There’s something about FA Cup finals that makes us tune in hours before kick off and makes us invest time in believing it’s going to be great. But, more often than not, the finals are shite, and the joy is derived from earlier matches, the effort made grinding around the country to follow your team, beating better teams and being able to tell your story to mates.
That’s what we’re all about so, with a serendipitous waft of fate’s left peg, we are lucky enough to have received a scrumptious new book about FA Cup finals but it’s also from the view of the fan. It also follows on nicely from our first book review.
Matthew Eastley’s ‘From Bovril To Champagne’ is the story of 1970s FA Cup finals through the eyes of fans who were there on the day or present throughout the cup run. It is also the penultimate decade in which the underdog was able to get it’s mucky paws on England’s oldest footballing prize.
The link between this and the ‘Tale Of Two Uniteds’ is that they were written with the 40th anniversary of a 1970 FA Cup event in mind. While Jeff Perkins’ motivation was that season’s FA Cup 4th round game between Leeds and Sutton United, this one was motivated by the Leeds .v. Chelsea final. While Jeff focused mainly on those present and involved on-pitch and behind scenes, Matthew focuses on the fans.
One such fan is a Leeds supporting convent girl from Surrey who had to lie to nuns to get to the Sutton v Leeds game, another an obsessed pit electrician from Yorkshire. And there are more, at least one per side per final but often two a piece. They frame the story of each year’s Cup.
The personal stories form a good part of the book and are supported by well researched background, primarily from the prevalent print media of the time. There are also set pieces about ‘what’s on TV’ at the time or top of the ‘hit parade’ and, although not detracting from the book, these seem a little too deliberately nostalgia driven to sit comfortably in the narrative. Far more evocative and involving are the occasional contemporaneous musical or cultural references chipped in by the interviewees.
The book goes through the decade, chapter by chapter and year by year. The ’71 final starts off in a ‘Gregory’s Girl’ kind of way with Bernie and Derek’s blossoming love rotating around a will he/won’t he decision about switching teams! You can’t do that, of course.
By ’72 you’re on the one hand noting the vast chasm between the football experience of then and now, and on the other wondering if much has changed in football in 38 years after all. The three ’70s cup finals so far have seen: scandalous under-allocation of tickets to genuine fans of finals teams; the Wembley pitch is a disgrace after some short sighted money grabbing from the FA; gum chewing managers stalking the touchline; a prevalence of teams winning at all costs, pragmatically; somersault goal celebrations and fans playing games of cards and tins of beer on the train to the game.
There’s a nice balance to this book. While you could argue this is a fairly gentle stroll through Cup finals of yore, Eastley does also touch on hooliganism in passing and, in subdued judgement, also shakes a head at the officialdom that fail to take action time and again as fans are injured by crumbling stadia. There are also surprises, for me anyway, Peter Ridsdale actually was an old school Leeds fan!
As the book and the 70s reach their mid point there is a rather touching chapter on the West Ham .v. Fulham year where young supporter Peter goes through a cathartic, first-time retelling of the traumatic year his team won the cup and his brother died. The words ‘puts it all in perspective’ are overused by football fans in times of grief but the way this story intertwines the happy and sad really shows that perspective is difficult and that football really is fantastically important and symbolic to a lot of people.
Southampton triumphed in ’76 to spark off a little run of underdog wins, Man United (yes, they were once the underdog in a cup final) followed it up and Ipswich topped it off in 1978. We liked this year because the number of non-league teams hitting round three was unusually high. Six! And the quarter finals included Wrexham, Leyton Orient, Middlesborough and Millwall. Orient even got to the semis.
Somewhat disappointingly for me the Ipswich .v. Arsenal chapter doesn’t have the thread of one person’s story to frame the entire cup run but it does have a larger number of interesting fans’ stories, including one seemingly irrelevant one about an Ipswich fan called John Cross buying a suit. More later. It also contains some evocative tabloid player manipulation (dodgy photo opportunities) and some eye-witness comment from Colin Kriedwolf on the Millwall shenanigans in the Quarter Finals. I won’t go into those, some of the older Town fans will already know and for the younger ones I won’t spoil it for you.
From nuances such as the “Woods Fries Rice” and “Mariner Sinks Nelson” banners in the Ipswich end to pre-match police dog battle and model airplane competition, it informs my own lack of memory of the 1978 final that made me want to support Ipswich as a 6 year old. I don’t really remember the game itself, my knowledge of it is really all from clips, later re-runs or video and I’d forgotten how one-sided it was but reading about it I felt as if I was there and part of it.
This is ironic because, not only was I not there but someone who was felt like she wasn’t. There are important defeats I have been at where I’ve felt somewhat absent in the midst of the victors’ celebrations so I am grateful to Arsenal’s storyteller in 1978, Di Betts, for summing it up beautifully. “At the final whistle, the mixture of disappointment and deflation that had been weighing on me, ever more heavily as the match wore on, was replaced by a sense of detachment , an emotionless void, only an awareness of how pointless and wrong it felt to be even there. Now that the occasion was, from this point onwards, nothing to do with me anymore, nor any other Arsenal fan”.
In the post match euphoria we find out that one of Kevin Beattie’s ambitions was to play in the FA Cup final, how many kids say that now? It was probably Trevor Whymark’s ambition too and he was Maggie Thatcher’s ‘Man of the Match’ that day. It’s a shame for both Trevor and Maggie that he didn’t play.
That might seem irrelevant but an undercurrent of this book is the sense that football was decaying and that no one was doing anything about it. Maggie, of course, was yet to come to power but was instrumental, rightly or wrongly (or both), in changing football in to what it is now, even if she didn’t get to go as far as she wanted.
For lovers of the FA Cup, this book isn’t just about the finals. For lovers of football, this isn’t really just about the FA Cup. For lovers of fans, this isn’t just personal accounts. And for lovers of football books, this isn’t just nostalgic. It’s a good book and it’s one that you should read from cover to cover. But it’s nature of ten different ‘stories’ means it’s one you can dip into, chapter by chapter.
And talking of serendipitous (remember that?) John’ Cross’s suit got him a very big treat that May day in 1978 but you’ll have to buy the book to find out. You’ll be jealous though.
Read more about the book and author here
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Big thanks to Phil Ham of TWTD for steering this book our way.