From little lad to old codger: my life measured out in Cup Finals

Click to follow
The Independent Online
I WAS idly listening to two old codgers on radio 4's PM programme on Friday, being interviewed about the Cup Final - one an Arsenal supporter and one a Newcastle man. The reason they had been selected was that they had both been present at the last Cup Final meeting between these two clubs, in 1952. The odd thing was that I too had been present at that match, not as any kind of a codger, but as a small boy....

My father was a brewer in Wrexham, and the brewery owned the Wrexham Football Club ground, the Racecourse, so my father found himself with his finger in small football pies - in fact, he was for a time Honorary President of the club, which was more to do with being the landlord than any knowledge of football. But one of the perks must have been that Cup Final tickets occasionally floated his way, and in 1952 he said to me, "Right, we're off to the Cup Final, you and me."

It was an all-day trip. We could have caught the train from Wrexham, I suppose, but Dad always preferred a faster route even if it took longer, so we had to leave home early to drive to Crewe, where we caught the Irish Mail, speeding from Holyhead to Euston.

"They always do a damned good breakfast on the Irish Mail," he said. "I think they're trying to impress the people who have just got off the boat from Ireland, and haven't been to England before. Look at that priest over there, tucking in..."

That is the kind of thing that fathers say which you believe implicitly for forty years, and then suddenly realise do not have a shred of truth in them, but which you go on believing anyway. Still, I was mightily impressed by the breakfast myself. The next memory I have is of walking up the big road to Wembley and of the amount of people trying to sell me rosettes of either red or black and white. I had never seen so many people trying to sell things. Nor had I seen so large a potential market - the population of Wembley Stadium that day was bigger than that of Wrexham, by many thousands, and they were all crowded into one room, as it were. And as I was a small lad, they all seemed even bigger than they were.

Wembley itself was like a white elephant, in every way. From a distance the domes were palatial, but when you got inside the place, it had all the charm of a multi-storey car park, bleak and functional. I clung to my father fairly tightly, aware that if I lost him, I would have to spend the rest of my life among these unfriendly city people with their shabby coats and their smelly outdoor lavatories - even now, I can remember that the Wembley gents was smelly. And then the game started....

About the game itself I cannot remember much except that the legendary Milburn did not seem that great. The Newcastle winger Mitchell (George Mitchell?) seemed a much better player to me, and I loved the way he jinked and side-stepped past player after player - he even set up the winning goal. But the moment I still remember best was when the Arsenal defender Wally Barnes had his leg badly hurt. He had to go off, and I think later on he came back on and limped around distressingly on the wing, but I remember asking my father why they couldn't replace him with another player.

"Not allowed to," he said. "Got to stick with the players you started with."

"That's not fair," I said. "You should be able to bring on another one."

"That wouldn't be fair either," he said. "The new man would be fresher than anyone else."

"I tell you what," I said. "If one side loses a player, why not make the other side take one off as well?"

"Stupid boy," he said, as he normally did when I had a good idea.

It was a great day. We got back late, tired and happy. Many years later I met some Newcastle supporters in a train and got chatting to them. I told them how I had once seen Newcastle United in a Cup Final.

"Must have been some while back," said one. "Who was playing?"

"Jackie Milburn," said I. "And a winger called Mitchell. He was wonderful."

They looked blank. Then one of them reacted.

"Aye, Mitchell," he said. "My father was always on about how good he was."

HIS father! I was now the same age as his father! I had become my own father. And that means that in 20 or 30 years' time I can get in touch with Radio 4 and, assuming that Arsenal or Newcastle ever get back to the Final, volunteer my services as an old codger.

Makes a chap think.

Comments