In the past today would have been one of the biggest days of my year. I would have woken up as excited as I would have been for Christmas or my birthday. I would have planned breakfast and lunch around TV specials like ‘It’s a Knockout’ and ‘The Road to Wembley’. Come 3 o’clock we would have drawn the curtains to make sure there was no glare on the black and white TV set, and we would have revelled in the fact that this was a live game of football on Saturday afternoon. The reason… FA Cup Final day.
Back then the FA Cup final was one of the only live games of football on terrestrial television. I’m not even sure why I say terrestrial television. We only had 2, and then 3 channels in those days, all in black and white. Satellites and satellite dishes were things of science fiction and Jodrell Bank.
The Final was the climax of a journey the whole of my school had been on. From the start of the new year we would listen to the FA Cup draw on our radios at lunchtime on a Monday to hear who had been drawn against who in the next round. Occasionally Swansea would make it through to the 3rd round when the big clubs came in. We would cross our fingers and hope for Manchester United but usually end up playing Exeter or Stockport County instead.
I know I’m sounding like the ‘jumpers for goalposts’, ‘standing on the terraces’ ‘lump it upfield’ child of the 60’s and 70’s but back then you could keep your League titles or InterCity Fairs Cup. What we all dreamed of was playing on those wide spaces at Wembley on a hot summer’s afternoon, probably going down with cramp in extra time, but finally dancing our way around the stadium in front of our delirious fans holding the cup above our heads.
So why is it now a ‘nice day’ and not the best day of the year as it was way back then?
There was lots of football on TV in the 60’s and 70’s but it was usually only highlights shown later in the day. The way we kept in touch with developments on a Saturday afternoon was watching Frank Bough on BBC or Dickie Davies on ITV giving us updates to the scores. There were no pictures or pitch side reporters. And then came the scores on the teleprinter. As each game finished the electronic typewriter would burst into life only to wait there with nothing happening until the next score came in. You could find your self staring at a TV screen showing a picture of nothing happening and still find it exciting.
When it came to actually watching football ‘Match of the Day’ on Saturday nights was my best bet. Even though we had to get up early on Sunday for church we were always allowed to stay up late for Match of the Day. On Sundays ‘On the Ball’ with Brian Moore was usually possible as it just about fitted in between Sunday lunch and afternoon Sunday School.
With both my parents being teachers weeknight football proved tricky. ‘Sportsnight with Coleman’ would have highlights of the midweek European games but the deal in our house was, yes you can watch the programme, but you had to go to bed extra early and then be woken up just before the show started after 10pm. I always remember struggling to go to sleep at 7pm and then struggling just as hard to keep my eyes open having been rudely awoken from a deep sleep. I would never complain because they might not let me do it next week.
The whole FA Cup final day was special. The BBC would have an FA CUP edition of ‘It’s a Knockout’. Teams of ordinary people from the towns or cities that had reached the FA Cup final would compete against each other in absurd physical tests which could range from smashing up a piano and feeding it through some car tyres to dressing up in oversized foam suits where they would try to complete an obstacle course whilst being attacked by water cannons. It was like a pantomime version of ‘I’m a Celebrity’ without the disgraced politicians or Kangaroo bits!!!
Then we had the ‘Road to Wembley’ which showed how the finalist had negotiated the various rounds whilst also showing the best highlights from the teams that didn’t make it. That usually included a section on a non-league giant killing team that was made up of builders and plasterers who had beaten a team of professional footballers whilst maintaining a steady job and only training on weeknights.
I got to go to an FA Cup Final once. It was back in 1977, Manchester United versus Liverpool. Just like so many amazing things that happened to me in the 1970’s the ticket was down to Elton John. The following week I was due to go into Abbey Road with Elton in the producer’s chair. Elton thought it would be good for me to meet the arranger for the session the week before. As chairman of Watford FC he had been allocated 2 tickets for the final and I went with David Croker the Rocket Record Company boss.
I still remember the excitement of walking up Wembley Way and I had a proper seat. All of the games I had watched up until then had been on the Vetch Field North Bank so to get a seat was really posh. The day was everything I dreamed an FA Cup final should be, loud and colourful and full of sunshine. I was right behind the goals when Jimmy Case swivelled and scored in the top corner. Manchester United went on to win but as a neutral I didn’t really care. It had been the best day. Then I went back to Elton’s mansion in Windsor, met and chatted to the arranger and then watched the highlights again on Match of the Day.
I knew I had been incredibly lucky. If I hadn’t had that invite I would still have watched the game live and then the highlights later too. The thing was back then there was so little live football on television the FA Cup final was so very special. You might get some live games for the World Cup or the finals of the European competitions, but the FA Cup was the game of the year.
These days, most weeks I can watch live games from the Premier league from Friday through Monday. In the past few weeks I’ve watched ‘Play off’ games from every league night after night. Sometimes I find myself turning the game off if its not up to my standard and watching something completely different. My 10 year old self would not believe it!!!
Can you have too much of a good thing, too much football on the TV? Actually we might be getting close to that point, but I haven’t quite reached it yet. So this afternoon I will put all cynicism aside and settle down in the front of the TV nice and early to get that FA Cup build up.
The Magic of the cup is still magical to me.