“Do you want me to call it off?” Mum stood framed in the bathroom doorway, hands on hips, looking down at me sprawling in pain.
“No! I’ll be fine!” My bladder had screamed full all the way home from school and was busy wreaking its revenge. I wasn’t going to let it deter me: it was Thursday 14 May 1981, and I had a ticket for the FA Cup final replay between my team, Tottenham, and Manchester City. I’d been to plenty of football matches – I had a season ticket – but never a match this important. Never Wembley.
And how could I face my school friends the next day if, after bragging that I was going, I then stayed at home – because of a bladder strain. That choice would haunt me forever. Nothing short of a detached limb would stop me going.
I wasn’t going alone, of course. My cousin Mark, altogether more worldly-wise at 18 or so, also had a ticket – and a car. It wouldn’t be our first trip together: we’d gone to London a few years before, just the two of us I think, to see 2001 at the cinema. No, not the original release; it might have been the tenth anniversary, though – 1978. I’d have been nine, he fifteen. Hmm, surely not? Possibly. Times were different then, all flares and hair and grainy film.
We drove to Wembley, or thereabouts. I have no memory of the walk along Wembley Way with the gathering thousands, or of the queue, or of the hunt for the correct stairwell, or of the steep climb to our seats – oh, perhaps I do. It seemed near-vertical back there, vertiginously deep in the top corner of the Royal Box side, not far from the left goal line from the usual TV perspective.
It was a tense match. Spurs took the lead early, never a good sign, with City levelling only a few minutes later in the goal nearest us. Five minutes into the second half they went ahead through a penalty. The supporters around me – all Tottenham fans – became nervous. After 70 minutes Spurs equalised: jumping, screaming, relief. Twenty minutes to find a winner.
Six minutes later, it happened. The finest goal I’ve ever witnessed in person. Ricky Villa, substituted in the drawn match the previous Saturday, took the ball deep into the penalty area past one defender, two, jinking left and right, and fired a shot—
I’ve never seen, heard or felt anything like it. Fifty thousand people simultaneously screaming, exploding in joy, hugging, bouncing. Astonishment, disbelief.
And then the interminable wait. Fourteen minutes, plus injury time. Just keep the ball. Just. Keep. The. Ball.
At the final whistle we could breathe again. The celebrations began. From our vantage point we couldn’t see the team climb the 39 steps to the Royal Box, nor could we see Steve Perryman lift the trophy; we simply cheered when everyone else did. We cheered as, presumably, each player in turn held the cup aloft. We were drunk on cheers.
I’m not sure how we got home without Mark crashing the car. Sober, but still drunk. A high I’ve never forgotten and know I can never recreate.
Football’s a game played by overpaid, often unlikeable twats; owned by oligarchs; run by idiots; watched by thugs and bigots. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s played by sublime craftsmen at the top of their trade, and watched by passionate, loyal fans who experience the greatest highs and deepest lows with friends and strangers on the terraces across the country. But it’s still owned by oligarchs and run by idiots.
Cup Final day is not what it once was, even ignoring the rosifying memory lens. This year it’s not even the final match of the season. It’s lost in the Premier League and Champions League cash-chase, another victim of the sport’s insatiable greed. The loss of the FA Cup’s prestige arguably began when money begat exclusive TV deals. Once, the FA Cup Final was the only live domestic football match on TV, and the build-up began on both main channels at dawn with Cup Final Pro-Celebrity Eggy Soldiers or some such; now the single terrestrial broadcaster has no work to do. No romance to talk up. No semi-literate panel to parade. No Moore v Coleman/Motty contest to hype (Coleman, obv.).
All we have is the game, yet another live game in a season of yet another live games. Eagerly awaited by the teams and the fans, and the obsessives, but few others. Of course I’m only saying all this because the year ends in one and by rights that means Spurs should have been there, dammit.