By Rob Francis
The sixteenth of May 1987 was a blazing hot day. My grandparents, who lived in Coventry, were staying with us, and for the first time that I can remember we were all going to watch a football match together live on television – the FA Cup final between Coventry City and Tottenham Hotspur.
As a six-year-old, the match had been introduced to me as the game to decide the best team in England. This is of course not strictly true, but it does perhaps show how prominent the FA Cup was in England back then that it would be presented thus. No one even mentioned to me who had won the league.
Coventry had finished 10th in the old First Division that season but were the clear underdogs against a Spurs team that had finished third and featured the league’s top goalscorer, Clive Allen, plus exciting winger Chris Waddle and flamboyant long-haired creative midfielder Glenn Hoddle, who would be playing his last Spurs game before a big money (and back then, hugely exotic) move to Monaco.
If this game had happened 10 years later, I would have perceived it completely differently. As a Coventry fan, I would have been a jabbering wreck in the days leading up to it, done all I could to procure a ticket for Wembley, and consumed every single newspaper article on the subject.
As it was, aged six, I had none of this anticipation. I do not recall watching any of the earlier rounds, including Coventry’s 3-2 semi-final against Leeds. It was almost as if I woke up one day and Coventry were in the FA Cup final. With no football baggage at that age, I had little idea of what I was letting myself in for.
“You can have a sweet every time there’s a goal.”
My genuine excitement at this prospect perhaps revealed my naivety when it came to football. Again, 10 years later, having lived through Coventry’s run of four consecutive 0-0 draws in 1992 under Don Howe, I wouldn’t have been so excited by Grandma’s offer, least of all conflicted. So that means every time even Spurs score, I get a sweet? Hmm. What a bind.
As it turns out, I didn’t have long to wait. With just two minutes gone, Clive Allen scored the first goal in my football watching career, glancing in a header from a Waddle cross.
What was that feeling? A slight pang of disappointment? Maybe jealousy? After all, how could all those people dressed in white be so happy? Didn’t they want Coventry to win?
They didn’t want Coventry to win.
This realisation led to the first pang of disappointment in my football-watching life – there would be many more. So far, the game was going according to script, the fancy London team beating the unfashionable West Midlands outfit, sponsored by a bingo hall, in their first cup final.
I was still sucking on my first chocolate eclair when Coventry equalised, winger Dave Bennett taking it around the late Ray Clemence and knocking it into an empty net, falling over dramatically as he does so.
The pictures that appeared in Coventry’s local newspaper the following week show freeze frames as Bennett jinks and jumps over Clemence, exuding athleticism and grace, belying the speed at which this happens.
As a teenager, I would watch this on video countless times and try to pause it at exact moments to replicate these freeze frames – but it’s always too quick, and I found it impossible to capture each movement, like the sleight of hand in a card trick.
Nine minutes into my first-ever football match and I was experiencing the rollercoaster emotions which come with the territory of being a partisan football fan. The television pictures show sky blue flags waving at one end of the ground, the beating sun makes the grass seem even greener, and you can make out the sweat on the players, even at this early juncture.
Wikipedia’s page on the game simply notes: ‘Weather: hot’.
Spurs come back strongly. I am momentarily confused by their sponsor, the brewery Holsten. But it’s Tottenham Hotspur, not Tottenham Holsten. Right? Have they spelt it wrong?
After 41 minutes, Spurs score an absolute mess of a goal courtesy of a deflection off Coventry captain Brian “Killer” Kilcine, the sort of player who existed in the 1980s but never since. Sporting a billowing mop of hair and moustache, he looks like he should be playing guitar in Iron Maiden or (for even older readers than myself) beloved TV character Catweazle. At some point in the final, he got injured and ended up hobbling about, portraying both courage and vulnerability, red complexion and sweating profusely, pain etched on his face whenever the camera cut to it. It is painful just to look at him. Yet he carries on until the 89th minute, when he is finally substituted.
Allen (2′), Bennett (9′), Kilcline OG (41′). Like a weird code. I wonder, are the numbers a rating, so that Bennett’s goal is seven points better than Allen’s? Who makes that decision? And that third goal looked a mess but still gets a 41 rating? What does OG stand for?
It occurs to my older self that this numerical confusion probably wouldn’t happen if I was at the game. It is purely a product of watching a first game on television. This code that is seemingly so obvious, and yet to a six-year-old is a complete mystery.
On the BBC coverage, Jimmy Hill and Des Lynam review the half, which includes an update from the Scottish Cup final where it is also half-time (St Mirren 0 Dundee United 0 – no sweets for the poor kids watching that one north of the border). Back at Wembley, we see a teenager doing keepy-uppies in the centre circle. I was once convinced this was future England international Scott Parker, but was persuaded otherwise later, given that Parker would have been six at the time, and the boy on show was clearly much older.
Three sweets so far, not bad in fairness. Maybe grandma is ruing her deal.
Sixty-three minutes. Dave Bennett, recognisable to me as the scorer of Coventry’s equaliser, runs at the Spurs defence and crosses, and leaping like a salmon (a cliché, but true in this case, given he is horizontal when his head strikes the ball) Keith Houchen heads the ball past Clemence.
It is remembered as one of the greatest goals scored in a cup final, and only the third I had seen, but even I note the spectacular. Houchen runs to the Coventry fans behind the goal and jumps up and down, in what I later consider to be rather understated celebrating. These days he would have slid on the floor, maybe kissed the badge, pointing at the TV camera. It is joyful yet understated.
Houchen (63′). Ha, the best rating so far!
The half peters out, the heat was having its effect. Again, if I had been older, I would no doubt have been biting my nails, overcome with nerves. But my six-year-old self is calmness personified.
I am supporting Coventry, but the concept of ‘support’ is rather nebulous. I want them to win, but whether they do so will not define the rest of my day. My grandad, who had been watching Coventry for 50 years and had never seen them in a cup final let alone win one, must have been going through the emotions, yet – sadly – I don’t recall what he said or did.
In the Netflix adaption, played by Derek Jacobi, he would be punching the air, slamming his fist on his hand, with old-worldly expressions such as “Drat!”, “Up the Sky Blues”, and “Play up City!”
In those days, there would have been a replay if the scores were level after extra time, but I don’t remember ruminating on such an eventuality. Just as well, as the likelihood of me being allowed to stay up for a midweek game would be non-existent.
Lloyd McGrath, Coventry’s young right-back, shoulders hunched, puts his head down and steams down the right channel before crossing the ball. As he does so, the ball ricochets off Gary Mabbutt’s knee (‘Gary Mabbutt’s Knee’ would go on to be the name of a popular Coventry fanzine), looping over a despairing Clemence and into the corner of the net.
Mabbutt (OG – still a mystery to me) (96′).
Ninety-six! What a great goal that was. Although I think Houchen’s was better. Am I missing something?
Mabbutt’s subsequent pose, head in hands, dismayed, stays with me. I feel sympathy for him, even if he is the captain of the ‘other’ team who don’t want Coventry to win. How could anyone not want Coventry to win, least of all actually conspire to prevent them from doing so?
Coventry lead for the first time in the game. Thereafter, I remember feeling incredibly calm. At the time, it seemed to me that everything Spurs tried to do to rescue the game, Coventry comfortably dealt with. Later viewings would render this perception hugely unreliable, but that is what comes with football baggage. As you grow older, you recall the disappointments, the last-minute equalisers and winners, and have seen too much to take anything for granted.
But as a six-year-old, I had no baggage and no scars. Coventry would surely win now. And they duly did.
I’ve looked back at this supremely confident younger version of myself with envy and bafflement. How could he just sit there, sucking his chocolate éclair, and know that Spurs wouldn’t equalise? What chutzpah.
On reflection, I think it was probably Italia ’90 where my football nativity came crashing down. I was freaked by the quarter-final between England and Cameroon, when it looked like England were going to be undone by the lesser side on paper. Roles reversed, I was then supporting the fancied team against the underdog.
Like the England team in 1990, I came through the stresses and strains of that match, but the semi-final against Germany would be my first major setback in my football watching life.
Football would never be the same for me after 1990, and a season ticket with Coventry for much of the 1990s ensured that underachievement and disappointment would follow me for the rest of my football days.
Which is why, for me, 1987 stands out. Whenever the year is mentioned in discourse, no matter the context, I am taken back to that hot day in May. This was not only the first match I watched, it was also the only game I can recall where I just knew, almost telepathically, that once Coventry had taken the lead, they would not lose.
It harks back to an age of innocence, before Eve took a bite from the apple and Waddle fired over the bar in Turin. An unfailing belief that, in times of tension, the good team – my team – would always win out, even if the opposition are packed with internationals and have the league’s top scorer.
Today, I have too much baggage to ever return to this feeling of invincibility. I have been taught too many lessons, been on the wrong end of too many last-minute goals and controversial calls. Like most football fans you learn to adapt to disappointment and prepare for it.
Even supporters of the big clubs will have their horror stories, but as a Coventry fan, my football watching career seems to have peaked at the very start, when I was too young to fully appreciate it.
It may have been largely downhill for Coventry ever since, but the ghosts of Bennett, Kilcline, Houchen – even Mabbutt – live on at the back of my football watching consciousness, immortalised, invincible, as if the game took place yesterday, not 34 years ago.
The ghosts of my football past will never rest.