Mike Rowbottom: The missing tie that almost cost Cup final place

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The Independent Football

I know, only too well, the fear of missing out on an FA Cup final appearance. Seventeen years ago I turned up at Wembley on the big day and was almost sent home because I had the wrong kit. No tie.

I know, only too well, the fear of missing out on an FA Cup final appearance. Seventeen years ago I turned up at Wembley on the big day and was almost sent home because I had the wrong kit. No tie.

Which wasn't all right with Wembley's then chief executive David Griffiths, the former Army man whom I was accompanying in order to write a behind-the-scenes newspaper piece.

As the frowning ex-officer slid open his desk drawer I had a vision of him pulling out an old service revolver and showing me how the Army dealt with slackers such as myself. Instead he produced a tie which, notwithstanding an extremely unattractive brown and cream design, I secured swiftly around my neck.

Suitably dressed, I was able to march out alongside the man charged with getting every backstage detail of the 1987 FA Cup final correct. It was more of a forced march, to be honest, as Griffiths barked and questioned, and queried and harried his way around the stadium complex.

Here were men sweeping the steps to the banqueting hall which Mrs Thatcher and Neil Kinnock, among others, were to mount later that afternoon. Griffiths wasn't satisfied with the quality of the work and was soon demanding stiffer brooms from someone at the other end of his walkie-talkie. "They might as well be pissing up a rope here," he added.

Next we were speaking to the youthful head groundsman, Steve Tingley, whose previous task had been to keep the Eastbourne tennis courts in trim. Squatting by the halfway flag you could barely see the tops of the advertisements opposite, such was Wembley's sumptuous camber, which dropped 11 inches from centre circle to touchline. The turf itself felt like luxury pile carpet with a rubber underlay...

As I chatted to those playing supporting roles in football's annual finale, the sense of anticipation built. Just as it had when I watched my first Cup finals on television - West Bromwich Albion, in unfamiliar white, beating the favourites Everton in 1968, and then Manchester City, in unfamiliar red and black stripes, beating the underdogs Leicester a year later - the occasion was making my stomach clench.

Three o'clock approached, and HM Royal Marines loitered in the players' tunnel, Abide With Me clipped to tuba, trumpet and trombone. In the Royal Box, the Duchess of York chatted to FA Secretary Ted Croker, while FA chairman Bert Millichip straightened his tie.

As a fan, I was metaphorically settling back into my chair for the kick-off. As a reporter, I was being ushered backstage once more to talk to the turnstile operators.

En route, we heard the stadium detonate in a roar. Someone had scored, just a couple of minutes into the game. (It turned out to be Clive Allen, for Tottenham.) And I thought: "Typical. That will probably be the only goal of the game and I've been here all day, and now I've missed it."

At G turnstile, Coventry fans without tickets were making half-hearted efforts to bribe entry: "Come on... for £20... for £25... come on..."

There came another prolonged roar from inside, and word arrived that Coventry had equalised. It was all too much for the Sky Blue supporters, who started threshing about like salmon desperate to spawn, rushing repeatedly at the gate and attempting to batter it down before being dispersed by the police. I sympathised. I was thinking: "Typical. That will probably be the only other goal of the match and now I've missed it."

It would have been the easiest thing in the world at this point for me to have abandoned my brief, left backstage Wembley to the bit-part players and sloped off to watch the game. And so it proved.

But, hey, that's the timeless appeal of the FA Cup final for you.

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