Jon Henderson recalls the heady days of the FA Cup, the fancy dan of the English game until a richly endowed rival pitched up.
More than half a century later, my memories of a few fleeting moments on the afternoon of Saturday 4 May 1957 remain clear: schoolboy cricket match, master in charge, knowing my interest in football, comes over to tell me something.
There has been an incident early on in the big match at Wembley. A forward and goalkeeper have collided resulting in the badly injured goalie being carried off on a stretcher.
Now, on a mid-winter’s morning, my reason for travelling from London to Bournemouth is to meet that forward, Peter McParland.
The weather is mild but given the time of year it is still a surprise when McParland comes to the door wearing a pair of shorts – long shorts, mind you, but still shorts. ‘I always wear them indoors,’ he says. Could it be a last, nostalgic association with playing football?
We sit talking across a small kitchen table. He recalls the collision and analyses it with frame-by-frame precision.
And when the goalkeeper recovered how did he react?
‘He wasn’t happy,’ McParland says. ‘But I wouldn’t have been either’.
The reason the collision was a defining event in McParland’s career and is lodged so firmly in my memory is that these were the days when the Cup was king – and it was in an FA Cup final in front of a huge audience that McParland, playing for Aston Villa, crashed into Ray Wood, the Manchester United goalie.
Had it been a league match it would hardly have registered.
In 1957, The Cup Final was still the major event in the football calendar. It dwarfed any other match, home or away, in the English public’s consciousness, including the World Cup final.
The FA Cup, first played in 1871-72, is the world’s oldest – and, for many years, was its most popular – football competition. The World Cup followed nearly 60 years later, only to be ignored by the English for its first three stagings. The FA finally deigned to enter the national team in 1950, but very few in England took much notice.
It was not until towards the end of the twentieth century that the FA Cup started to lose its lofty place in public esteem. The really steep decline in its popularity came after 1992 when massive investment saw the First Division repackaged, rebranded and reborn as the Premiership.
Having been the fancy dan of the English game, the FA Cup suddenly found itself being pushed aside by a hustler not afraid to flex its commercial independence to exploit football’s popularity like never before. Players’ wages surged as clubs fought for the considerable financial rewards, made possible by TV money, for success in the new league.
The FA Cup was now a distraction viewed, increasingly, with condescension by the top clubs. Infamously, the FA themselves did not help by backing the disrespectful idea that Manchester United, the holders, skip the 1999-2000 competition to play in the world club championship.
There had been a steady improvement in what players earned since the upper limit of £20 a week had been removed in 1961, but this was hardly surprising given the low base from which this improvement began.
For the last Cup Final before the demolition of the wage ceiling, Wolves v Blackburn in 1960, Dave Whelan recalls the Blackburn players each received a princely six quid from a Milk Marketing Board advertisment of the team drinking the board’s product. This bumped up Whelan’s Cup Final extras to eight pounds. He cannot recall the source of the other two pounds.
With his £20 weekly wage and with Blackburn’s defeat meaning he was denied a win bonus, Whelan made £28. It was the most he ever earned from football in a single week.
Howard Riley was on the losing side a year later when Tottenham completed the Double with their 2-0 win over Leicester City. ‘The maximum wage had ended shortly before the final,’ Riley says, ‘but I think we were still probably on 20 quid a week or not much more – and I’m not sure we were on a win bonus even if we had won, in front of 100,000 spectators.’
The improvement in pay would continue but the relentless upward mobility of the Premier League means the Cup is unlikely ever again to achieve the status it enjoyed when footballers were paid buttons.
Today, McParland’s collision with Wood would be noticed only if it occurred in a top league fixture – or if Woking FC, ball number 54 in this evening’s third-round draw, were to draw Man City away and proceed to give them a good thrashing.