I watched the FA Cup final on Saturday. The timing worked well for me to watch it as I have been confined to the house isolating after being infected by covid.
|A generic picture (by me) of the Wembley Stadium arch...|
I have actually made more of an effort to watch the FA Cup final in the last few years. I enjoyed last year's game when Leicester won the Cup for the first time in this history. This year's contest was less exciting on paper, with both Liverpool and Chelsea winning it multiple times in the past and also being two of the really big teams in the league. FA Cup finals are always better when the less successful clubs get a tilt at winning.
Back in 2019, I blogged about how the first FA Cup final after my Dad died was an unexpected moment where I keenly felt his loss. That feeling has diminished somewhat over the last couple of years, but it's still something missing from the occasion. Dad would always watch the cup final and talk to me on the phone about it afterwards, even when for several years I wasn't particularly fussed about it and hadn't bothered watching.
People talk about the "magic" of the FA Cup and really what they mean is nostalgia. As I watched Liverpool and Chelsea punch and counterpunch their way to a 0-0 draw, extra time and penalties, I remembered watching the various cup finals when I was a kid. It made me feel melancholic as the nostalgia washed over me.
Cup final day was always a big day in our house. In the 1980s it was one of those very rare times that a football match was broadcast live on TV. It almost seems silly now - my time off isolating has been spent watching live football from almost every level in the top five tiers of English football - but back then there was the Cup final, and that was about it.
It was also on both main channels, BBC1 and ITV, so it felt like a real moment when the nation stopped to watch the football. (They did that again this year, but we have way more than 4 channels now so it dominates the schedules less.) We always used to watch it on the BBC, often starting with the build up before lunch time. Some years we would switch over to ITV for the bit presented by "Saint and Greavsie" (Ian St.John and Jimmy Greaves, who had a weekly football chat show on Saturdays). But normally we ignored the ITV output.
Those were halcyon days for FA Cup finals. I don't remember the one from 1984, when we had just moved into our house in Shrewsbury. But I remember watching Manchester United v Everton in 1985 - notable for Kevin Moran becoming the first player sent off in an FA Cup final, and Manchester United winning in extra time through a goal from wonder-kid Norman Whiteside. I wanted Everton to win and was disappointed that they lost.
I don't particularly remember anything from the 1986 final when Liverpool won the FA Cup and became the first team to win the League Title and the FA Cup in the same season (the "Double") in my short life-time. Everton were the losing finalists again.
I have vivid memories of the final in 1987 when Coventry City won the FA Cup for the first and only time in their history, beating Spurs. Firstly, there were lots of goals, including a great diving header by Keith Houchen, and a looping own goal that sliced in off Spurs defender Gary Mabbutt's knee. But it was also played in brilliant sunlight and the Wembley grass was bright, bright green. We had a video recorder and taped the game. My brother and I rewatched that match several times, which is probably why it burns so bright in my memory.
And then in 1988, there was the famous win by Wimbledon over Liverpool. Nobody gave Wimbledon much of a chance, but they nicked a 1-0 win. By then I was fed up with Liverpool winning everything and all the gloryhunters at school, so I was very happy that Wimbledon won.
Those are the finals I really remember. I'm sure I watched others. I remember Gazza being stretchered off after injuring himself with a ridiculous tackle in 1991. But other memories are hazy. What I mainly feel when I think about the FA Cup final relates to the whole family sitting down to watch the game, my father's infectious excitement, the sheer novelty of football on the telly, and this marking the end of a football season and in its own way the beginning of summer.
The other thing I remember is the family sweepstake. Once the team line-ups were announced, my dad would write all the player's names on tiny bits of scrap paper and we would take it in turns to draw them. Whoever had the piece of paper with the name of the first player to score a goal won. The prize was picking a box of chocolates afterwards, when we would walk across the park opposite our house to the little paper shop near the school, where there would be a small range of boxed chocs behind a glass screen.
It felt like my mum won every year, even when she picked unlikely players to score first. This might be a trick of memory as I have no record of who actually won each year. It just felt like it was always my mum who was lucky in the sweep. It didn't matter anyway because the chocolates got shared.
That vignette in itself is wrapped in nostalgia, like all these memories. The paucity of television channels. The simplicity of a sweepstake with very little at stake. Just those little family traditions that made the day special. That's where the magic lay, if there was any magic at all. Not on the field at Wembley, but in our living room. We made those moments happen and then froze them in sunlit amber as happy-sad memories.
Maybe Dad was trying to keep those moments alive, with those phone calls after the game all those years after I left home when we didn't watch the game together any more. I understand that now. Now that the phone calls have stopped.