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FA Cup: Memories of the World’s Oldest Competition

Leicester City and Chelsea contest the 140th FA Cup Final today.’s Paul Vance shares some personal memories from the competition’s fabled history.

Chelsea v Leicester City: The Emirates FA Cup Final
The FA Cup, the world’s oldest football competition.
Photo by Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images

It used to be the greatest Saturday of the year...

The Cup Final. Every boy dreamed of scoring the winning goal, walking up those steps to the Royal Box, receiving the Cup from the Queen, turning round to face the fans and hands aloft, showing off Britain’s most famous piece of silverware to adoring, hero-worshipping supporters.

As kids, we’d look forward to the day for weeks. Didn’t matter what the weather was outside, rain or shine, you’d be indoors glued to the TV. Both channels would have it, each with their build-up from early morning. You’d get up to watch that too! Even Cup Final It’s a Knock-out once seemed pretty important too.

They’d re-run the goals from all the previous finals and from each of the finalists’ respective cup runs. The coverage was pretty much identical on both stations so it came down to personal preference, or which side had the better panelists...

But they’ve ruined it, the money-men have. Where once it had pride of place, the competition now feels shoe-horned in, less important than a top four Premier League finish.

The first one I remember was Manchester City v Leicester in 1969. Didn’t watch it, went net-fishing with my friend ‘up the country’ as we called it. I have this recollection of my dad coming home that evening, from work I think, but upon reflection it may have been the pub, it was Cup Final day after all, and expressing surprise I’d not watched the game.

The late Neil Young’s (not Four Strong Winds) goal won it for City over the Foxes, who a week or so previously had relegation to the second division confirmed. I was lucky enough to attend the next final featuring a relegated side, Brighton in 1983. They held Manchester United 2-2 after extra time, before succumbing in the following Thursday’s replay 4-0, Norman Whiteside becoming the youngest-ever FA Cup Final scorer.

I may have missed out in ‘69 but was ready for the big one the following year. And what a classic it was. The brutality on display seemed pretty normal to a seven-year-old brain which had only ever before watched packaged football highlights on BBC TV’s Match of the Day. Thankfully YouTube preserves the action for all.

Be my guest. Look for yourself and take a stab at estimating how many red cards you’d have brandished had the game been played these days.

The young aristocrats of Chelsea won in the first replayed final for 58 years. Dirty Leeds, the favourites, had few friends outside of Yorkshire, David Webb’s headed winner sending most people to bed with a happy grin.

Chelsea players celebrate their 1970 triumph in the Old Trafford bath. It was the last final (replay) to be played at a club ground. From left: Baldwin, Hollins, Bonetti, Webb, Osgood.
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

So many memories are stored from those Saturdays in May; the state of the Wembley pitch in that 1970 Final after the Horse of the Year Show had taken place the previous week, Jimmy Montgomery’s brilliant double save in ‘73 as second division Sunderland upset still-mighty Leeds, Mick Jones collecting his ‘72 winners’ medal strapped up by bandages supporting the collarbone he broke crossing for Allan Clarke’s winner.

Keegan ripping Newcastle to shreds in ‘74, Southampton ruining my Manchester United world in 76, Pearson and Jimmy Greenhoff making it alright a year later as United scuttled Liverpool’s treble attempt by winning 2-1.

Another United heart-break in ‘79... the ecstasy after coming from 2-down with 6 minutes to play, McQueen and McIlroy scoring to earn an extra-time which never arrived because there was still time for Brady to cross for Alan Sunderland to grab Arsenal’s last-gasp winner.

And so it goes on... Ricky Villa’s wonderful winner for Spurs in ‘81, an Argentinian hero in England against the backdrop of Falklands War tensions between his home country and his adopted one; a brilliant see-saw battle between the same Spurs and Coventry in ‘87, the Sky Blues coming out on top (3-2) to win their only ever major trophy, and then in ‘89 the rather strange Merseyside final in which Liverpool defeated Everton.

‘89 was Hillsborough and Liverpool’s semi-final clash with Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest when 96 fans were tragically crushed to death, by some distance the darkest day in FA Cup history. The final couldn’t have possibly felt normal after that.

Soccer - FA Cup - Final Replay - Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur
Ricky Villa (white shirt) scores one of the best FA Cup Final goals of all time against Manchester City in the 1981 Final replay, to win the Cup in extra-time for Tottenham.
Photo by H. Routledge/PA Images via Getty Images

It seemed fitting though that two teams from the city that had suffered most from the tragedy should meet on Final day. The result barely mattered.

I watched the Scottish Cup Final instead, Celtic beating Rangers 1-0. Couldn’t imagine how the football at Wembley could pierce the emotional tide. It was the first FA Cup Final I missed watching LIVE since the day I went net-fishing with my friend twenty years before.

My proudest FA Cup moment came in 1985. Finances weren’t buoyant, I wanted to go to QPR’s Loftus Road in June to watch local fighter Barry McGuigan fight Panamanian Eusebio Pedroza for the World featherweight title. Of course when Manchester United reached the Cup Final against league champions Everton, there was a quandry on my hands. So I sat down and thought about it... for two minutes, then set about wondering how I’d get a ticket for Wembley.

On the day, I was stood behind Neville Southall’s goal as 20-year-old Norman Whiteside bent in a glorious winner beyond Everton’s excellent ‘keeper to win the Cup for 10-man United in extra-time. The Belfast boy had done it, just like two years earlier, but this time it was the winner!

Proudest FA Cup Final moment. Manchester United’s Norman Whiteside bends his shot beyond Everton’s Pat van den Hauwe and Southall’s (not in pic) despairing dive to win the 1985 FA Cup for 10-man Manchester United.

The nineties were less memorable. The Cup was still The Cup but with the advent of Premier League and Champions League football its appeal was beginning to diminish. Gradually then suddenly, it became more important to finish 4th in the league than win the FA Cup. A travesty if ever there was one...

It wasn’t quite dead just yet though. A few great moments followed with United in the 90’s too... clinching their first double by thumping Chelsea 4-0 in ‘94 (ten quid on Cantona to score the first goal at 7/1 made it even sweeter and a free day out at Ballyhackamore Working Men’s Club), then watching the same Cantona’s brilliant last minute winner against Liverpool’s Spice Boys in a tense ‘96 final, in a crowded Bangor pub, split 50-50 between fans of both sides.

That was the final when Ferguson, laughing at the Liverpool side taking the traditional pre-match walk on the Wembley turf in their all-white suits said, “When I saw that, I knew we had them.”

And of course the ‘99 final, the second leg of the never preceded, nor repeated, Treble. A memorable day. With my United supporting pals, I was already in Lloret de Mar, about an hour from Barcelona, preparing for the Champions League Final. Spending Cup Final morning/early afternoon on the beach with a few loosening beers was too good an opportunity to miss - this would never have happened at home.

Shearer’s Newcastle were swept aside, despite Roy Keane departing the action after only nine minutes. The little Spanish pub was jam-packed, premature celebrations starting only two minutes later when Keane’s replacement, Teddy Sheringham, opened the scoring.

Beer flew across the room everyone was soaked, complete madness, but no-one cared. I looked behind to survey the scene, there’s a lad completely naked, pint in hand, laughing, singing and watching the match, no-one took a blind bit of notice, like it was normal... but I’m sure it wasn’t.

The next final I missed was the following year. Was on business travel in Valencia, Spain and stayed an extra night to watch Valencia play Barcelona at Mestella - it was hard not to, the Barca team was staying at my hotel - delaying my travel home until the day of the Cup Final. Chelsea defeated Aston Villa 1-0. I didn’t feel bothered missing it, the allure of The Cup was dissipating, even for me.

Soccer - FA Cup Final - Leeds United v Sunderland - Wembley Stadium
One of the great Cup upsets of all time. Bobby Kerr, captain of second division Sunderland holds aloft the cup after his unfancied team had beaten red-hot favourites Leeds 1-0 in 1973.
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

I’ve missed quite a few finals since, but might tune in today to cheer on my fellow countrymen, Brendan Rodgers and Jonny Evans. In a way Leicester were involved when my FA Cup story began and Chelsea in the first final I watched. They were also Cup winners in the year when I realized. “Ahhhh, it’s not so important any more.”

In my formative years watching the game, the FA Cup Final was the solitary match we used to get LIVE each year. The magic of TV beaming it to our homes, terrestrial TV, no satellite or subscription channels in those days.

How ironic it is now that the same TV has destroyed the oldest and most fabled competition of them all, reducing it from centre-piece on the English football calendar to glorified bit-part.

Good Luck to Leicester City and Chelsea today. Hope it’s a great occasion befitting the marvellous traditions of the grand old competition. The FA Cup fully deserves it.

But still, it will be less important than finishing 4th in the Premier League. And therein lies the problem.

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