The Empty Cup
Peter Morgan on why he is no longer excited about the FA Cup
To we football-mad baby boomers, born in the early 1960s, there was one Saturday of the year we looked forward to more than any other. This day just kept giving for a continuous nine hours. My brother and I would be ready for nine o’clock, when the entertainment started, and never move from our strategic position, apart from calls of nature, until six o’clock, when the BBC News came on, to show again what we had just witnessed.
It’s a Cup Final Knockout, Cup Final Question of Sport, Cup Final everything, until we joined the teams at their hotels, watching them eat their pre-match meal. Then we followed them on the coach as they made their way to Wembley and as they walked onto the pitch. Somehow the BBC could make this last six hours until kick-off, with no adverts, with half the country transfixed by a player advising why he always had a full English, with extra sausages, before games, because: ‘It gives me all the energy I require’.
Then it would be the lead-up to the final. Never mind that we hated military bands and hymns for the rest of the year, we had to watch the Band of the Grenadier Guards and the ritual singing of Abide with Me before kick-off.
By the time three o’clock came, we were worked up into a frenzy of expectation, heightened when David Coleman advised us Leeds were in the white strip and Sunderland in the stripes, with dark shorts. Didn’t I mention we didn’t have colour TV until the mid-seventies?
After the game, which was, of course, our only live domestic football on TV all season, we saw players in various stages of undress, usually drinking milk. Not sure now if that was sponsorship (‘On the BBC? Never!’) or just because it was considered healthy. This, of course, was full-fat milk; none of your semi-skimmed rubbish!
So, what made me get nostalgic about the FA Cup Final? Two things recently made me reminisce about those halcyon days.
Firstly, in an online quiz, the question asked was ‘How many goals were scored in the 2022 Cup Final?’ I had to admit I couldn’t remember who was in the final, let alone the score. This despite being able to give the teams, score and goalscorers for pretty much every FA Cup Final between 1970 and 1984. Recently, talking about Billy Jennings, I heard myself say, “Of course, he won the FA Cup Final in 1975, with West Ham beating Fulham 2-0 in the final, with Alan Taylor scoring both goals in a 2-0 win.” I didn’t feel it necessary to mention Bobby Moore was playing for Fulham, or name John Lyall and Alec Stock as the managers, but the knowledge was there. Had I remembered Liverpool played Chelsea last season, I would have struggled to name the Chelsea manager!
Secondly, leaving Norwich’s ground on 2 January, after our casualty list grew to the level of a violent anti-vax demonstration, I heard myself saying “Lucky it is only the FA Cup next week, with all our injuries”. ‘ONLY’? The following Saturday, I neither followed the game at Reading, nor felt disappointed when we lost with a team with more understudies than a West End play during a flu pandemic.
I had been too young to enjoy Watford’s 1970 FA Cup run, so my first experience was of the Hornets winning two FA Cup ties in the next six seasons. Watford were, of course, not expected to win the Cup, but Sunderland and Southampton had won when Second Division teams, so we dared to dream.
In 1976/77 in the second round, we drew Hillingdon Borough, a team my dad took me to watch when Watford were away. Watford scraped through 3-2. Was this to be our year, my 13-year-old brain thought, ignoring the fact that we had actually only made the third round, the one in which we entered the competition only five seasons before? The FA Cup meant everything. Northwich Victoria of the Northern Premier League soon ended our cup run. I cancelled the milk order for another season!
Within a year, the Messiah had arrived and our FA Cup prospects improved. A quarter-final in 1980 had the excitement building around south-west Herts, with Elton John and Terry Challis persuading us that one day we would follow the Yellow Brick Road (better known as the M1/ A406) to the Twin Towers.
In 1984 all my dreams came true as Watford reached the final. This was still, to me at that time, the football highlight. To be part of this day was unbelievable. It was not our day, but what an experience! The next one can’t be too far away, we believed.
Of course, we enjoyed many near misses, but frankly the excitement of the FA Cup generally diminished and was only there once Watford reached a quarter-final. My boyhood knowledge of Aston Villa winning the FA Cup most times (7) was soon shattered as, apart from on three occasions, the ‘Big Five’ (sorry Spurs fans – you’re not included) won all but three finals between 1996 and 2022. Arsenal soon doubled Villa’s tally.
The run to the final in 2019 was brilliant, but the wins over Palace and Wolves will be those remembered and, although we tried to remain optimistic, there was a certain inevitability about the result of the final itself. Another boyhood fact was that the biggest FA Cup Final defeat was 6-0, suffered by Derby against Bury in 1903. In the closing stages all I wanted was that we did not ‘beat’ that.
Is it just that I am older, or is it simply that the Premier League dominates everything now? Ask any Watford fan what they want this season and they will say ‘Promotion to the Premier League’. Since the Premier League’s inception, no team from outside it has won the FA Cup. Premier League equals money and money equals success. I would still love to win the FA Cup, but this season we will just have to concentrate on the League… again!