Notwithstanding the fact that this year’s final boasts a collision of two modern heavyweights, the FA seems to be going out of its way to further dull the sheen of the once revered trophy which still bears its name — albeit now with a certain brew on the side.
Not only does today’s FA Cup final have a neither-one-thing-nor-the-other kick-off time of 5.15pm, it must also vie for media space and public attention with a Premier League fixture, with Arsenal hosting Norwich a few hours earlier. Indeed, considering that the stock of the Champions League has risen as sharply as the FA Cup’s has fallen, one commentator was within his rights to point out this week that, with the Gunners looking to secure a top-four league finish, the poor old cup final might not even be the biggest game in London today.
Against which depressing backdrop, let’s hear it for ESPN who’ve decided to go all retro by devoting a full 12 hours of programming, beginning at 8am, to today’s decider at Wembley. It might be a futile gesture but it’s one which will be much appreciated by greybeards like myself, even if the grim truth is that, these days, we hardly have the stamina for a marathon on the comfy armchair, never mind one spent pounding city streets.
Still, ESPN are to be saluted for kick-starting long dormant memories of yesteryear, when live football on television was the exception not the rule and the FA Cup final was such a grand occasion that, as if it was the very Christmas Day of sport, ITV and BBC would clear the decks to give us saturation coverage, from the teams having breakfast in their hotels to the lap of honour after the final whistle.
By happy coincidence, your correspondent recently picked up a copy of a newly-released DVD devoted to the 1971 final, a two-disc, four-hour nostalgia fest which confirmed that , for once, my memory hadn’t been playing tricks on me. Yes, coverage of football nowadays covers all bases with multi-angle cameras, sharp images, super slo-mo replays, boxes of analytical tricks and more pundits than you could shake an opinion at but, as far as the once mighty FA Cup final is concerned, they really did things differently and better back in the day.
On a personal note, I must admit, the ’71 final, between Arsenal and Liverpool, was of special significance to my then little self since it was the first one I ever watched in colour. In fact, not only did we not have colour TV in the Mackey household at that time, we didn’t have the Beeb or ITV either. That meant popping into the next door neighbours to see ‘The Big Match’ of a Sunday and then, when it came to the big one, on May 8, 1971, it was off to a relative’s house the other side of Tallaght to immerse myself in the new-fangled colour gizmo.
The game itself always remains vivid in the memory but the DVD brought lots of other half-remembered stuff swimming back into focus. Like the footage from the pre-match party for local nippers in North London — all homemade cardboard hats, hair over the ears and a big cake iced as a football pitch.
“Do you like Tommy Smith?” asked the polite reporter, presumably hoping to elicit some sporting praise for Liverpool’s hard man skipper from a young Gooner. “No,” said the kid, “I don’t like ‘im.” And why don’t you like him, he was gently asked. “Because I ‘ate him,” replied the kid.
As well as being informed by the DVD that the Top Ten at the time played host to such classics as The Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’, T. Rex’s ‘Hot Love’ and, er, Ray Stevens’ ‘Bridget The Midget’, we were also reminded that this was the year when decimalisation came to town. Which revelation added a certain poignancy to commentator Brian Moore’s pre-match announcement of a great competition, with viewers being asked to name their top three players from the final in order of merit — and should their choice match those of the panel, the lucky winner stood to bag a big cash prize. As the great Moore himself put it: “Sit back, watch the game, enjoy the competition and, who knows, you might win £20!” (This was when 20 quid actually meant something. Much like today).
The game itself is remembered mainly for its three goals, all of which came in extra time as an unforgiving sun beamed down and players on both sides succumbed to cramp. First, Ireland’s own Steve Heighway surprised Arsenal keeper Bob Wilson at his near post to give Liverpool the lead. “Heighway, virtually unknown at the start of the season,” as Moore observed. So unknown indeed, that the ITV production team misspelt the scorer’s name, a blocky caption reading ‘HEIGWAY’ popping up on screen as the Liverpool players celebrated the winger’s freak goal.
Arsenal, on the brink of doing the double having won the league five days before, equalised through a terribly scrappy George Graham goal before local boy made good, Charlie George, ensured his place in the Gunners Hall of Fame with a ripping shot from 25 yards which was still rising when it hit the top corner of the net. What followed was almost as celebrated as the goal, George lying flat on his back on the sun-baked turf, arms outstretched and lank-haired head slightly raised, as he awaited the acclamation of his team mates.
In a retrospective interview for the DVD, Charlie — still a touch hirsute but with receding hairline and owlish specs — tells Frank Stapleton how, 41 years on, the goal celebration is still remembered. A regular at Arsenal games, he was coming out of a match at Goodison when he was recognised by Everton fans. “Charlie George!” they chorused, then proceeded to lay flat out on the ground in honour of the man who’d prevented Liverpool winning the cup in 1971. We live in hope, but one can’t help fearing today’s game will already be considered ancient history in 41 days’ time.
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