x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

FA Cup final: cups of joy from past history

In the days of limited coverage on television, memories of FA Cup hold true even without a dossier on the players for Ali Khaled.

Tottenham's Ricky Villa scored what is regarded by many as the greatest FA Cup goal against Manchester City in the 1981 final replay. Allsport
Tottenham's Ricky Villa scored what is regarded by many as the greatest FA Cup goal against Manchester City in the 1981 final replay. Allsport

Unless you are a football geek, or a Southampton fan, it is unlikely you have heard of Bobby Stokes.

But he is an FA Cup legend. In 1976, the long-haired winger's late goal won the cup for the second-division side against Manchester United. In Abu Dhabi, this six-year-old football fan sat transfixed on the television screen.

It was the only live football match I saw all year, and in years to come, when people spoke of the "magic" or "mystery" of the FA Cup, I knew what they meant.

On Saturday, the FA Cup final between Manchester City and Wigan Athletic will not even be the first live match that millions will watch that day. That the FA Cup final, and football, is not what it used to be is hardly news.

A generation of football fans brought up on blanket coverage can barely relate to such nostalgic musings, in the same way that my generation could not to previous, monochromatic decades.

But while the magic of the cup may be gone forever, back then, for those growing up in this part of the world, the mystery was quite literal. All season, we survived on the scraps of occasional highlights programmes such as Big League Soccer or The Road To Wembley.

Then came "Cup Final" day.

The moment when the players stepped out at Wembley Stadium provided the first glimpse of who was playing that day. There was no prior team news, and indeed, we barely knew many of the players, anyway.

Brilliantly, the final was a guaranteed breeding ground for heroes.

Not many around here had a clue who Stokes was before the 1976 final. Nor, for the matter, who Roger Osborne of Ipswich Town was in 1978. You can look them up on YouTube now.

The finals became bookmarks in our football education.

In 1977, I cried when Liverpool lost to Manchester United, a fate cruelly relived as an adult in 1996. And the dramatic finale in 1979 was like nothing we had ever seen.

The 1980 final introduced me to the brilliant skills of West Ham United's Trevor Brooking, whose goal and stunning performance humbled mighty Arsenal, while the 1-0 win marked the last time a second-tier club held the cup.

There were villains, too. That same final brought indignant notoriety to Arsenal's Willie Young, football's equivalent of the man who shot Bambi's mother.

With Paul Allen, then the youngest-ever Wembley finalist at 17, clean through on goal, Young scythed him down with one of the most cynical fouls you will ever see. Before that day, I had never even heard of a "professional foul".

The big brute only got a yellow, too but a weeping Allen got a winners' medal.

Unlike many younger Manchester City fans, my recollections of the 1981 final, thanks to repeated, and obsessive, viewings on VHS, are more vivid than those of the nondescript 2011 final.

Ricky Villa's winner in Tottenham Hotspur's 3-2 replay win over City is regarded by many as the greatest cup final goal of all time. But for me, it was only the second-best that day; does anyone else remember Steve Mackenzie's astonishing volley as fondly?

And what about Gordon Smith's last minute miss for Brighton and Hove Albion against Manchester United in 1983? Or Keith Houchen's diving header for Coventry City against Spurs in 1987?

And in 1988 came the biggest, and last, of the final upsets, Wimbledon's 1-0 giant-killing of Liverpool's last great team.

"The Crazy Gang has beaten the Culture Club," screeched commentator John Motson, his words as fresh in the memory today as they were painful a quarter of a century ago.

But shocks like that are almost unthinkable these days. Sorry Wigan, the game has moved on.

On Saturday, millions across the UAE, Arabian Gulf and Middle East will watch the FA Cup final. But few neutrals will really care.

The mystery of the cup is all but gone.

There will be no unknown faces when Manchester City and Wigan step onto the not-so-hallowed turf of the new Wembley. And sadly, there is unlikely to be a shock result either.

In fact, 20 of the last 25 finals have been won by Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. The previous 25 had 14 different winners.

Manchester City, holders in 2011, are huge favourites to win again. And even should Wigan pull off what would be the upset of the century, the identity of their hero, perhaps Callum McManaman or Shaun Maloney, will hardly be a revelation, either.

Not in the way that Stokes was all those years go.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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