ABOUT this time last year I was approached by an American publisher who wanted me to write the narrative to a wonderful photo-book he was compiling about the history of the FA Cup Final.
“Could you do 500 words on each Final, telling the story of this remarkable competition because everywhere I go in the world people talk so fondly about it.”
Ah, Americans eh. Suckers for a bit of emotional rhetoric. Perhaps, but in this case, absolutely spot on because having agreed to write the equivalent of a short essay on each Final, about 65,000 words in all, I went on a wonderful voyage of sporting discovery.
I learnt about how the FA Cup was born from adapting a public school’s ‘house’ competition, how those privileged schools and offshoots dominated its early life until the early professional teams of the North and the Midlands quickly joined in and sent their fans southwards on steam locomotives and brought the trophy home northwards to a heroes’ welcome and the sounds of the town’s best brass band.
I learnt about the early stars of the game like Arthur Kinnaird, a man with a long red beard, who would be transported to the game in a horse-drawn charabanc only for fans to let the horses loose and pull him the last couple of hundred yards themselves. He won five cup winners medals with Old Etonians and Wanderers and later was presented with the FA Cup itself for long service to the game.
And that cup was bought at auction for nearly half a million pounds by West Ham’s David Gold in recent years.
I learnt that actual trophy was the second that had been made for the competition; the first had been stolen from a sports shop window whilst on display in Birmingham after Aston Villa had won it in 1895.
I learnt that the FA Cup that we all know and love was first shaped and modelled in Bradford in 1911 – and that year Bradford City won the trophy for the only time in their history.
I learnt that early FA Cup star Billy Meredith won the trophy with both Manchester United and Manchester City and always played with a tooth-pick in his mouth.
I learnt that the 1914 FA Cup Final was Liverpool’s first and also the first a reigning monarch, King George V, actually attended. Liverpool lost 1-0 to Burnley.
I learnt that in 1933, Everton and Manchester City were the first team to wear numbers on the back of their shirts, from 1 to 22, and that fittingly, Everton’s Dixie Dean wore the number 9 shirt and was on target as Everton won the Cup for a second time.
I learnt that Portsmouth held on to the FA Cup for longer than anybody else, winning it in 1939 and then keeping it safe at the club during the war years, despite the port being a target for enemy aircraft.
I learnt that Stanley Matthews was crowned the nation’s favourite in Coronation Year when he finally won a winner’s medal after helping Blackpool to their 4-3 win over Bolton Wanderers in 1953. But that it was another Stan, Mortensen, who scored a hat-trick for Blackpool that day.
I learnt that Jackie Milburn was the toast of ‘Geordieland’ scoring in two ‘50’s Finals and then, having taken the beautiful trophy home to show his relatives, was aghast to find his young son filling it to the brim with mud in the garden.
I learnt more about the remarkable story of Bert Trautmann, Manchester City’s goalkeeper, a German prisoner of war who survived prejudice, powerhouse centre-forwards and a broken neck, to secure his own place in FA Cup legend.
I learnt about the ‘Wembley hoodoo’ as football’s showpiece occasion kept falling foul of players getting injured. If anything hastened the introduction of substitutes if it was this too frequent occurrence.
I learnt about Liverpool’s first FA Cup Final win at Wembley in 1965 and Ian St.John’s marvellous headed winner and the following year Everton pulling back a two goal deficit against Sheffield Wednesday with a virtual unknown Mike Trebilcock scoring twice to level the game up before Derek Temple struck gold for the Toffees.
I learnt that at the end of the 1969 Final BBC and ITV personnel actually came to blows in the Wembley tunnel as they pushed and shoved each other to get to Manchester City’s match-winners first. I learnt that the late Sir Bobby Robson had actually called his pet dog, Roger, after namesake, Roger Osborne who scored Ipswich’s goal in their surprise win over Arsenal in 1978.
I learnt that the Cup Final can be cruel. Gordon Smith scored a marvellous goal for Brighton against Manchester United in their 1983 Final but is still reminded daily of a great chance he missed at the end of the game.
I learnt that when Liverpool and Everton played each other in 1986 and 1989, the real winner was Merseyside as the fans showed a unity of spirit whatever the result.
I learnt that individual brilliance can turn a Cup Final on its head – Ricky Villa in 1981 and Michael Owen in 2001.
And I learnt that the Final now has a truly international flavour with Cup Final winning goals coming Out of Africa - Kanu, Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba in recent times.
What I really learnt was the FA Cup Final and each season’s whole competition has weaved a remarkable sporting and social tapestry over its 141 year history.
So when people query the value, the worth, the bother of the FA Cup they should think a little more carefully and respect what we have and what others would crave for.
Football started out as a rich man’s past-time, perhaps at the top of the game it still is, but when 758 teams entered the competition this season the vast, vast majority of them knew they wouldn’t win the trophy but might just make a bit of their own personal history.
Let’s accept it may not be what it once was, times change, but it still remains a place where fans of the likes of Mansfield Town and Cheltenham Town can watch their team against players who they would normally see on the television and for teams like Luton and Macclesfield Town it was a chance to bathe in a momentary splash of limelight – normally the preserve of other more celebrated names.
Like my American friend told me. “You have one amazing competition don’t you!” We do – let’s cherish it.