James Lawton: If you get to Wembley seize the day with both hands – it may be your final chance

'Against Arsenal we lost twice. We took our eyes off the ball for a few fatal seconds'
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Joe Jordan is the coach of Portsmouth and a key man in manager Harry Redknapp's pursuit of one piece of solid silverware to show for all his years of juggling the odds in the top flight of the English game.

But for one day at least Jordan is something else. He has taken on an extra duty. He is president of football's version of the Dead Poets Society. His battle cry is one not often heard booming from the technical area. It is carpe diem – seize the day.

Whatever else happens at Wembley today, one thing must not. Not one Portsmouth player, win or lose, must come off the field knowing he could have done more. Or, most unforgivably, that he hadn't grasped that, whatever his age or his fitness, he might not come this way ever again.

Jordan hopes that what he has to say about the FA Cup final will carry a special meaning to players like mature defender Sylvain Distin, a superior football mercenary whose well-heeled career has yet to include the kind of glory that might come to him today.

But then the Portsmouth coach agrees his message might be even more relevant to Cardiff City's precocious teenager Aaron Ramsey. At 17, Ramsey may presume he is merely dipping his toes into the big time but, who knows, it might be his only contact.

Jordan's point is that however the final changes its face from, for example, last year's show of power by Chelsea against new champions Manchester United to today's reminder of a time when unlikely teams won glory they would have for ever, it has unique history and, depending on the commitment of the players, a living force.

How many times, Jordan wants to know, can players of clubs like Portsmouth and Cardiff expect to be, however briefly, at the centre of the football universe? "There are days," says Jordan, "when a football player must realise that he has a unique opportunity to give himself something he can always look back on with pride. When you are young it is easy to believe that there will be other opportunities down the line, that if you don't win today, if you don't give the best of yourself, well, there will be other opportunities. It isn't always so and not many people know this better than me."

Jordan knows it so well that still, 29 years on, he cannot bear to look at the video of the time when his Manchester United fought back with two goals in the last 10 minutes to draw level, then, in seconds of failed concentration that Jordan can never forget, allowed Alan Sunderland to settle the issue for Arsenal a minute from time.

Most biting of all was the fact that the catastrophe shattered, finally, his long held assumption that he would one day walk up the Wembley steps to receive a winner's medal.

"When I arrived at Leeds United," Jordan recalled this week, "everyone was still recovering from the defeat by Chelsea in an Old Trafford replay of the 1970 final. There was disbelief that they had lost after dominating the first game with some brilliant football, when Eddie Gray ran Dave Webb ragged, and an absolute determination to put matters right.

"They did two years later when they beat Arsenal. I sat on the bench that day. I wasn't stripped but I felt very much part of the team. And then the following season I scored against Wolves in the semi-final at Maine Road and felt that my time had come. My father came down from Scotland and was in the dressing room and he got covered in the champagne. He seemed to glow with pride. But when the final came I was on the bench again. Yet still I believed it was inevitable that I would get a winner's medal. I was making my way in the team and this was Leeds' third visit to Wembley in four years. It was becoming routine."

The routine was skewered, however, by Second Division Sunderland who won, and provoked their manager Bob Stokoe's manic dance across the field at the end, largely because of a superb performance by goalkeeper Jim Montgomery.

The Leeds manager, Don Revie, had tears in his eyes when he spoke at the banquet that night. He swore that Leeds would prove what a great team they were and they promptly did with a record run of 29 league games without defeat and an almost formal annexation of the title. When Revie came upon Jordan and his friend Gordon McQueen at the reception he said: "You boys are the future – and it's going to be a great one." But the Cup final routine was broken and would not be recovered as Revie lunged into his misadventure as the manager of England.

Jordan has not detailed his angst to any of the Portmouth players. He has not gathered them together to make some rallying call. He has merely pointed out, head to head, that today they have the chance to reward Redknapp, their patron, the giver of an enviable lifestyle, with his first trophy after so many years of survival at the serious end of the game – and give themselves something they can value long after they have invested, or spent, the money that has rolled in through the years of football plenty.

"I haven't gone into all the reasons why I regard this game against Cardiff as so important. I haven't talked about the unique nature of this day, how it is an invitation for so many football supporters to take a day off from their own loyalties and think of what it means to fans of Cardiff and Pompey, whose teams were last in a final in 1927 and 1939. I've just tried to convey what it might mean when they look back on their careers and can say, 'I had that day at Wembley, that day when I was a winner'."

Had Jordan dwelt on his experiences no doubt he would have centred on that day when United failed to deliver the prize to a manager the players deeply respected, Dave Sexton.

Many years after the defeat by Arsenal, he recalled, "I doubt that I will ever look at a scrap of film of that game. It would be just too painful. In football you have to live with defeat, of course, because it is the other side of victory, but what is unacceptable is to know that you threw away a chance to win.

"Against Arsenal we lost twice. Goals from Brian Talbot and Frank Stapleton put them into a comfortable control and Liam Brady who, like me, would soon be on his way to Italian football, was in brilliant form, full of skill and subtlety. Then, suddenly, we were back in the game in the last few minutes. It was like a storm on a humid day that had made you listless. I won the ball wide and sent it into the middle, where Gordon McQueen scuffed it past Pat Jennings. There have been prettier goals than the one Sammy McIlroy scored for the equaliser, but the fact was Arsenal looked completely gutted. Then we committed our cardinal sin. We took our eyes off the ball for a few fatal seconds, Brady released Graham Rix down the left and he crossed for Sunderland to score. Sexton never won a trophy at Old Trafford and he was gone soon afterwards.

"The morning he was sacked he called me. We lived in the same Cheshire village and Dave told me he had bought some copies of a picture by the great artist Harold Riley and he was planning to hand them out to the players after training. He wanted me to do that now."

Riley did the sketches for his picture during a United-Spurs game at Old Trafford. The result can still be seen, hanging prominently, in Jordan's house near Bristol.

"When I look at it," says Jordan, "I think of a great football man – and I deplore all over again the time I was part of a team which lost their heads."

There is one other reflection. It is that George Best, arguably the greatest talent of his times, never got to play in an FA Cup final. The closest he came was a semi-final against Leeds United, a few hours after he was caught in bed at the team hotel with a girl he had met that day.

Best's explanation to an outraged team manager Wilf McGuiness was that he was operating his version of carpe diem. However, it was not the day he had seized but the moment. Perhaps he lost sight of an aspect of Jordan's argument.

There would, after all, be many more girls, and at any time of day or night – but not a single FA Cup final.

Welsh award for James Lawton

James Lawton, chief sports writer of 'The Independent', received the Welsh Sports Journalist of the Year award at the City Hall, Cardiff, last night. Lawton, who was born in north Wales, began his journalistic career as a 16-year-old on the 'Wrexham Leader'. The award was part of the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony for those admitted to the Roll of Honour. Among those honoured last night were the Welsh football team who reached the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.