Saturday 22nd April, 1972: Amateur Cup Final - Enfield 0, Hendon 2
The first time I went to Wembley was for the 1971-72 Amateur Cup final, played that year between Enfield and Hendon. It's the day before St. George's Day, so quite appropriate that my father and I should accompany yet another George, this one our neighbour, Mr. Rixon. My memory can't suppress the idea that the 23rd may also have been his birthday, but the writer in me sees that would be too neat. It's more than enough for him to share my Granfather's name and that of England's patron saint. Regardless, it's five days after my birthday, making me a newly turned seven year-old on my first trip to that historic ground. George (Frank Cannon) works for Hawker Siddley and must be quite high up there because he's got us complimentary tickets, good ones too. We're right next to the Royal box, close to those famous steps and their historic balcony. The monarch and her court are protected from the swearing and the roaring of the crowd by a cube of glinting glass. I don't believe that was there for the World Cup Final of 1966, so must have been a fairly new innovation on the day in question.
There would only be two more Amateur Cup Finals after this, as the Football Association did away with the distinction between professional and amateur clubs in 1974. Enfield, today's losing finalists, had played in one of the best known Amateur cup games in the competition's history. In the semi final, they were drawn against Highgate United (not my Highgate, unfortunately; there's also one in Birmingham). The game was played out in the horrendous thunder storm that eventually saw the game called off before half an hour had been played and which was severe enough to see several players struck down by lightning, one of whom, Tony Allden, tragically died. The tie was replayed at Villa Park where Enfield stuffed their still shell-shocked opponents six-nil. The final against Skelmersdale attracted an astonishing 75,000 crowd to Wembley. Enfield won that one 3-0.
Hendon win today, but I can't tell you anything about the game. Oh, I was spellbound alright, I was taking it all in. It's just that what has stuck with me is not the game so much as the pitch. It's hard to convey just how dazzling the pitch at the old Wembley was to young eyes. It had evidently been sewn more from gold than grass. And that was the magic of the day; not the game, not the glitzy proximity to the great and the good; not the swanky (for 1972) ease with which we strolled a step or two to the comforts of the lounge and bar. Just as a theatre-lovers lifelong passion can be sparked not by the play but by the splendour of the proscenium, so I fell entranced with this pulsating stage of grass.
George would have driven us back in his pride and joy, a sumptuous sonic blue saloon that he seemed perpetually to be buffing and primping, and that would have been that. Over the years, I'd go back several times to see the big touring bands - The Stones, Bruce Springsteen and U2 - but the next game I'd go to see there would be another special one.
The following weekend, England host West Germany in the first leg of the 1972 European Championship quarter final. George and his wife Rene have a colour televison, so Dad and I are invited to watch the game there. Although the timings of the goals suggest a tighter game (it was 1-1 with thirteen minutes to play), I seem to recall that Germany took England apart. This extract from Brian McIlvanny's match report in the Observer appears to confirm my hazily recollected childhood despair:
No Englishman can ever again warm himself with the old assumption that, on the football field if nowhere else, the Germans are an inferior race.
There, in the light of a lurid lava lamp, with only a 'glass of pop' and a pouffe for comfort, I watched as, "on a Wembley pitch left as lush as an Irish meadow by the rain", England were undone. This was to be my first immediate experience of the disappointments of England. England always lets you down. And this was only 1972. We hadn't even had the OPEC crisis yet. We hadn't even had Poland.
What a bloody week that must have been. The following Saturday, 6th May 1972, I watch the Centenary FA Cup final; Arsenal v. Leeds United. I used to have the programme, hoped I'd come across it when we cleared out the family home but it must be long gone. I can't remember where it had come from; George most likely. I used to love scanning through the long list of previous finals, marvelling at the the quaint old names;
And then, from 1886 onward, the finalists take on a more familar look:
1886 BLACKBURN ROVERS 2 - 0 West Bromwich Albion
1887 ASTON VILLA 2 - 0 West Bromwich Albion
1888 WEST BROMWICH ALBION 2 - 1 Preston North End
1889 PRESTON NORTH END 3 - 0 Wolverhampton W'rs
1890 BLACKBURN ROVERS 6 - 1 Sheffield Wednesday
1891 BLACKBURN ROVERS 3 - 1 Notts County
1892 WEST BROMWICH ALBION 3 - 0 Aston Villa
Those all took place at Kennington Oval. The three finals immediately before the first at Wembley in 1923 took place at Stamford Bridge. I wonder if Roman Abramovich knows that? Or any of the men who tore down the towers that watched over all the games that were to come. Arsenal lose to Cardiff, beat Huddersfield Town, lose to Newcastle and beat Sheffield United. Portsmouth hammer Wolverhampton Wanderers 4-1 in 1939 before six repeated phrases are left to stand for all the horror of World War II:
1940 (no competition held)
1941 (no competition held)
1942 (no competition held)
1943 (no competition held)
1944 (no competition held)
1945 (no competition held)
Derby County finally prize the cup from Pompey's wartime grip, beating Charlton Athletic 4-1 after extra time. Always a war, always a game. Someone recording the particulars.
And now another game, played out just like the ninety finals played before. Someone loses, someone wins. Leeds win, we lose, 1-0. Allan 'Sniffer' Clarke scores the goal. So another loss, and more to come. So much lost within a week.
The special one: our two programmes, Dad's and mine.
You want to know about the special one, I suppose? No, not Mourinho. Not even the game, or the result or the occasion; just a simple moment, that sort of special one. Wednesday 30th, 1998 at Wembley, Arsenal play Panathinaikos in the Champions League. It's just before 7.45pm and the game's about to start. We take our seats, low and close to the pitch in one of the corners and look out at the pool of floodlit green. I catch my father's face, cheeks involuntarily blown out as if some small explosion of pleasure has gone off inside his mouth. I catch him like that and hold him there because I know, even then, that one day I'll have need of this; this moment when a father became a son, a child the father of the man. Always war, always hunger, always fear but always love as well. It keeps me warm still, the vision of that face, as it does then in the chilly autumn air that freezes two men in to boys.
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