RED was never more red than the first London bus to hove into view on my parents’ brand new colour TV. Shortly after that, blue was never more blue than the eyes of the one they called Blue in The High Chaparral, weekly wild-west shoot-ups with the Cannon clan. Yellow was never more yellow than the buttercup-shaded shirts of the Brazil team at the 1970 World Cup. And green was never greener than the Wembley pitch for the FA Cup final a year later.
Why didn’t Mexico ’70 give me a green experience, too? You’ll remember how parched the grass was – baked like the concrete slabs of the Aztec Stadium which served as seating, baked like Bobby Charlton’s baldy heid as West Germany overcame England with the help of a couple of howlers from goalkeeper Peter Bonetti who I think was nicknamed Tiddles. But I digress: ’71 was the green year.
There wasn’t much live televised football around back then, and even less of it for Scots. The General Assembly of the Wee Free Football Association of Caledonia regarded games on the goggle-box as likely to encourage sloth and decadence, leading to the total collapse of society. So we got the Scotland-England match and after that it was off to bed with a smacked backside, courtesy of top blazer Willie Allan, and no supper. But on 8 May, ’71, a wonderful thing happened. While we were sat round the idiot-lantern waiting for the briefest of reports from the Scottish Cup final – because this wasn’t shown live here either – the continuity announcer uttered the immortal words: “In a change to the published programme, put the corned beef fritters on a low gas, everyone – we’re getting the extra-time from Wembley!”
England having its national final piped into parlours was already a tradition of some standing; this seemed like a highly sacrilegious half-hour sneaked to the northlands while the beaks weren’t looking. Maybe they were all lost in the good book (the Evening Times’ Wee Red Book, that is) or the anti-TV monitor station was shut for annual maintenance. But there it was: Wembley, brilliantly green, the most verdant cabbage patch there’s ever been, and any minute now Charlie George was going to lie down in it with his long girlie hair to recreate one of those rustic-themed magazine covers for Titbits or Reveille and invite his team-mates to frolic with him. The beaks must have been appalled by such wanton behaviour.
Arsenal were Charlie’s team, of course, and they’re back at Wembley this Saturday. We’d never seen a celebration like that one in ’71, though his winning goal against Liverpool had been pretty special. But I was far more interested in the performances of the Scots, not least because all four on view – the Gunners Frank McLintock, George Graham, Eddie Kelly and Bob Wilson – had an air of mystery which not even a Shoot! Q&A could dispel. None of them had played for a Scottish club before Arsenal, or would do at any time in their careers.
I don’t think it was really known that Primrose Wilson – his middle name – was Scottish, and we wouldn’t become aware of his eligibility until he won the first of his two international caps against Portugal at the end of that year. What we did know for sure was that he was beaten by Steve Heighway on his near post, which the far more analytical English commentator – respect, David Coleman; apologies, George Davidson, I loved you anyway – was most keen to draw to our attention. Still, the final worked out all right for Arsenal, as did the double.
‘Three Scots, though, and you’ve got trouble’
Those blessed 30 minutes sparked my interest in English football, something the authorities in the northlands must have been fearful about happening to we Scots of the smacked-bahookie generation. And wantonness would be a good way of describing my favours. I changed the English team I supported many times, depending on who was playing well and who’d got to the cup final.
I went from Arsenal to Leeds United and back again, then on to Liverpool. I went from Leeds to Manchester United, something no one properly affiliated with either of these clubs would ever do – well, unless you were Joe Jordan and Gordon McQueen who both crossed the war-of-the-roses divide. Bill Shankly once said that every good English team needed two Scots in it, before adding with a rasp: “Three Scots, though, and you’ve got trouble.” I sought out the most troublesome teams. Leeds, captained by ten-stone-of-barbed-wire Billy Bremner, almost acquired enough for an all-tartan XI and were easily the prickliest outfit around. In the showpiece of the English season, Scots didn’t always observe the etiquette. Kelly scored the scruffiest of goals in ’71 and yet a shameless Stroller tried to claim it. In ’77, Man U’s Lou Macari’s shot was going wide but there he was, arm in the air, after the lucky deflection off Jimmy Greenhoff. Then in 1980 Arsenal’s Willie Young committed the foul of the century, the tackle that changed football, when the big lump felled West Ham United’s Paul Allen, just 17. Frankly, I’m surprised Young wasn’t carted off to the Tower. This was a time when Scots tried to dig up Wembley and when they couldn’t do that they went back to leaving their mark on the cup final, no matter how notoriously. Some fools think Ricky Villa’s goal in the replay was the most notable thing about ’81; we know it was Tommy Hutchison’s feat of scoring for Manchester City and Spurs in the first game. Then two years later Brighton’s Gordon Smith contrived the miss of the millennium.
By 1990, when Jim Leighton suffered the ignominy of being dropped for Man U’s replay, Scottish influence on the final was starting to wane. Never again would a club offer cup final pegs and instructions for wiping muddy hands in the event of being congratulated by a minor chinless wonder to five Scots, as Man U did in ’79, while Leeds v Sunderland six years earlier had featured a veritable mob of eight.
The FA Cup final has lost some its intrigue. Serves them right, I say, for having fewer Scots involved. But I’ll definitely be watching my first loves Arsenal take on Aston Villa – Alan Hutton should be playing.