Jimmy Greenhoff's sojourn as a Stoke City player ended after the top of a stand at the old Victoria Ground blew off in a storm, forcing the uninsured club to sell him. Now the man often hailed as the best uncapped English player is backing the Potteries side to raise the roof by beating West Ham United in today's FA Cup quarter-final and purge the frustrations of 40 years ago by lifting the trophy.
Stoke have never reached the final, though not for the want of trying during Greenhoff's era. "It's a wrong that needs to be put right," says the Yorkshireman, who eventually put four semi-final disappointments behind him by scoring Manchester United's winner against Liverpool in 1977. "When Stoke drew at home with Cardiff in the third round they were 66-1 in the betting. Though I'm not a gambler I thought, 'that's worth putting some money on'."
After winning the replay, Stoke saw off Wolves and Brighton at the first time of asking. If they defeat West Ham, whom Greenhoff helped them to beat in 1972 to reach Wembley for the first time, they will have won four consecutive FA Cup matches, which they have never managed in their 148-year history. The one-time idol of the Boothen End, now 64, admits he is "a pessimist" but is confident they will not only prevail today but take the Cup for the first time.
"As a player you get a feeling about these things," he says. "The fact that they lost 3-0 at West Ham last weekend doesn't mean a thing. We're having a bad time away from the Britannia but at home, with the atmosphere these fans generate, I can't see us losing. Ricardo Fuller can always be a match-winner, starting or coming off the bench. He's so unpredictable – probably murder to play up front with! Matty Etherington and Jermaine Pennant are excellent players, too. I'm biased because I like wingers and they're two of the best. Stoke play more football than people give them credit for."
Greenhoff's goals, work-rate, darting runs and blond thatch earned him a place in Stokelore after manager Tony Waddington paid Birmingham £100,000 to make him Stoke's record buy in 1969. "I was fortunate to have a great rapport with the crowd here. I still live in the area and know what Cup success would mean to people in North Staffordshire."
He knows because he has experienced the fervour that a Wembley triumph can fuel. Within three years of arriving he had a League Cup winner's medal to add to one he won with Leeds, Stoke overcoming a Chelsea team including Alan Hudson, with whom he later forged a stunning partnership. But those FA Cup semi-finals still "eat away" at him and a generation of fans.
The first came in 1971. Stoke led Arsenal 2-0 at Hillsborough when Greenhoff raced clear. "The ball bobbled as I shot, hit my shin and flew over the bar. Then they got a goal back and put us under pressure. Everyone was looking at the clock. Concentration went a bit. In injury time Arsenal got a corner that should've been a goal-kick and Peter Storey ended up equalising from a penalty. I don't have nightmares about my miss but it still gets to me when people talk about it."
People like his old colleague, warhorse centre-half Denis Smith. "He brings it up every time he does an after-dinner speech," says Greenhoff, feigning indignation. "I could retaliate by saying the defending wasn't good, but I don't."
Arsenal won the replay comfortably en route to their first Double, yet Stoke's opportunity for revenge came 12 months later. Their chances seemed to increase when Bob Wilson was injured and forward John Radford went in goal. "We'd have won if Wilson had stayed on because Radford pulled off a save from me even Gordon Banks might not have got."
In the replay at Goodison, Arsenal converted a penalty awarded after an innocuous aerial challenge and a goal that was "10 to 15 yards offside", Greenhoff says ruefully. "We were thinking: 'What's going on?' The linesman mistook someone on the track in a white coat for a defender. I'm not sure if he was selling programmes, peanuts or ice cream. What I do know is he wasn't a Stoke City footballer."
They were heady times for Waddington's amalgam of artists and assassins, as one of Greenhoff's allies in the former group, Terry Conroy, characterises Smith and Co. In the League Cup semi-final against West Ham that winter, Stoke lost the first leg 2-1 at home. As for the return, Greenhoff recalls: "I've never known such a deathly hush on a team coach going to a game. I sat next to Micky Bernard, who was normally the loudest. All he said, almost in a whisper, was: 'Oh Jim. I hope we win.'
"We were 1-0 up near the end of extra-time when they got a penalty. Geoff Hurst blasted it and Banksy palmed it over. I couldn't get my head round how immense the save was. We were all jumping on him. He was going mad, telling us to get organised for the corner."
Back at Hillsborough for the replay, Greenhoff came off with a groin injury as the gridlock again entered extra-time. "I couldn't bear to watch so I got in the bath. So I wouldn't hear the crowd, I put my hands over my ears and made a noise like a naughty kid. When the players finally came in, I didn't want to know the score, but I did, if you know what I mean."
It was 0-0 so the teams reconvened at Old Trafford, where an early injury to the Hammers' keeper Bobby Ferguson led to Bobby Moore taking over in goal while he underwent treatment. According to Greenhoff, it cost them the tie because Moore "could play the game for two men". The former England captain actually saved a penalty from Bernard. "Bobby went down like a sack of potatoes to parry it. If Ferguson had been on he'd have thrown his cap on the ball, but Micky scored the rebound and we won 3-2.
"Before the final, one newspaper did a survey of all the First Division captains. Only two out of 22 went for Stoke to beat Chelsea, and one of them was my old Leeds team-mate Billy Bremner, who hoped we'd do it 'for Jimmy'. It shows how the underdogs can win, just like Birmingham did against Arsenal. There's no reason why that can't be Stoke in the FA Cup."
Stoke City v West Ham United is on ITV1 today, kick-off 2pm
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