They say that 90s nostalgia is becoming the new 80s nostalgia. Increasingly, the walls of the theme bars that bald, angry men throw each other into in the throes of violence and/or passion bear the pictures of Sonic The Hedgehog and East 17, rather than Pacman and Bros. Yet despite (or possibly because of) the decade being bookended by Gazza’s tears at Italia ’90 and Sir Alex Ferguson’s “bloody football, eh?” slobberings on what Clive Tydlesley continues to call “that night in Barcelona”, there seems to be little romance attached to 90s football. Perhaps that’s understandable. After all, it was the era in which many feel that the game lost touch with the fans. We saw the beginnings of the greed that pervades the game today, the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the onset of agent and player power.
Nevertheless, as the decade of my youth, and indeed, the decade during which I fell in love with the game, I look back fondly on football during the nineties, and FA Cup final day in particular.
If you grew up in a household that stubbornly (and probably admirably, in hindsight) refused to sign up to Uncle Rupert’s “whole new ball game” of Sky and the Premier League, you didn’t get to see much football on TV, certainly not compared to the saturation coverage we take for granted today. FA Cup Final day was therefore like Christmas for the terrestrial football viewer. From around midday onwards, you would get hours on end dedicated to that one game. The BBC coverage in particular would make it seem like the biggest, grandest, most glamourous occasion in the world.
To my young eyes, there was something incredibly exciting about the build up, watching the team coaches leaving their respective hotels for Wembley, seeing the goals from every round that got them there, hearing the invariably godawful cup final songs, featuring a bunch of awkward, tracksuited young men self-consciously larking about in the video. Arsenal’s abortive 1998 spin on Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’ was perhaps the low point – sample lyric: “walking in a Bergkamp wonderland, where Parlour was our Ray of light.” A fair chunk of the pre-match programming would be devoted to one player from each of the finalists giving the lowdown on his teammates. Dean Saunders used the opportunity to bust out his famed John Barnes impression. Jason McAteer described himself as a wingback and then promptly asked what one was. They didn’t call him ‘Trigger’ at Liverpool for nothing. The build up was laborious, it was cheesy, but it felt special – something we seem to have lost today somehow, in these jaded, cynical times where everything seems to have been seen and done and accomplished already.
The games themselves were rarely anything to get anything excited about, but still conjured some abiding memories: Paul Gascoigne wrecking his knee, and perhaps his career, early in the 1991 final, having dragged Tottenham to Wembley almost single-handedly; Andy Linighan powering in a winner for Arsenal in the last minute of extra time with his smashed-up, twisted pretzel of a nose in 1993’s replay; The Liverpool cream suit “Spice Boys” fiasco of 1996; Roberto Di Matteo’s 42-second howitzer the following year – the fastest-ever Wembley goal. They might not exactly rival the Matthews final or the white horse in terms of iconic cup final moments, but for 90s kids they were nevertheless the images that helped to shape and cement our love and obsession with the game.
Then there was Stoke City. I was first taken to the Victoria Ground during the club’s lowest-ebb season in 1990/91 – the club’s first ever in the third tier – and though the sweet, siren song of the Gascoignes, Platts, and Linekers was what had drawn me, like so many of my generation, to football, it was pre-ordained that I, like the rest of my family, would spend my Saturdays watching the Potters. I was told in no uncertain terms to prepare for a life of disappointment as a Stoke fan. This was not my father’s Stoke City (Banks, Hudson, Greenhoff) or even my grandfather’s (Matthews, Franklin). Despite three promotions during the era, the dark days far eclipsed the bright spots during the 1990s and 2000s.
The only taste of Wembley glory came in the Autoglass Trophy (we’ve won it twice you know) and those visits were an oasis of joy in a sea of seven and eight goal batterings; a damaging relegation back to the third tier after the revered Lou Macari’s departure; near bankruptcy followed by an Icelandic takeover that soon went sour; players nearly dying of deep vein thrombosis; and prospective players and managers turning up for a look around before promptly running a mile.
One thing that soon became abundantly clear was that Stoke City and the FA Cup did not mix.
2011 will mark the Potters’ first-ever final appearance in their 148-year history. They are the only one of the 12 founder members of the football league never to previously reach a final, and one of only three teams in the current top flight yet to lift the trophy. So it is with bug-eyed disbelief as a Stoke fan (or “Clayhead” as our friends from Crewe like to call us) that I now sit staring at my FA Cup Final ticket. It is yet another step up on the surreal beanstalk the club continues to ascend since Peter Coates and Tony Pulis returned (having been viewed, respectively, as an asset-stripping vampire and conniving purveyor of mind-numbing football by many fans in their initial stints at the club). Emboldened by Coates’ much greater wealth this time around, largely owing to his Bet365 empire, the two wasted little time in righting their previous wrongs, transforming the Potters from Championship also-rans into a well-run, worthy Premier League outfit. Their prior sins well and truly forgiven, the duo are now treated as Gods by the majority of Stoke fans, and with good cause. The cup mania that has besieged at least four of the six towns that comprise the city of Stoke-On-Trent (Tunstall and Burslem are Vale territory) might seem a tad OTT to outsiders, especially considering that other underdogs such as Southampton, Cardiff and Millwall have all ‘graced’ the final in the last decade. But such a view fails to understand just how far Stoke City had fallen and just how keenly all those years in the wilderness were felt by supporters of the world’s second oldest league club. There is an entire generation of fans, like me, who have never associated the club with any kind of success. Certainly, I never thought I would see Stoke competing for major honours in my lifetime, and I’d even made peace with that.
All this is still, frankly, a bit weird, and I’m not the only one who feels that way if the eerie feeling that swept over Wembley as we eviscerated Bolton in the semi final was anything to go by. There’s still very much a sense of “is this really happening?”. Seriously, what’s the punchline? What’s the twist?
The romance of the FA Cup might have diminished. Wembley no longer has those famous twin towers; the cup final song is no more.
None of that will matter to Stoke fans this Saturday however, when Tony Pulis (hopefully donning some kind of formal baseball cap) leads his team out onto the hallowed turf. When the first chords of Abide With Me ring out, there will be plenty of bottom lips wobbling amid the sea of red and white painted faces. Dare we clear a space in the cabinet between those two Autoglass Trophies?
Rob also wrote on the same subject for ITV today, which you can check out here if you wish.