May 1st, forty-four years ago today.
It had been a restless night, staying at my grandparents’, my folks must have been on a Friday night out, hence the arrangement for us to stay there. But it was not the surroundings that hampered my sleep. After all, the place was consummately familiar. The source of my restlessness lay many miles away, somewhere in London, or to add precision, Wembley Stadium.
I had supported Manchester United since I was a boy of 5, when vaguely I remember watching them (and instant-hero George Best) lift the European Champion Clubs’ Cup.
I was now 14, and United were about to visit Wembley for the first time since, for the FA Cup Final, in those days the biggest event in the UK football calendar. The only game each year we ever saw broadcast LIVE on TV. This was huge for me. I’d spent the intervening years longing for United to reach the Cup Final, but in truth after ‘68 it had all been downhill... until now. Surely...?
In the intervening years when things were reasonable, they were the nearly men, but when it came to relegation, United didn’t mess about. With the trap-door in sight, they made the dreaded drop in ‘74. Across those years I’d seen them lose League Cup semi-finals to bitter rivals Manchester City, third division Aston Villa, second division Norwich City and an FA Cup semi-final to more bitter rivals, in Leeds United, after two replays...
Then when relegation arrived, I simply wondered that United were just a soft club, not geared towards winning. Simply also-rans. In fact, they really were in those days. Heck even UEFA Cup qualification was beyond them. European football, seeing my team ever playing in a Cup Final or heaven forbid, winning the league, were all pipe-dreams.
Such success was reserved for teams like Liverpool, Leeds and even Derby County! I watched the first of those two in FA Cup Finals as well as the likes of Manchester City, Leicester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Sunderland, Newcastle, Fulham and West Ham, but never Man U. But this was the day. A decade of yearning was about to reap dividends.
Tommy Docherty’s bright young things, promoted the year before, had taken the First Division by storm, and but for a November blip in form, and a certain Irish goalkeeper, may just have pipped Liverpool to the title.
I was up at the crack of dawn to make sure I got home in time. Cup Final days had wall to wall coverage on both main TV channels from about 9am right through the day. Every viewing minute was geared to the day’s big game, cup finals from previous years, interviews with players at their team hotels, there was even Cup Final ‘It’s a Knockout’ between fans of the opposing clubs. No matter which clubs were involved I would be glued to it every year, longing for my team to be there. Now, my time had come.
For the actual game itself, I joined some school-friends in one of their parents’ houses, four of us, two United, two not, sat in a council house in an Irish seaside village absorbed by events in London.
It was a gloriously sunny day, not one you would spend indoors normally, but these were exceptional circumstances. The Wembley weather matched that of home, United carried huge expectancy into the game and looked confident as Docherty led them out. Opponents Southampton had lost 14 league games that season in the division below, in which they managed to finish only 6th, and had never won a major honour in their 92-year history.
What possibly could go wrong?
... EVERYTHING DID!!!
United’s flying wingers Coppell and Hill especially, were supposed to unlock the door and prove irrestible match-winners. What chance did Peach and Rodrigues the Saints’ full-backs have against this lauded pair?
Rodrigues was a journeyman player in the twilight of his career, at 33 he was the old-head captaining Southampton. A good professional who didn’t win much in a career spanning 40 Welsh caps.
But United after a bright opening ten, were flat, Hill was unable to unsettle the old man who became more and more in control as the contest wore on.
Southampton manager Lawrie McMenemy claimed he knew the game was turning in his team’s favour in the 66th minute. Counterpart Docherty withdrew Gordon Hill, the player McMenemy considered the greatest danger. Old Peter Rodrigues had won the day. Now could Southampton go on and actually win the cup?
Gordon Hill reflects...
“It was the first year they used the electronic boards to identify the player being replaced.”
Hill came over and said to Docherty, “That number 11. Does it mean me?” To which the United supremo replied in best Gorbals, Glaswegian, “No, the whole fucking team!”
Bitterly disappointed, Hill admitted to having a little chuckle at the interchange as he left the arena. He found some black humour in Docherty’s frankness.
Southampton were on offer at 7/1 before the game. There’s nothing quite like that sinking feeling in a final when your team is hugely favoured, yet perform flatter than a Dutch landscape, don’t create chances and the game reaches the last ten minutes deadlocked.
United by then looked like they didn’t know what to do. They were supposed to be a goal... or two... to the good at this stage. If they were going to win this one now, they’d need to force something to happen. The hot favourites just didn’t look like scoring, apart from Sammy McIlroy’s close-range header which rebounded from the crossbar midway through the second-half.
Watching, your palms become sweaty, agitation rises, even in the comfortable surroundings of a friend’s living room, and you’re hoping for a break, any break, just something to get your team over the line. And... at that stage, you know there are no favourites any more... it takes only a moment to score a goal, and if one team does, in all likelihood it’s ‘curtains’ for the other.
And of course, so it came to pass. Why should I have been surprised given my lack of success watching United in the preceding years? When I’d only known a second division title and a collection of semi-final defeats.
Bobby Stokes. 83rd minute. A born and bred Portsmouth fan pops up to win the cup for Southampton. You couldn’t write the script, or maybe you could...?
Jim McCalliog, a Scottish midfielder (and former Chicago Sting player) released by United only two years previously, lofted a sumptuous through ball; Stokes beyond Martin Buchan, looked offside, he took his shot first-time and early, a grounder that went across a surprised Stepney in goal and inside the far post.
There was controversy. United claimed it was offside. But the goal stood.
McMenemy claimed the last seven minutes, were probably the longest seven minutes of his life. They were definitely the shortest of mine, as United tried grimly and forlornly to claw their way back. You knew they wouldn’t, they never looked like it, and sometimes you simply realize it’s somebody else’s day.
My own personal disappointment was huge. How could they do this to me after all the previous let-downs? The thoughts of going out to face all my pals was insanely un-enticing, especially knowing you’d have to do it all over again at school on Monday morning.
Stokes the goalscorer won a Ford Granada car for having scored the first goal of the final – a present from the local car plant – and he would be presented with it two days later, on the pitch at The Dell (Southampton’s stadium) before a testimonial game.
“Bobby came out to huge, huge roars and he got the keys,” McMenemy says. “But he couldn’t drive. He didn’t have a licence.”
There is an unfortunate sequel to this story or rather to the story surrounding the executioner of Southampton’s goal on the day.
After retiring from the game, Bobby Stokes had been brewing tea, cooking breakfasts and wiping tables for several years at a cafe owned by his cousin Maria, near Portsmouth docks. A reporter had tracked him down in 1995. When the reporter tactfully suggested it might to some people seem unlikely to find a man who had scored the winner in an FA Cup Final doing such a job, with much humility Bobby responded, “I don’t wear my medal around my neck. But I’ll happily recall every detail of the match with anyone who has 90 minutes to spare. It was the best day of my life.”
The goal clearly hadn’t brought the scorer his fortune. But there was an even sadder turn to come.
Living alone after the break-up of his marriage, Stokes’ health suffered. An infection turned to bronchial pneumonia and despite moving back to the family home he was unable to fight it off.
Three short months after talking to the journalist, Bobby Stokes had passed away. He was only 53.