'White Legs' wants revenge and to kick Arsenal out of Cup

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The Independent Football

The gentleman may not realise it himself, assuming he is still alive, but a white-coated ice-cream vendor at Goodison Park is as much a part of FA Cup history as the white horse at the first Wembley final. The mystery man springs to Terry Conroy's mind whenever Stoke City face Arsenal in the FA Cup, as they will in today's fourth-round tie at a bulging Britannia Stadium. And the memory is about as sweet as a salt and vinegar cornet.

Now 64 and the FA of Ireland's welfare officer for Irish players in England, Conroy served Stoke in various roles over a 40-year period and still works as match-day host, interviewing old team-mates such as Gordon Banks and Jimmy Greenhoff.

With his red hair and sideburns, "White Legs" was flying down the flanks when Stoke reached the semi-finals in both 1971 and '72. On each occasion they were controversially denied the club's first Wembley appearance by Arsenal.

If the first loss hurts more, the circumstances of the following year's failure still rankles with Conroy. "John Radford was yards offside when Charlie George played him in," the Dubliner recalls. "The linesman was a top referee, Bob Mathewson, and when we next had him the lads asked why he didn't flag. We were wearing all white and he said he mistook a guy in white selling ice cream [other accounts claim it was a programme-seller] for a defender on the far side. It beggars belief."

Stoke's supporters' club presented Mr Mathewson with a statuette of a horse's backside, and a new generation of fans has imbibed a sense of injustice with their mothers' milk. They want to see Stoke, back in their famous stripes, right the wrongs of Conroy's time.

In 1971, on a bright spring day in Sheffield, Arsenal were the ones seeking revenge. The previous September, Stoke crushed them 5-0, Conroy scoring a screamer which Bob Wilson had to fish from the net and then analyse for Match of the Day. "I heard later from [Arsenal captain] Frank McLintock that Bertie Mee, their manager, held a crisis meeting the next day," says Conroy. "They went on an amazing run and won the League and Cup double. History may have been different if we'd won 1-0."

In their first-ever semi-final, Stoke surged into a 2-0 interval lead. They were 2-1 up in stoppage time when a free-kick award which still irks Conroy led to what TV footage suggests was a foul by Radford on Banks. A corner was given, McLintock's header was handled by John Mahoney and ice-veined Peter Storey equalised from the spot.

With hindsight, Conroy feels the situation at half-time, when Stoke came in saying "We're nearly there!", required tactical, organisational choices by Stoke's manager Tony Waddington. "But Waddo, bless him, loved expressive players: Peter Dobing, George Eastham and so on," he says. "So he just said, 'Keep playing the way you're playing'."

The referee's timekeeping did not help Stoke either. "In those days you could hang your hat on games finishing at 4.40pm. None of this 4.55pm, Fergie-time nonsense. We were all looking at the big clock at Hillsborough and it was 4.45. The distraction affected our concentration. We asked Pat Partridge: 'How long?' He just said: 'Keep playing.'

"When he blew it was the worst feeling I ever had in a game. We knew our chance had gone. There were tears in the dressing-room. We couldn't lift ourselves for the replay at Villa Park. It was like 'We're going to Wembley', then all of a sudden we weren't."

Twelve months later, back at Villa in the semis, Arsenal led 1-0 when Wilson strained a cartilage. He soldiered on but his immobility contributed to a Stoke goal. With no substitute keeper permitted, Radford donned the jersey for the last 15 minutes. "We bombarded them but he made some fantastic saves. It was there for the taking, but we couldn't finish the job."

Conroy sat out the replay at Everton owing to injury. "It was worse watching. Yes, Arsenal were more battle-hardened than us, but the decisions went massively in their favour. We were one up when they got a soft penalty when Peter Dobing jumped with George Armstrong. Then came the offside goal.

"I look back on my career with no regrets – apart from those games. Reaching the FA Cup final carried huge prestige in those days; it would have meant so much to the club and the area. It set us back, even though we did win the '72 League Cup."

Stoke have been drawn against Arsenal seven times in the great old competition and have yet to beat them. In the Premier League last season, however, Tony Pulis's side won 2-1, an outcome Conroy hopes will have a bearing on today's tie. "Arsenal struggled with our physicality and Rory Delap's long throws. They're not such a big part of our game this time, but they may be in the minds of their players, especially if Arsène Wenger picks a young team."

The flair factor in Stoke's robust game is provided by Tuncay Sanli, the Turkish striker Pulis signed for £5m from Middlesbrough. Both he and left-winger Matthew Etherington are, in the high praise of their illustrious predecessor, "Waddo-type players".

The decibel level may help Stoke. "It's a great atmosphere for the home side but a vile one for the visitors. The stick they get is non-stop. I go to other clubs and there isn't the same intensity. Our fans are making up for lost time. If Mr Wenger fields the younger players, they could be in for a shock."

If there is an upset, Stoke will be three wins from Wembley. "Why shouldn't we win the Cup?" Conroy asks. "Realistically, we'll never be Premier League champions in my lifetime, but this is one we could win. Portsmouth did it two years ago, Manchester United and Liverpool are out, and if we beat Arsenal, the way could open up."

In his pomp as a player, Terry Conroy told Shoot! magazine that his personal ambition was "to be a rich man". Now, laughing heartily at his shallow younger self, he is changing it to Stoke at long last despatching Arsenal from the FA Cup.