Brian Viner: Love at first sight on a trip to Haig Avenue

Not so long ago Southport were the best semi-professional team in the country
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It would be remiss of me, before moving on to other business, not to sound a quick lament for Southport FC, my home-town club, who on Saturday were relegated from the Nationwide Conference.

It would be remiss of me, before moving on to other business, not to sound a quick lament for Southport FC, my home-town club, who on Saturday were relegated from the Nationwide Conference.

My heart might belong to Everton now, but no man forgets his first love.

Remember the scene in Fever Pitch when the kid swoons at his first sight of Highbury? Replace Highbury with Haig Avenue – which admittedly is like replacing Ronaldo with Neil Ruddock – and that was me. I'll never forget setting eyes for the first time on Haig Avenue's lush turf, circa 1970. And Southport's star players Jim Fryatt, Eric Redrobe and Andy Provan (now, apparently, a psychiatric nurse in Torquay) were giants of my adolescence.

Poignantly, it is not many months since Southport could reasonably have claimed to be the best semi-pro football team in the country; the few clubs above them in the Conference employed full-time professionals. Indeed, the notion that they might even regain a place in the Football League did not seem so ridiculous.

But since Christmas they have plunged catastrophically down and now out, and, as I tootled along the A14 on Saturday afternoon, listening to Radio 5 Live, my euphoria at hearing from Stuart Hall that Wayne Rooney had scored yet another last-minute winner was punctured by Mark Pougatch, who said matter-of-factly that Southport would be joining Kettering, relegated from the Conference.

As for relegation from the Premiership, while fans of Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United wonder this morning whether they will be the ones plotting routes to Crewe and Wigan next season, history plays one of its characteristic nutmegs. For it is 80 years today since the first FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium was contested – between Bolton and West Ham.

And on that occasion, as they will probably on this, Bolton emerged triumphant. After that valiant policeman on his white horse had sorted out the crowd spillage onto the pitch (almost certainly with nobody shouting "F*** off, pig!" at him, as would dispiritingly be the case today), an official attendance of 126,047 saw Bolton win 2-0.

David Jack was the man who booked his place in posterity by scoring the first goal in a Wembley Cup final, which brings to mind a nice teaser sent to me last week by a reader, Jack Mantel: who is the only player to have played in two FA Cup finals (excluding replays) in one year?

I gave the question the kind of attention Sir Alexander Fleming gave to bacteria, and Sir Alexander Ferguson to metaphorically kicking in the testicles impertinent reporters who express some interest in whether David Beckham will be joining Real Madrid, but without the same success. If you don't know the answer, and don't mind spending a few hours in torment, then avoid the last sentence of this column.

Of course, it seems wrong to ponder the FA Cup final before April is out. Yet the last three days of this month bring some intriguing anniversaries. As well as today's anniversary of the first Wembley final, it will be 70 years tomorrow since the first FA Cup final with numbered shirts. On that day, the Everton players wore 1 to 11, and the Manchester City players wore 12 to 22.

So what we consider to be the relative novelty of our favourite footballers wearing outlandishly high numbers – at any rate those of us brought up in the tradition of full-backs wearing 2 and 3, and centre-halves 4 and 5 – is in fact not a novelty at all.

Tomorrow also marks the anniversary of the first FA Cup final replay, and I won't insult you by turning it into a question. As every football lover old enough to remember Daktari knows, Chelsea beat Leeds United 2-1 at Old Trafford, after extra-time.

I have vivid memories of watching that 1970 match on our black-and-white Radio Rentals TV, which is doubtless another reason I was so smitten by the greenness of the Southport pitch – football for me had always been in monochrome.

We didn't get a colour telly until 1974, and then only so that my dad could identify the jockeys' silks in the ITV Seven. So the first FA Cup final I watched in colour must have been the otherwise colourless affair between Liverpool and Newcastle.

All of which brings me to Wednesday's 65th anniversary of the first FA Cup final to be televised in its entirety, a nailbiter between Preston North End and Huddersfield Town, won 1-0 for Preston with a George Mutch penalty, in the last minute of extra-time.

Little did those broadcasting pioneers in 1938 realise that they were sowing the seeds of Meet The Players' Wives, and Cup Final It's A Knock-out.

And little did I realise, until Jack Mantel told me, that the answer to his teaser is wrapped up in yet another anniversary: it is 20 years since the on-loan Gordon Smith played for Brighton in the English FA Cup final (damn nearly scoring the winner against Manchester United) before returning to Scotland and playing at Hampden for Rangers against Aberdeen.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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