Sharing the Sorrow

For practically all of my adult life I’ve been a Manchester United fan, with all that that implies. And the only time I’ve lived outside of Manchester was in Nottingham, a city whose rivalries are with Derby and Leicester. These are where my allegiances are supposed to lie, and where they do lie.

But two football seasons ago, that amazing year of 2015/2016, I appointed myself an honorary Fox, a temporary Leicester City fan, for that year when all the improbable things that never happen any more happened, and Leicester City won the League. Leicester City. The first first-time League winners since, ironically, Nottingham Forest, thirty-eight years before.

It was and still is a brilliant thing, no doubt a complete one-off, but who cares? The point was that it happened, and whilst I could never feel what a lifelong Leicester fan would feel, I could understand it, and be thrilled for them to have that indescribable feeling. It’s created a glow that lasts until now, and will remain. a lifelong soft spot for the team that did the impossible.

I never knew or understood how much of that success was made possible by the Club’s owner, Thai businessman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Another foreign owner of one of our clubs, yet someone who stood out from the rest by being in it for the football. For the club, and for the City. We should all of us be so blessed.

That I know this now, and know more about the generousness, the philanthropy that Srivaddhanaprabha brought to Leicester City and Leicester, is only because of what happened on Saturday night, when the helicopter carrying him, two assistants and two pilots, crashed shortly after taking off, and killed all five people aboard. It seems that the pilots too were heroes, those kind of heroes who represent what we all could be, managing to keep the helicopter from crashing until they could get to the car park, where no-one else could be injured. In the face of death…

The Guardian has a football cartoonist, David Squires, who produces a cartoon account of the week in football every Tuesday. Though he lives in Australia, Squires is one of the funniest, sharpest and wittiest commentators on this bloated, overblown but still compelling game of ours, and every week, every panel skewers someone, often many people in one panel.

This week’s cartoon is about Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, and what he did for and what he meant to Leicester. It isn’t funny, it isn’t cruel, it doesn’t stick anything into anyone. It’s a tribute, and in panel four, he produces a moment of such piercing insight that you wonder at how everyone else who talks about the game and what it can mean so consistently fails to understand what it really all is about. A look on a face, and three words. And he’s right, in the caption too: Looking back now, you find yourself wondering if it ever really happened.

I wanted to pay my own tribute to Mr Srivaddhanaprabha, and the best way I can do that is to link to what David Squires has said and done, and in particular that fourth panel, which says it all, really. Mr Srivaddhanaprabha, you gave them that, and you gave a share in that to people like me, who stood behind the cheering fans, adding our silent and not-so-silent will to your doing the incredible. Thank you, thank you, thank you a thousand times. You deserved a better fate than this, this cruelty. As Dave Allen used to say, may your God go with you.

A few words of thanks to Claudio Ranieri

The news has just broken that Claudio Ranieri has just been sacked by Leicester City, only ten months since leading them to the most improbable, unbelievable, astonishing and life-affirming League title of all time. The sacking comes as Leicester face the serious prospect of depriving Manchester City of their unique record as the only club to be Champions one year and relegated the next.

There are a lot of ways to describe this decision, starting with unromantic, ungrateful, callous, miserable, heartless and continuing across that sector of the emotional spectrum ad infinitum. And these words would all be true and accurate and correct.

Yet, were it not for that unforgettable, joyous rampage last year, that overturning of probability, likelihood, form and history, we would be looking at Leicester’s record this season, their lack of wins, their lack of goals, and the words we would be using would be expected, understandable, inevitable.

And I speak as someone for whom last season was a delight, because Leicester City did something that you only dream of seeing happen. That can’t be taken away, even if relegation follows, though I desperately hope it won’t. But I see the logic, I understand the necessity, I am not surprised, merely saddened. To protest this decision is like protesting that the sun goes down at night.

So thank you Claudio Ranieri. I can’t say thank you like the real Foxes can, I can’t go deep enough in my heart to summon up that soul-centred conviction, but I cheered you on last year, and your achievement will always be a shining example for me of how life can still be unpredictable, can defy predictability, and can make you quite glad to be around to see it.

You are not disgraced by this. This cannot touch your achievement, cannot rock the pedestal on which you belong. Go with your head held high, this was achieved by you and you can never be shamed.

And good luck Leicester. May your first League match next season be a visit to Old Trafford, as proof you’re still here. No, wait, may it be the Emirates or the Etihad or Stamford Bridge or Anfield. Then I can cheer you on clean-heartedly to beat the bastards!


An FA Cup Rant

Steve McLaren, manager of the Derby County team defeated in Wednesday’s FA Cup Fourth Round replay by Leicester City, has called upon the FA to end replays in FA Cup games, because he doesn’t want them.

McLaren’s main concern is Derby’s attempt to win promotion from the Championship. In the other dugout, Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri’s priority is not being relegated to the Championship. The managers’ priorities were demonstrated by their making a total of 18 changes from the teams competing in the previous weekend’s League matches.

That’s their business. McLaren seems to think that it would be better to have games decided by extra-time and penalties, in the one instance. He dresses it up by claiming that it would make the first game more spectacular. We all know he’s lying through his teeth, because he’d make the same number of changes for a one-off tie if it suited him, and he’s just talking shit.

I say that Derby County, and the club of any manager who wants to express such opinions, should instantly be expelled from the FA Cup. They’re not wanted, they don’t add anything, they are just sad fuck-ups out to deny the fans. The FA Cup doesn’t need them, it already has too many people undermining it, and it sure as hell won’t miss them.

The Leicester Resentment

Not everyone is as happy to see this as you think

It’s less than a week since Tottenham Hotspur failed to beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and, as a consequence, cemented Leicester City’s position as Champions of the Premier League. The trophy is now safely in their hands. It’s the biggest, most exciting, unpredictable, romantic thing to hit football for many years, and is a serious contender for one of the most amazing sports stories the world has ever known.
It’s excited millions, over and above the Foxes’ fans who have lived this adventure and seen their impossible dreams made concrete. It’s been a gigantic boost to football, a massive spanner in the works of the existing order. For so long, we’ve been used to the big clubs monopolising everything: the best players, the trophies, the prestige, the attention. Leicester have reminded everybody that it needn’t be so, that the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong (despite Woody Allen’s sage advice that that’s the way to bet).
The essence of sport is unpredictability. It’s about not knowing what the outcome will be. When we know, in advance, who will win, and when our predictions are fulfilled, only those who are direct supporters of that winner gain any real enjoyment.
Leicester are the antidote, the call-out, the refutation. They are the dream incarnate that anything is possible, that anybody, no matter how unlikely it seems, can win, can topple the big boys. They are the fulfilment of the urge within all of us to see the tortoise bound past the hare.
So why then have so many people this week been so eager, almost from the moment of the final whistle at Chelsea, to predict doom and gloom for next season for Leicester. There is an overwhelming insistence that not only will Leicester not repeat their feat in 2017, but they will be relegated, all their best players will promptly leave them for bigger clubs, and they will be back in mid-table at the very best.
The curious aspect of this is that these are not merely cynical pronouncements, but that they are being spoken of with relish. They are what the commenter wants to see happen, to see the old certainties restored, the predictability back. Leicester have bucked the trend, they have not known their place and it is imperative to these people that they return to their place (and everybody else to theirs) without the slightest delay.
Some of this is clearly motivated by that sadly ineradicable tendency of human beings to be simply nasty creatures, unable to bear the sight of other people succeeding, or having joy of things. Leicester victory and the joy it has brought is simply insupportable, and it must be diminished, torn down, trampled upon.
Some of it, but not nearly enough to explain it, comes from the fans of the clubs scorned. Being beaten by Leicester – Leicester! -is a personal humiliation, and they demand it be avenged by being wiped out as if it had never happened.
It’s familiar in its way: remember the FA Cup Final on 2008, Portsmouth versus Cardiff City? It was the first Final for seventeen years not to feature any of the ‘Big Four’ (and you couldn’t exactly  accuse Tottenham Hotspur and Nottingham Forest of being nobody clubs). At first, there was pleasure, welcome of the idea that the usual suspects were for once eclipsed, but even before the Final was played, there were open expressions of concern, even fear, that the game would be sub-standard because, after all, it was to be played between two ‘sub-standard’ teams.
But the most prevalent emotion behind this kind of reaction is fear. So many people, whether they’re consciously aware of it or not, have been frightened by Leicester’s win. Uncertainty has been brought, forcibly, into their lives. The ground between their feet has been undermined. Anything could happen. And they are herding together to diminish it, deny it, refuse it any power beyond the moment. They’re fearfully insistent that the world they recognise be restored, even before anyone’s had the chance to truly enjoy the victory.
It puts me in mind of William Goldman’s classic book, Adventures in the Screen-Trade (an excellent book, one you should read, plus it’s sequel, Which Lie Did I Tell?).
Goldman’s book is famous for many things, not least his defining statement of Hollywood – NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. Once spoken, it became an instant truth, the single, most perceptive and frightening thing ever said about the Film Industry. Nobody knows Anything. They’re in the business of making money from films, but they don’t know and are terrified of recognising that they don’t know what sells.
But that’s not what comes to mind when I contemplate the responses to Leicester’s win. Shortly after Goldman introduces his maxim, he goes on to anatomise something called a ‘Non-Recurring Phenomenon’.
It’s a phrase that Studio Executives use to describe one-off successes, films that are absolutely massive without fitting any of the standard categories for massive success. They don’t fit an accepted genre. They aren’t sequels to a previous success. They don’t star a star who sells a picture based on their name alone. The Executive comes up with all sorts of reasons why this film has made it, none of which hold up on any realistic basis. He then calls it a ‘Non-Recurring Phenomenon’.
To quote Goldman: “What it means, of course, is this: It was a freak, a fluke, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. The deeper and more important meaning is this: ‘Get away, boy, you bother me’.”
Leicester City are a Non-Recurring Phenomenon.
They frighten people. People know what is needed to succeed in football: money, star players, 4-2-3-1, 67% possession. Being bankrolled by billionaires. Leicester don’t have any of that (ok, the owners aren’t exactly short of a bob but this is a club that, in the entirety of its 132 year history, has spent less on players than Manchester United has in the past two seasons). They’ve done all the wrong things, and they still came out on top.
And that’s not just scary, it creates resentment. Forget that the whole situation changes this summer, that the money coming into the game from the latest TV deal means that the Big Four clubs can’t just offer salaries no-one can match now, so many football fans want Leicester’s team to break up. Not necessarily out of malice towards the Foxes but because that’s just what usually happens. The likes of Leicester aren’t supposed, aren’t allowed to have star quality players. The likes of Mahrez, and Kante belong to the big clubs. That’s where they’ve always performed: the likes of United, Chelsea etc. are entitled to buy these players.
Normal service must be resumed as soon as possible.
And that is so sad, so unutterably sad that we have been given such a priceless gift this year, that we have had all our dull, interminable predictabilities ripped up in front of our eyes, and even before the Trophy is presented, so many people who don’t even feel any rivalry towards the Foxes, are down on their knees, clutching the sellotape, desperately scrabbling to put it all back together the way it was.
Not in this quarter, and not in a thankfully large proportion of the football fan’s hearts. But listen to those applauding Leicester’s feat and how quickly they come to ‘next year’. That ‘next year’ has a specific meaning. It means, ‘Get away, boy, you bother me.

Leicester City – League Champions

Oh. My. God.

It came true. It happened after all. For the first time since Nottingham Forest in 1978, thirty-eight years ago, the Championship of England has been won by a team that has never done it before. Leicester City, the nearly men, the never men, the won’t-last-men, are Champions.

To all of you in Leicester, to all of you who support them, to all of you who haven’t piled in like we did, looking over your shoulders, dreaming of seeing the heart of football reborn, no words of congratulations can sum up your feelings now. Just take this to heart, live every minute of it, savour it.

You’re there, in a place none of the rest of us can reach.

You beauties. You absolute, brilliant, fucking wonderful beauties.

Live it.

What it’s like to be a Red?: The view from 1 May 2016

The goal I couldn’t celebrate

I had a new experience watching the potential title-deciding match this afternoon between Manchester United and Leicester City, and I didn’t like it.

I’ve been a United fan for closing in on forty years now, through glorious triumph and hideous failure as we’ll agree to call the football the team has played since the Boss stepped down.

On the other hand, sometime around November last year, I declared myself a Leicester City supporter for the season, cheerfully backing them in their improbable campaign for a first ever League title that would restore faith in football, the game of glorious uncertainty.

Nobody believed it possible then, when Leicester first hit the top. Everybody knew it wouldn’t last.  Even I didn’t, really, believe it would. But I did remember hearing each and every single thing said about the Foxes not sustaining their challenge as being said, word for word, about Nottingham Forest in the 1977/78 season.

For an exact parallel, you’d have had to find me working in Leicester the past month, but otherwise it’s been close enough so far.

When it began, I half-joked that after thirty-odd years of being called a glory-hunter, I felt deserved to do some hunting, but it’s not been like that. I’m not a Leicester fan at heart, and never can be. A League title cannot possibly mean to me what it means to a true fan. The dream I’m living is not my own: I’m living the dreams of people that I understand, hoping and praying for glory that will make their hearts swell, their memories endure. I’m just one of the millions of us who, once we step outside the narrow tribalism of our day-to-day loyalties, know that we’re looking at something we would dearly love to have for ourselves. The support we offer, the urging towards the sheer romance of everything, the excitement we’ll feel when they do it still doesn’t bring us within the magic circle. We are only ever outside the light of the fires burning, but we will point to the Foxes and their faithful and say that you stand for all of us.

Today was the day, the first day, when it could happen. All Leicester City have to do now is win one game. They have three chances at it.

It reminds me of a long ago Sunday League season, 1990, where Lancashire were left needing a single win to take the League, and three matches left, all at home. It was as good as done, but it took until the last over of the last of those games before the winning six soared over the Warwick Road End fences.

Today, a win at Old Trafford would bring home the glory, turn the potential into actual, the romance into the gloriously implausible reality. I wanted to see that happen.

But Old Trafford is the home of my team, Manchester United. Though I wouldn’t, for once, take amiss at a defeat, I still couldn’t want it. Not really. Besides, United still have designs upon a top 4 place, the Champions League next year, plus the pleasure of pushing out either the Arses or the Bitters. Something in the game for us?

Can’t really compare the two ambitions, though, can you? Especially as the Arses’ fluky and undeserved win yesterday makes the top 4 at their expense highly unlikely. Even if we, suddenly, have started to play something like properly again. You know, like Manchester United.

I’ve spoken elsewhere of avoiding games where I want both teams to lose. Never before, and I hope never again, have I watched a game that I wanted both teams to win.

It was a strange feeling and a miserable one. United scored a superbly made and executed early goal, and I couldn’t celebrate it because I wanted Leicester to win. The Foxes equalised, ten minutes later, and I couldn’t celebrate it because I wanted United to win. It was the same throughout an excellent first half: I could take no excitement in anything, was paralysed in response, because anything that was good football, was exciting, might lead to a goal, was a strike against a team I wanted to see win.

The second half was less draining, in large part because I found myself watching a Sky broadcast in which vision and sound were wildly out of sync: the soundtrack, the crowd noise, the commentator’s lines were at least ten seconds behind the action I was watching. Shots, fouls and crowd surges took place without verbal excitement, which would then arrive long after the action had moved on.

A draw was also unsatisfactory. It served no-one, it settled nothing. If Leicester are to do it, they deserved to do it off their own bat, on their feet, striving to complete their own destiny. Instead, like United’s Resurrection Title, in 1993, it might come whilst they’re sat down: Tottenham Hotspur have to win at a ground where they haven’t won a League match since before Alex Ferguson won his first United trophy.

That’s tomorrow night, when they kick-off at 8.00pm and I finish work at 9.00pm, with a half hour journey home. Far less dramatic, far less satisfactory a triumph, if triumph it be (though I doubt any Leicester fan will care, any more than we Reds cared, that long Sunday afternoon waiting to see if Oldham Athletic could keep their unlikely one goal lead).

As a Red, I still have the Cup Final to live for. Though I could do without the name of Jose Mourinho rearing its ugly head yet again: if United don’t finish in the Top 4, I expect to be contacted. Well, if that’s what it takes, come on Louis van Gaal: I can wait another season of him if it means I don’t have to suffer two seasons and a disaster of Mourinho.

A potential moment of serious embarrassment

I am, as you should by now be well aware, a Manchester United, and one highly delighted at our victory over Everton yesterday to reach the FA Cup Final (what a winning goal by Anthony Martial!)

But it’s not of the Cup that I want to speak now. Everybody will also be aware that United have not played well this season and, with four League games remaining, lie fifth, with an outside chance of pipping Arsenal for the vital fourth place that will see us in the Champions League again next season.

Back in October of last year, the unlikely shape of Leicester City reached the top of the Premier League, and I decided to support them for the League this year. Part of it was a joke: as a United fan of nearly forty years standing, I have been accused on innumerable occasions of being a glory-hunter, so I felt perfectly entitled to actually be one for once.

No-one was taking Leicester seriously back then. They won’t last, they’ll burn out, they haven’t got the squad, these were the mantras. In vain I pointed out that I had heard every single one of these objections spoken about Nottingham Forest in 1977/78. No-one wanted to listen. No-one could believe Leicester could be taken seriously.

Even I didn’t really expect it to last. It would be glorious if it did, an absolutely brilliant demonstration that football wasn’t completely dead yet, that it hadn’t been bought and sold irrecoverably by the Big Four/Five. And it wasn’t really glory-hunting. That glory, that delirium attaches to the real Leicester fans, for whom this is life and death in a way that it can never be for me, who next year will be (hopefully) concentrating upon United.

But it has lasted, not just lasted but become and been deadly serious for far too long now. I’ve followed the results, I’ve even started watching the games. It still doesn’t make me a Foxes, just a mere hanger-on, ready to be thrilled and delighted by the glory that they will rightly savour. If it comes off.

And that’s the thing. As  of those moment, I’ve just enjoyed an open, flowing game that Leicester have won 4-0. That places them eight points clear, eight points, nearly three whole wins, at the top. With three games to play.

But in second place, Tottenham Hotspur, the only team that can now overhaul the Foxes, have four games to play. Speaking strictly mathematically, Spurs could end up on 80 points. Leicester are on 76 points: they need five from the last three games to secure the title.

Though if Spurs fail to win their game-in-hand, at home tomorrow night to West Bromwich Albion, which seems unlikely but hey, this is football, the equation will change dramatically. Even if Spurs only draw, Leicester could win the Premier League in their next match, next Sunday.

At Old Trafford. Against Manchester United.

Which leaves me in a bit of a quandary. I have never, ever gone into a United game wanting us to lose. Expecting to lose, maybe, but never, not for the most tactical of purposes wanting us to do anything other than win. But a win over Leicester might destroy this ridiculous dream of glory, this unimaginably v-signing, nose-thumbing, middle-finger raising claim upon something fundamental to football’s soul, or that part of it that is still not black and charred.

Especially if a win next Sunday might be the thing itself.

Next Sunday could be seriously embarrassing. Come on West Brom!

What it’s like to be a Red: the View from 11 April 2016

A random thought crossed my mind this afternoon: is there actually an upside to Jose Mourinho taking over as Manchester United manager? For me, I mean, personally: I stick by my belief that he would be a disaster for the club and would leaves things even worse after a very short-term period of possible success. I have sworn that, if United do take Mourinho on, I will turn my back and walk away for as long as he is there. There isn’t room for both of us, and it’s not like I have any scintilla of power to influence the situation, positively or negatively.

I watched yesterday’s game against Tottenham Hotspur, though I switched it off the moment the final whistle went, and I was close to doing so as soon as the amount of additional time was announced, since that seemed a cruel and unfair punishment to undergo after ninety minutes.

United had coped, defensively, with Spurs, for seventy minutes. Young Timothy Fosu-Mensah had been a beast in defence, locking up everything. He gets injured, United concede three in six minutes from that side of the field. Three was unnecessary: thre latter two were soup and nuts, one was all that was needed. United weren’t going to score if the game had gone on all night and spurs had gone home to sleep and left eleven dustbins on the pitch in a 4-1-4-1 formation.

To be honest, it didn’t even hurt. I was looking to keep Spurs out, do Leicester a two-point favour, maybe, by some fluke late on, nick an undeserved goal and three points. But once the first goal went in, it was over and I knew it.

I lost faith in van Gaal a long time ago (link) and though I’ve welcomed and enjoyed some results since then – Arsenal, the Bitters – I’ve never been seduced into thinking that maybe it’s working, maybe next season it will finally start to come together, maybe I’ll have to apologise for being so badly wrong (some apologies are easier to make than others).

No, I want van Gaal out. He has only one use at present, one purpose for me, as a placeholder, keeping Mourinho’s arse out of the Old Trafford dugout.

I didn’t just watch the United game yesterday. For a second successive Sunday, I also watched the Leicester game that kicked off at 1.30pm. It took me back to the 1995/96 season, when I followed both Droylsden and United. At the back end of the season, I got very used to double match weekends, with the Bloods on the Saturday and the Reds on the Sunday, and even a few double match days, most notably when I was at Anfield at 11.30am on the Saturday, and back to the Butchers Arms for 3.00pm.

Two games in a day takes a fair chunk out of it for the little things, like food-shopping at supermarkets with no direct public transport access. Though I’m backing the Foxes for the title, it doesn’t mean I can watch them with anything like the fervour I bring to United.

But there was no fervour in that game. If we’d scored, I’d have roared, but this season I have only rarely been able to muster the full-throated bellow that normally accompanies a goal. Watching United has become a chore, not a pleasure. There is no anticipation, no expectation. It’s a ritual without pleasure or excitement.

And if Mourinho were to come to Old Trafford next season, it’s a ritual I would have to deny myself. Just at the moment, that has its kind of attractive aspect. I mean, it’s soul-destroying to watch United this season, to try to support and believe in a team whose victories are never deserved in the way to which I became too used.

The slow tempo, the constant lack of imagination, the instinct to turn back, to play the ball away from the opposition’s goal rather than towards it, the insistence on playing so many players out of position – I mean, Ashley Young, yesterday, what was that? The inability to see where a goal might come from, the loss of confidence and commitment in the team, no football fan can bear to see that from the team he supports, and the long years when such things were quite simply unthinkable make watching United a pain. Two to three years off becomes appealing.

Up for t’Cup: 1962 – 1971

A winner at Wembley

The final decade of the FA Cup’s first century spanned the Sixties, a period of social change, of liberalisation, of optimism and incident. England won the World Cup. Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United won the European Cup-Winners Cup and Manchester United the European Cup. But these did not overshadow the competition that was still regarded as every British footballer’s dream. League Championships were harder to achieve, a more serious accomplishment. But nothing beat Wembley on a May Saturday afternoon, with the eyes of the whole country on you, and the thrill and dash that a Winners medal meant.
The World Cup aside, the Cup Final was England’s only live televised football game each year. It was the highlight of the season. And in their varying ways, the Finals of this decade lived up to the reputation of the fixture.
As it had ten years earlier, the decade began with Tottenham Hotspur retaining the Cup, only the fourth team ever to do so at that time. And they would go on to bring a European trophy to England for the first time, when they won the following season’s Cup-Winners Cup. Three other Cup winners this decade would emulate them.
The Final, played between the second and third placed League clubs that season, was downplayed in the Press, who nicknamed it the ‘Chessboard Final’ for being short on excitement and long on caution and tactics. However, statistics showed that the game had had more penalty area action and more saves than any other post-War Final. And the game was not without controversy as a second Burnley equaliser was ruled out for a very marginal offside, whilst the third Tottenham goal, a penalty converted for a goalline handball, was granted when the referee ignored his linesman flagging for a Spurs foul.
Burnley did enjoy one record from the game: their goal, scored by Jimmy Robson, was the 100th goal scored in a Wembley Cup Final.
This was the last Final to be played at a Wembley with uncovered terraces and, shades of the decade ahead, the last in which the winning captain called for the crowd to raise three cheers for Her Majesty the Queen, to be followed by the National Anthem, though the playing of this before and after the game would continue until 1971.
The following season,the Cup’s schedule was massively disrupted by the Big Freeze of 1963. Only three of the thirty-two Third Round ties were played on the day and the Round was not completed until 11 March, when the last outstanding tie was settled by a replay, in favour of eventual Finalists, Leicester City. This was two days after the originally scheduled date for the Sixth Round.
The draw was thrown into confusion by the haphazard manner in which ties were completed, and later rounds and draws were put back to try to  accommodate the weather. One Fifth Round tie resulted in pairing eight teams in a sixteen-way possible outcome of as-yet-unplayed Third Round ties. The eventual winners, Manchester United, did not get to play their Third Round tie until 4 March.
The Final was eventually played on 27 May, three weeks after the original date, the latest the Cup Final has ever been played. United, who had reached the semi-final the previous season before being put out by Spurs, were decidedly the underdogs, having rescued themselves from relegation in only the penultimate match of the First Division season, but they brushed Leicester aside, condemning the Foxes to their third defeat in as many Finals. But no team had lost all their first four.
Though United’s red and Leicester’s blue tops did not clash, the clubs were asked to change by the BBC, as their shirts would not be distinguishable on black and white television. This was the first instance of television interfering with a football game for their benefit. Sadly, it would not end there.
For Manchester United, this was a turning point. The side that won the Cup – United’s first post-Munich trophy – was on the point of morphing into Matt Busby’s third great team, and United would set an incredible record of reaching five consecutive Cup semi-finals between 1962 and 1966, and another in 1970, though this would be their only win of the decade.
In 1964, they would be knocked out by the Winners, West Ham United, lifting the Cup for the first time, forty-one years after playing in the first Wembley Final. Their opponents were Preston North End, a decade on from their last Final, and providing the Second Division with a first finalist in fifteen years. They also included the youngest FA Cup finalist in seventeen year old half-back, Howard Kendall. But despite taking the lead twice, it was not their day, Ronnie Boyce heading the Hammers’ winning goal in the ninetieth minute.
The Cup was lifted by West Ham captain, Bobby Moore. It was the first step in a unique treble for Moore who would lead West Ham to victory in the Cup-Winners Cup Final, at Wembley, twelve months on, before raising the World Cup as captain of England, in the summer of 1966.
A second first-time Winner was inevitable in 1965, with a War of the Roses Final between Leeds United, reaching their first Final, and Liverpool, unsuccessful in two appearances going back over fifty-one years. For the first time since 1947, extra-time was required to separate the teams, after the Final finished goalless in normal time. Liverpool would reach the following season’s Cup-Winners Cup Final, but would lose out to Borussia Dortmund, in a game which I am sure was televised live in Britain: it was the first televised football I was aware of, even if I wasn’t particularly watching it.
The old Wembley hoodoo that had affected so many Fifties Finals nearly struck again, with Liverpool full-back Gerry Byrne suffering a broken collarbone in a seventh minute collision, though he played all 120 minutes, unaware of the severity of his injury. For Leeds, Jimmy Greenhoff finished on the losing side but would collect a Winners medal twelve years later, for Manchester United, ironically against Liverpool.
Less pleasant was the experience of Leeds’ South African winger, Albert Johanneson, the first black player to play in the Final. Johanneson was subjected to appalling racist abuse from before he even got onto the field, which went unchecked throughout the game.
With the World Cup looming on the very near horizon, it would have been very easy for the 1966 Final to be overshadowed, yet Everton and Sheffield Wednesday produced an amazing game to stake their own claim to fame under the Twin Towers. There’s a famous story that when Princess Margaret was introduced to the teams before kick-off, she asked Brian Labone, the Everton captain, where Everton was actually from. When told it was Liverpool, she replied, ‘Ah, yes, we had your first team here last year.’
Sheffield Wednesday were out to record their first victory in thirty-two years, and looked to be well on course when they went 2-0 up in the second half. But Everton responded with three goals in fifteen minutes to overturn their Yorkshire opponents and record their own first victory in thirty-three years.
By doing so they became only the second, and last, team, after Blackpool in 1953, to recover from a two goal deficit and win the Cup in normal time, whilst Wednesday became the only team to lose such an advantage whilst retaining eleven fit players on the pitch.
Like Jimmy Greenhoff the preceding year, Wednesday’s Jim McCalliog would go on to claim a Winners medal a decade later, this time playing against Manchester United.
For reasons that are not now apparent, this season was the first of three in which the Third Round was pushed back into the second half of January, instead of being played on its first Saturday. Indeed, for the next two seasons, that honour would be vested in the Second Round.
The first post-World Cup tournament began with an unusual North East Derby in the First Round as non-Leaguers Blyth Spartans and Bishop Auckland fought four games for the right to progress, only for Auckland to be hammered 7-0 by Halifax Town in the next round (in a replay, of course). Manchester United, after reaching the semi final five years in a row, were put out in the Fourth Round at home by then bogey-team, Norwich City.
Amazingly, given the profusion of clubs in the Capital, it had taken ninety-five years to produce a London Derby Final: inevitably nicknamed the ‘Cockney Cup Final’. Tottenham Hotspur made it five out of five, despite a late consolation goal from their West London rivals, Chelsea, whose record was now nought out of two.
This was the first Cup Final of which I watched any part, a large chunk of the second half and I still have vague memories of seeing what my memory insists as being the Chelsea goal, but which was actually Spurs’ second and winner from Frank Saul. This was the first Final in which substitutes were named, following the long overdue change in the Laws, though at this time they were only allowed on for injury, so neither featured in the game.
Having partially broken my duck the previous season, I would watch the whole Cup Final in 1968 for the first time, beginning a personal association with and love for the Cup that has lasted all my life. In all the years that have followed, I have only failed to watch the Final on four occasions, for varying reasons.
In part, my decision to devote the afternoon to the game came out of cupidity. Foolishly, I had a bet on the result with a schoolmate. I say foolishly because I had committed to the prize of 3d without establishing who was betting on who. I wanted the favourites, Everton, but was forced into supporting the underdogs, West Bromwich Albion.
Satisfaction came early in extra-time, when Jeff Astle drove in the only goal, not that I ever got to see my winnings. There’s no honour in gambling.
Astle’s goal saw him join the limited ranks of those who have scored in every round of the Cup, whilst his team-mate Dennis Clarke became the first substitute to come on in a Final. And the midlanders created a new record with this game, becoming the first team to appear in ten Finals, although irony must record that, having established this landmark, WBA have never reached the Final since.
And a thought must be spared for Howard Kendall, now a part of the classic Everton midfield trio with Alan Ball and Colin Harvey, once again on the losing side. Like so many tremendously talented footballers, he was never to know the thrill of winning the Cup.
The Cup returned to normal in 1968/69, at least as far as the Third Round went. The tournament itself was again affected by weather as snow in early February wiped out the entire Fifth Round, the only time a Round has not seen any match played on schedule. The Cup itself this season was notable for producing no Second Replays at any stage, and when the semi-finals were drawn, there was the prospect of an immediate repeat for the 1968 Final. But both Everton and West Brom were beaten by goals coming in the last five minutes of each tie, and it was Manchester City and Leicester who contended the 1969 Final.
Though City had struggled in the First Division for a long time, they were still reigning League Champions, whilst Leicester were still far from free of relegation concerns, and no team had ever lost their first four FA Cup Finals. But a first half goal gave City the Cup, and Leicester’s failure in their outstanding League fixtures saw them go down, only the second club to undergo relegation and Cup Final defeat in the same season: ironically, the only other club had been City themselves, in 1926.
Leicester became, and remain, the Cup’s least successful Finalists, with four defeats and no wins. Manchester City would go on to become the third English team to win the Cup-Winners Cup, though ironically, their success would be all but invisible outside Manchester (and I have met at least one City fan unaware of their only European triumph), thanks to the FA Cup. And City’s manager, Joe Mercer, became the first person to win both League and Cup as player and as manager.
Long ago, I heard a fascinating FA Cup question: what is taken to Wembley every year but never used? The answer is, of course, the ribbons in the losing team’s colours. Since the Final was first housed at the Empire Stadium, the same could have been said about the name of the Replay venue. At last, after forty-eight years, a Wembley Cup Final ended as a draw, fifty-eight years after the last such, and a replay was duly required, at Old Trafford, Manchester.
Old Trafford had been the venue for the Khaki Cup Final in 1915, when Chelsea had lost the first of their two appearances. Once again, the Cup was guaranteed a first-time Winner as the Blues measured up against Leeds United.
In 1970, England were to defend their World Cup crown, in the unfamiliar settings of Mexico. In order to give the squad a month to acclimatise to the heat and the atmospheric conditions, the season was shortened and the Cup set for 11 April. Three weeks elapsed between the Third and Fourth Rounds, and the Sixth Round and the semi-finals, but only two weeks each between the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth.
Manchester United reached their sixth semi-final in nine years but were beaten in a second replay by Leeds, by the only goal in 330 minutes play.
The early Final meant that the game was played only a week after the Horse of the Year Show, and this showed in the appalling condition of the surface, which was directly responsible for at least one of the goals in a 2-2 draw, Jack Charlton’s header from a corner simply not bouncing, and rolling under what would normally have been a routine goalline clearance.
Because of the compression of the season, it was not possible to schedule the Replay for another eighteen days, making this the longest Final on record. Again Leeds took the lead, and again Chelsea equalised, but it was not until extra-time that they scored the winner, taking the lead for the first time over the 240 minutes of the two games. Chelsea would compound their first Cup win by becoming the fourth English winners of the Cup-Winners Cup, knocking out Manchester City in the semi-finals (revenge for defeat at City’s hands in the next season’s Fourth Round) and, ironically, requiring a replay to add their European trophy.
As for Manchester City, their Cup-Winners Cup Final was played the same night as the Cup Final Replay: no television coverage, no fuss and ado.
The Replay attracted 28,000,000 viewers, an audience exceeded only by the 1966 World Cup Final in sporting events and the sixth highest television audience of all time in Britain. Chelsea’s Peter Osgood was the last player to date to score in every round of the Cup. The games themselves were representative of an era of hard and often brutal challenges on the pitch: it has subsequently estimated by referee David Elleray that, in the modern era, six red and twenty yellow cards would have been issued, but the matches have also been defended for the fact that no-one dived and no-one tried to get an opponent sent off.
For the first time, a Third and Fourth Place Final was introduced, played on the Friday evening before the Final. Manchester United won this unwanted honour, beating Watford 2-0. It was not an innovation that would last: the match would only be played five times before being abandoned as the unwanted and ill-considered thing it was.
It had taken sixty-three years to come up with a Twentieth Century Double. It took only ten more to come up with another. Arsenal secured the first half of their Double on the Monday night, away ironically to Spurs, and added the Cup in the hot Wembley sunshine after a goalless ninety minutes. Although the Final is remembered mostly for the pile-driver winning shot from Charlie George, and his highly distinctive celebration, a forerunner of the modern era, I’ve always thought that Steve Heighway’s opening goal was the more important of the game.
I’d actually seen Heighway, the first graduate footballer of note, score for Skelmersdale United at Droylsden only twelve months before. Twelve months and a considerable number of levels later,  he swept in from the left with the ball and, with the Arsenal keeper Bob Wilson anticipating the ball across goal, slammed his shot through the wide-open gap between Wilson and his near post. It created a shockwave, as if it were the first goal ever scored at the near post, and it changed the face of football in an instant. No keeper ever left that kind of gap at his near post ever again.
Arsenal’s Eddie Kelly became first substitute to score in a Final, though the Arsenal equaliser was celebrated on the day as belonging to George Graham (who made no bones about claiming it). His opposite number, Peter Thompson, became the first Cup Final substitute to be brought on for tactical reasons.
In the Third Place Play-Off, Stoke City beat Everton 3-2.
The FA Cup had now been in existence for one hundred seasons.

(all Finals played at the Empire Stadium, Wembley, unless otherwise stated)

1961/62  Tottenham Hotspur 3 Burnley 1
1962/63   Manchester United 3 Leicester City 1
1963/64  West Ham United 3 Preston North End 2
1964/65  Liverpool 2 Leeds United 1 (aet)
1965/66  Everton 3 Sheffield Wednesday 2
1966/67   Tottenham Hotspur 2 Chelsea 1
1967/68  West Bromwich Albion 1 Everton 0 (aet)
1968/69  Manchester City 1 Leicester City 0
1969/70 Chelsea 2 Leeds United 2 (aet)
R: Chelsea 2 Leeds United 1 (aet) (Old Trafford, Manchester)
1970/71 Arsenal 2 Liverpool 1 (aet)

The final decade of the FA Cup’s first century featured twelve clubs and nine winners, including two first-time Winners. Only Tottenham Hotspur won the Cup twice in this period, although Everton, Chelsea, Liverpool, Leeds United and Leicester City would also reach Wembley twice, the latter two losing on both occasions. There were three First-Time Winners in this decade plus another First-Time Finalist, who would go on to lift the Cup, and one representative of the second Division. The decade saw the only occasion since the Cup came to the Twin Towers of the Empire Stadium when the Cup was presented away from Wembley, the honour going to Old Trafford on the first time a Wembley Cup Final ended in a draw. By the time this situation was repeated, Wembley itself was the nominated Replay venue, leaving Old Trafford with a unique status. The 1965 Liverpool/Leeds Final became the first in eighteen years to need extra time, but once this barrier had been crossed, three of the last four Finals of this period would require extra-time, as would that Replay.