‘It was playing for pride; now it’s money, money, money. The game belongs to the people; money doesn’t come into it with me.’ Thus Bill Shankly, ultra-professional and ultra-amateur rolled into an apparent eccentric who, in reality, is the living proof of the profound unreality of our ideas, mutually exclusive, of professionalism and amateurism. Nor need we think that he is simply hitting out at a game he is no longer part of: Danny Blanchflower’s failure at, and resignation from, Chelsea, for instance, expressed the selfsame sentiment, which he himself articulated by saying that he was out of date, not in touch with his players, since he was unable to identify with their financial football philosophy – or, for that matter, with fellow managers who had no qualms about paying unreal prices for players they thought they needed.

The FA Cup, then, might be considered a welcome anachronism: though a great deal of current and future (European) money is indeed involved, the instinctive preoccupations of both managers and players with that mythological Wembley day are, for once, not primarily financial, but rather the product of Shankly’s pride – latent and prospective, or manifest and retrospective. Why, against all trendy odds, one should still be inordinately proud of winning the Cup; why this pride, though exclusively British and prototypically English, should fascinate 450 million spectators in 66 countries, some of those nearer home paying £150 for a place on the terraces and £200 for a £16 ticket; why the Argentinian Oswaldo Ardiles should describe the impending Final as ‘my second best game in all my life’ (the first being the World Cup victory); why Sir Matt Busby should be able to say, in all seriousness, that while ‘the greatest feat is to win the English Championship, the greatest satisfaction is to win the Cup’ – all these are questions incapable of a reasonable answer.

Perhaps you have to be English-born to understand the mystique or, at least, accept it without understanding it: my own first English Cup Final happened as late as 1938, when Preston, complete with the aforementioned Shank, beat Huddersfield with a ridiculous penalty in the last minute or so. The Huddersfield keeper had kept a dossier on all First Division penalty-takers, and thus anticipated what never happened: the miskicked ball went straight at the keeper, who had meanwhile dived, thus making room for the ball. In the course of the decades, I learnt that such decisive accidents were typical of a nerve-racking match at the exhausted end of the season, a knock-out game whose mistakes were irreparable: ‘You don’t get a second chance, that’s what makes it so magic,’ says Shankly.

The second chances finalists have had have been two since 1923, and this season’s replay, itself the result of more accident than incident, at last allowed football to outbalance chance. Jimmy Greaves told me that in the opening minutes of Tottenham’s 1962 Final against Burnley, his miskick – he actually got a bit of his heel on to the ball – contradicted the keeper’s anticipation sufficiently for the ball to land in the net, though, according to Greaves himself, it would have been saved had he kicked as intended. And so Tottenham were on the way to their Cup win (Jack Charlton: ‘the worst Cup Final I’ve seen in my life’) in the year after their double – and thus, ultimately, to the first British club’s conquest of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup.

As I sat in Rotterdam to watch that final triumph (over Atletico Madrid), I wondered where I’d be sitting if Greaves hadn’t miskicked the year before. Danny Blanchflower, who captained Tottenham’s successive Cup wins as well as the Rotterdam Final, gives it as his considered opinion that ‘one in thirty or forty Cup Finals’ is likely to be a good match. As an Irishman, he has escaped the mystique – or his insight has, anyway.

Since I myself hadn’t seen a good one yet, this season’s centenary game seemed to hold some statistical promise. As it was, both the first game’s goals were traditional Cup goals, essentially accidental. The first, mind you, seemed an English goal par excellence – a beautiful header from a beautiful cross, and a modern cross, too: it was bent. But it had another modern characteristic: it didn’t come from a crossing specialist, an old-fashioned winger, but from a full-back who, between ourselves, had aimed nowhere in particular.

It so happened, however, that the ball encountered the game’s worst header of the ball who, it so happened, delivered himself of the only beautiful header of his career. His unconscious superego had to take its revenge: the secret accident was followed by one he contrived overtly, in that, moving behind the wall in wrong anticipation, his right shoulder deflected Hoddle’s shot from a free kick into his own goal: Cup fever had reached its climax on the basis of more or less nothing; 450 million people were atremble.

So, in the end, was I – with anger. What had the Final produced? The season’s worst form so far as three of its great players were concerned – Ardiles, Hoddle and, of course, Villa, who, disorientated, almost paralysed, had to be replaced with someone to suit the occasion. That the Cup makes footballers less money-minded may be a blessing: that it does not make them more skill-minded is its chronic curse. City’s achievement in the first game was the destruction of Spurs’ potential constructiveness. How did they do it? Did their destructive skills overpower Tottenham’s normally subtle interplay between its exceptionally creative midfield and its twin strikers? That could indeed have been described as an achievement, concretely admirable in its way: skill must be allowed to destroy skill. But what actually happened was both cruder, and, sinisterly, subtler – a regression, on the part of Tottenham, to City’s style: City had stimulated their opponents’ disbelief in themselves, in their characteristic style, to the point of depersonalisation. Long before extra time, that is to say, all differences between the two sides had vanished: everybody played the same primitive game, hoping, with fairly good reason, for the decisive accident.

A few days later, in a match whose every minute had more to offer than the entire Cup Final, we got the opposite lesson – or rather, England did: hypnotised by Brazil’s style, their functional leisureliness, their speedy first-time passing to an unexpected, expectant recipient, their lightning striking power (how Zico got that winning shot in!), the sturdy English experienced a downright compulsion to change style – until well before the end of the first period, everybody played the same, highly developed game.

At the replay of the Cup Final, it was as if the Brazilians had reminded Tottenham’s three South Americans – the two real ones and the naturalised Hoddle – of their own character: while they did put up a fight in all conscience, they now resisted depersonalisation. As a result, the match seemed less crude than it was. When we savour the memory of an eventful second half with two great goals, we don’t readily remember that even at that stage, Manchester City tried their worst to pull the game down to a West European level. They fouled twice as often as Spurs, the score-line being 14 – 7: 21 fouls in 45 minutes means a foul every other minute or so – hardly a feature of a great match.

Nevertheless, the replay was a good Cup Final – my life’s first; the only previous replay, Chelsea v. Leeds at Old Trafford in 1970, could not compare with it, though it, too, was better than the first encounter, as indeed was Spurs’ own replay of their Semi-Final against Wolves, a match which prompted Jimmy Greaves to foresee the nature and quality of the replayed Final with an impressive degree of accuracy. A second chance, though not a guarantee, is a condition of quality: it counteracts chance, the first chance’s random result.

In fact, three of the replay’s five goals were exceptionally chanceless in both their preparation and their execution. Villa’s opening goal, on the other hand, was the psychological basis of his subsequent mastery rather than masterly itself: once the ball had rebounded from Corrigan’s save of Archibald’s quick shot, no more than normal skill was needed to get it into the net. Prior to Archibald’s shot, however, mastery had been in evidence, when Ardiles miraculously evaded two successive tackles before he himself let loose a shot – which rebounded to Archibald. Two rebounds, then, were needed to produce a goal which, for this reason, can’t be said to have been ‘made’.

But the equaliser was – ironically enough, by a header from the selfsame Tommy Hutchison who had headed City’s goal in the first game. This time, no luck was needed. It was an easy task, even for Hutchison, to head the ball back to Mackenzie, nor was the header all that helpful: it was Mackenzie’s truly outstanding volley that made it seem purposeful and accurate, and no striker could have been blamed if he hadn’t taken this quarter-chance.

Crooks’s was a stabbing striker’s goal par excellence: it utilised, Zico-like, the half-second whose availability a lesser player would not even have perceived. Villa’s winning goal has, naturally, become the most celebrated and will go down in history: but Crooks’s rivalled it, in that it was the result of two individuals’ masterstrokes where Villa made his own goal – by sailing past no fewer than four attempted interventions, reminding us of Europe’s past, and South America’s current, skills and styles. What made Crooks’s goal, on the other hand, was Hoddle’s inimitably precise chipped lob into the box, for Archibald’s and/or Crooks’s use. Archibald tried what Crooks succeeded in: a stab which Crooks’s outstretched leg accepted as a ‘pass’. It was the opposite of a ‘dead-ball’ situation – a fast-ball situation if ever there was one.

So Tottenham Hotspur are now the most famous English club in the world. As a result of precisely what? Of beating opposition from the lower First Division and worse – Queen’s Park Rangers, Hull City, Coventry, Exeter City, Wolves and Manchester City. But the knock-out principle has to be retained if the Cup’s excitement is to be preserved. In the circumstances, is it at all possible to invest the competition with a little more footballing reality? Here is a strictly logical rhetorical question, fanciful until it becomes fact, addressed to the Football Association and to every club interested in reaching the Final. Can’t we turn the Final into a footballing event by letting a second chance fight chance – by making it a double match: i.e. two Wembley matches at a week’s distance? Not being a replay, the second match could turn the first into football, too – and between ourselves, you’d make twice as much money at Wembley, with ease.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences