give us goals') with affection. I wasn't ever a Spurs fan, but I have appreciated their team and their style throughout history. And Slasher Mackay! What a man. As you say, they don't make 'em like that any more.

Like you, Brian, I had a distinctly soft spot for the Chelsea team of the 60s and 70s. They didn't win much, but who cares? They played with such style and distinction. I'd swap that for all Leeds' trophies of the era. That Alan Hudson, for example, he was a wonderful player. If he hadn't have drunk and smoked so much, he would have won at least 50 caps for England. Fortunately, he had Chopper Harris as his minder. And what about the fleet-footed Charlie Cooke? Mar-vellous!

well Mark - fascinating stuff

strange as my first recollection was also of Spurs winning the cup in the same year and i've been a Spurs fan ever since

I could go on for hours about this subject but briefly - An ex pro footballer called Fred Goodwin (not the ex Man U one) originally from Stockport moved over to our area abd we have become good friends - I'm a football nut and he's an ex Ist Division pro so it's not difficult to imagine the topic of conversation...

Now Fred as a young lad played for Wolves at fullback in the early '60s alongdside Ron Flowers etc and even Billy Wright - one day Wolves ( a top three side at the time) were playing at White Hart Lane and Wolves were two up at the break - Fred says that the manager (Stan Cullis from memory ?) said to Fred "push up a bit further and lets go for the third goal to seal the game" - Fred did as he was told and wascaught out twice by my hero Greavsie and Spurs snatched a 2 - 2 draw...imagine, talking to a guy that has actually played against the famous double winning side ??? absolutely awesome , he has some great stories to tell...

by the way Maurice Norman still runs the same pub in Norwich I believe !

my second footballing hero after Greavsie is Dave Mackay - I watched him play many times of course but actually met him one day - my eldest brother did some scouting for clubs in the 60s / 70s including Norwich (many players) ,Arsenal (Peter Simpson), Wolves (Mike Bailey) to name a few - one sunday he took a couple of lads to Derby when Mackay was player/coach - the next wekend Norwich were at home to Derby and mr brother (an Arsenal fan !!!) fixed up for me to meet the team plus Mackay etc at Carrow Road with tickets and the works - I was about 16 at the time so when mmy brother said to Mackay " well dave, this is my brother Peter and you are his second hero...etc" he shook my hand and introduced me to the players ie Todd,Nish,Mcfarland, Hector etc etc - an absolutely awesome experience.....Mackay, what a guy - broke his leg twice and still came back to play as well as ever !

the days of real hard men eh ? the likes of Mackay, Chopper Harris, Tommy Smith & Billy Bremner etc....ahh happy days indeed ! not like the bunch of girls playing nowadays...

The only thing that pleases me is that the lowly teams, who are presumably not paid the same staggering salaries as those fromn the Premiership, can sometimes show that it is not all about millionaire signings!

Strange one. I am not a real football fan but from age 10 to 18 I used to go to the occasional game at the Shed. It was conditional. At first Saturdays might have been occupied with school in the morning, then working for my father in the afternoon. Then morning school was abolished and I mainly worked all day for the old man. Being builders there were sites where weekend work was out or weather stopped us, so I went to see Chelsea instead. then I got the Saturday butcher's boy job. To make home matches for three kick off, I had to be finished at two and off sharpish. I usually just scraped in in time. However it meant starting at four in the morning, being there at the shop for deliveries, prepared display trays and then going out for 45 minutes to the newsagent across the road to do my paper round by six thirty. All for the sakes of home matches. The exception was home derbies against Fulham. That was another strategy.

So, something stuck in my heart and soul and I avidly read all the reports and sometimes watch Chelsea highlights. So, whatever I am not, I am a Chelsea supporter I guess.

Before we moved here we lived five years in Swansea. So much of the university was up for the team that it infected. They moved to the Liberty Stadium, started to do well and success in the Premiership that was treated as an aberration at first is now another story. So I look at the news of their games. Next season Cardiff will be up there too and the old local Derbies will be on again. So, two teams still and I am not a football follower.

A star player of all time? Yes, in his time Ricky Villa set the standard for today's super hero players and many would not match up to him with today's training regime...