Almanac Soccer: FA Cup – We gotta hold on to what we got

My first nostalgic memory of the FA Cup is 1979, Arsenal 3-2 Manchester United. It was a warm and sunny day at far away Wembley, it’s always warm and sunny on that one day in May, but my soon-to-be eight-year-old self was on the other side of the world, watching it on the ABC with my father, a blanket and a cup of warm Milo.


It would’ve been a 10pm, or thereabouts, kick off, early afternoon in north London, a perfect excuse to stay up late with Des my Dublin Da and cheer on the yellow shirts with blue trim as they made magic in front of 100,000 people. Or perhaps it was red with white trim and I’m confusing this with the 1971 Double? Rather than check online I prefer to let nostalgia argue it out with memory in lazily comforting revery.


It became a small ritual with my father that, staying up late and watching the final of the world’s oldest knockout competition, even when Spurs won it four years in row. Then as I got older it became a ritual with my mates, eventually turning into early-20s FA Cup parties in the usual, and then affordable, Brisbane share house suburbs of Paddington and Red Hill, maybe West End or New Farm. We loved the cruisy end of season vibe – actually, I can’t recall missing too many years since 1979 in any part of town – and the tradition of bad suits, the Benaudesque creamy pinnacle and / or nadir of which was Liverpool’s Spice Boys in 1996.


One year later, I moved to London, spending the second half of a great decade there just two tube stops from Highbury, that beautiful old ground resting comfortably in the arms of its surrounding terraced houses, as if it had always been there and the houses were built later to support it. As someone who grew up watching English football on TV game days felt exotic to me, Avenell Road alive with people and scarves and touts and sellers of all kinds of tat imaginable, as long as it was red and white. My first year there was the year Wenger broke that long League title drought. Beers literally flew at the Twelve Pins – I told someone in the gents, letting rip with my best ocker accent, that I’d flown over from Australia especially for the match – I leant the ‘Arsene Wenger’s Red and White Army’ chant and about a billion people partied on Blackstock Road. It made Fever Pitch look like A Country Practice.


European nights were particularly electric. I used to ride my bike around the ground in the build up to kick off, like a ghost absorbing and feeding off the buzzing crackle and fizz, then watch the game at The Gunners or the T-Bird. Match tickets for those nights were hens’ teeth, but I made it inside for a few League games. The moment in the Invincibles year when Thierry Henry (TH14 to his mates) painted a free kick of incomprehensible power and beauty right in front of me is seared into my memory to be treasured forever.


A new Cup ritual soon emerged: head to a crowded and sweaty pub in the early afternoon, albeit slightly uneasy during the weird Cardiff years when Wembley was being tarted up with a bit of a reno, perhaps kick on afterwards deep into a London Saturday Night / Sunday Morning if the stars were aligned or, if not, head home to watch the replay on the Beeb with a four-pack of Kronenbourg or Stella from the offy.


Arsenal seemed to win it every year for a while there. Such is the power of nostalgia (an illness we all suffer from, remember, according to the Greeks) that to this day I favour FA Cup glory over Europe. (Although, yeah, Paris still hurts.) So many great memories. The absolute thunderbolt unleashed by the Romford Pele, Ray Parlour, to stun Chelsea, not to mention a Bristolian mate of mine, who hated Parlour. The time Arsenal got absolutely hammered by Manchester United for 120 scoreless minutes  before Vieeerrraaa, oh oh ooohhh oh, Vieeeerrraa smashed in the winning penalty in the shoot out. Absolute highway robbery! But as it was just a few weeks after the direct hit of Wayne Rooney’s dive ran out Arsenal’s unbeaten League streak, one short of its half century, a crime no jury in the land would convict. It turned out to be the last time the French giant put his right foot on a ball in that glorious Arsenal number 4 shirt.


I also have a painful memory of the year Arsenal wined and dined Liverpool without ever luring them to bed – “They’ll regret not taking their chances for mine, Martin” – only for Michael Owen to break my heart right at the death. The death of romance for mine, Martin. I ended up walking home deep into that London Saturday Night / Sunday Morning, from Shoreditch to Swiss Cottage, to find the old church next door to our apartment building had been taken over by a bunch of travellers holding a polite but very, very loud 36-hour rave. I’ve hated doof ever since.


Now everything has changed, as everything tends to do. Arsenal play at Sponsors Stadium instead of Highbury and nostalgia makes me hate that. In particular, the Cup kick off time has criminally been shunted later to silly o’clock Sunday morning here, and of course held this year in August when clubs would usually be starting their heat-slowed, short-socked, pre-season kickabouts. At least it pretty much guarantees sunny, I guess.


I’m writing this on Cup Final eve on a warm-for-a-Melbourne-winter’s day, fresh out of a morning wake-up dip in Port Phillip, the cold water and long overdue vitamin D on my face and hands having lifted my sagging lockdown spirits. It’s 40 years and a few weeks since I became a Gooner. In a few hours, Arsenal and their young, ex-midfielder Manager will walk out at Wembley in front of a crowd of zero alongside Chelsea and their young, ex-midfielder Manager. Best of luck to both of them.


I’m grateful to live by the water in St Kilda and still be healthy and employed and with a cat that wakes me every morning to remind me that his stomach is much more important than any virus so hurry up and get out of bed and feed me, but there are still too many ‘certainly’ days – when Brett Sutton’s first word is ‘certainly’ you know it’s a bad numbers day – for me to feel too much excitement about anything. Seemingly every third day brings higher numbers.


Then you chuck in an empty Wembley, that criminally late kick off time and the fact that the chances of bad suits making us laugh are zero. Not that it’s even on the tele here this year anyway, for some reason, the first year I can remember it not being televised. You think we’d have learnt by now that some things matter more than profit. Anyway, amongst the gloom all I can muster is the asinine thought that if Arsenal ‘turn up’, as they say, the Cup will return to its rightful home. If they don’t, ex-Gunner Oliver Giroud and his handsome beard will fill his boots with goals galore. Either way, to be honest I can’t muster much else.


Postscript: On reflection, that last paragraph was only true in a Trumpian sense. I can also muster great memories that make me smile. That never-gets-tired couplet informing us that Vieira comes from Se-ne-gal and plays for Ar-se-nal. The Petit porno song. Loving Freddie cause he’s got red hair and is everywhere. That Pires, um, let’s be honest, dive against poor Portsmouth. Mary Shelley’s Jens Lehmann (thank you Guardian). A defence that defended, as in didn’t-let-in-any-goals defended.

And you know what? The sun is still shining, I’ve been in the bay again, the Sainters are finally kicking straight and Arsenal increased their record of Cup Final wins to 14. The gloom, if not the lockdown, lifts ever so slightly.


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  1. Great piece.

    In the sporting household of 70s country Queensland the FA Cup had the place you have described so beautifully in this piece. Remember the minnow years. Like you POB, I’m not going to check. I’m happy to guess. Fulham?Sunderland?

    All off the back of the popularity of Match of the Day with Brian Moore, and the BBC Sports Round-Up “But first the football scores” (I’m not looking that up either).

    I fear this festival day is disappearing.

    I think the demise of the single page National Scoreboard in the dailies (I’m thinking the old Australian here) has also had an impact. That one-stop page gave you everything from Ainslie v Eastlake to Wynnum-Manly v Past Brothers to the four divisions of English soccer.

    I still follow the four divisions via Guardian Football, just to see how Doncaster Rovers are going. Among others.

    Thanks Patrick.

  2. Ian Hauser says

    Ah 1979, Patrick! That sublime Liam Brady pass to create the winning goal. The Irishman was a genius. Loads of similar memories from the 70s and 80s – the Cup final and Wimbledon were essential viewing. Borg v McEnroe in 1980! And, as JTH writes, the full page of results on Monday’s – required reading.

    And I recall that ABC radio had a 6.00pm Sunday(?) score roundup from the BBC of all the English and Scottish league divisions. The accents were magnificent!

    Then there was The Two Ronnies news item: ‘And here is an incomplete score, Sheffield Wednesday 1.’

  3. Peter Fuller says

    Wonderful memory prompt, Patrick, and further jogging of the memory by JTH and IH.
    I’m very happy to recall the greatest day in Sunderland’s mostly unhappy history, 1973 Final. Leeds United 0 Sunderland 1 (Porterfield 38). Wonderful memories of Jimmy Montgomery’s heroics in goal and manager Bob Stokoe charging across the pitch at the final whistle to embrace his keeper. Stokoe dressed in a track suit (cf. Don Revie’s business suit.
    The first Cup Final I saw was 1964 West Ham d. Preston. The telecast was delayed until the following Tuesday as film had to be air freighted.
    I certainly remember the magic of direct telecasts of Wimbledon and Test cricket, which the satellite afforded us from the early 1970s.

  4. Stainless says

    Wonderful memories Patrick. Such a shame the FA Cup has been relegated to such also-ran status. I think my first “live” Final was in 1976 when lowly Southampton stunned Manchester United. I was hooked from then on. The late-night vigil in May became compulsory for the next three decades. As a Reds’ man, I have rather happier memories of Michael Owen’s 2001 heroics than you do! Liverpool’s FA Cup record pales compared with Arsenal’s, but I’ve at least seen them win five finals (and lose three – including the extraordinary loss to Wimbledon in 1988). I still find it extraordinary that the competition was completed in 1989 following the Hillsborough tragedy.

  5. Well done Patrick
    all I can say is the following
    my greatest FA cup memory – the last lower division club to beat a top flight side WAS……
    when the Mighty Trevor Brooking pride of Upton Park ( that stadium now sadly gone) scored a goal past the Gunners our cross town rivals in those terrible shirts that were reprised for the just finished Premier league when the mighty Hammers after putting fans like me through annual heart ache managed to stay up
    The spirit of Billy bonds Frank Lampard and Mervyn Day lives on !!! go the claret and sky blue
    Not quite as good as the Yellow and Black but 1980 was great year for Richmond and West Ham

  6. Albion Rover says

    For a sub-teenage boy in 1970s,Melbourne, the FA Cup Final was a wondrous thing. A once-a-year opportunity to stay up late and soak up the glory of English football. Ian Porterfield, Alan Taylor, Bobby Stokes, Roger Osborne … it made icons of players who would have otherwise passed through their careers appreciated locally but largely anonymous in the wider football world. The biography of the late Bobby Stokes – “The Man From Portsmouth Who Scored Southampton’s Most Famous Goal” – is well worth a read, even if you’re not a Saints fan.

  7. Matt Harvey says

    Thanks Patrick, this brings back many memories for me too. My first FA Cup final was 1975 – West Ham’s win over Fulham, but the one I remember best is 1976, Southampton’s 1-0 win over Man U. I had remembered that as my first in 1974, but now see I didn’t watch that one. My late-night soccer viewing had actually begun with watching the Socceroos in Germany in the 1974 World Cup finals. I was 9. I didn’t understand offside, it was on a small black and white TV at 4 in the morning! I couldn’t understand why there were two Germanies, both in our pool and both beating us.I insisted on watching the 3v4 playoff between Poland and Brazil which meant that when the Final came, although I insisted on being woken, I went back to sleep and missed the whole thing! I was going to support the Netherlands and was very sad they had lost, but devastated to think it would be 4 tears until the next one – that seemed an eternity!
    I started watching Wimbledon in 1974 and it was so exciting to have Ken Rosewall in the final, 38 to Jimmy Connors, 19. I later learned that Rosewall at 19 had lost to Drobny, 33 in 1954. Poor Rosewall was completely overpowered. The following year, Arthur Ashe beat Connors, then Bord won his 5 straight, before losing to McEnroe in 1981. I didn’t have the energy for the 5th set in 1982 and kicked myself to have missed Connors’ incredible comeback – but I digress!
    I fell into the habit of supporting the underdog in the FA Cup Final and was richly rewarded by Ipswich in 1978. Many years offered only top teams and I didn’t care about Arsenal, Man U or Liverpool. I started to support Spurs in time for their back to back wins in 1981 and 1982 (both in replays. Argentinian Ricky Villa was the star in 1981, but didn’t play in 1982 because of the Falklands War. It also put an end to my underdogging because Queens Park Rangers were clearly the underdog in 1982.
    Meanwhile in 1978, I had got up early to watch the World Cup Final from Argentina, supporting the Netherlands, who lost again. The wait until 1982 was more bearable, but I was supporting France who were knocked out in the semi, and the final between Italy and Germany did not have an underdog.
    I was saddened to discover I had missed the 2020 FA Cup final, but the competition has been diminished and amid the chaos of COVID, it was hard to stay interested. No Winbledon, no footy in Victoria – how we wish it would all come back! Meanwhile we have the memories of those late night epics!

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