The Chelsea v Man United FA Cup Final that got away - in Uganda

May 18, 2018

 

 

This weekend's FA Cup Final at Wembley is a reminder of 1994 - and of just how evocative the competition can be. Here is a personal take.

 

Chelsea face Manchester United in a major cup final for only the fourth time this weekend, and after it is all over, I will have been lucky enough to see all but one of those – the very first between the sides in 1994.

And yet it is the one that got away which sticks with me as much as the others.

The 2007 FA Cup denouement back at the new Wembley is not exactly banished from the memory banks. You would hardly say that of the Champions League final in Moscow the following year. And yet, and yet...

The 94 final, whether I like it or not, reminds me more of what the FA Cup Final means to me, and so many like me, than just about any of the finals I have been to.

Younger football fans will by now be tired of hearing from veteran football watchers that ‘in our day’ the FA Cup Final was more important than weddings and funerals and such an integral part of our childhood, that it is a wonder there is any space left in the cerebral  hard-drive for any other memories.

Quite possibly, this was because it was one of only three matches you ever saw live on TV. For as long as we could remember, there was the European Cup Final (The Champions League in new money), the annual Home Internationals bunfight between England and Scotland, and Wembley’s biggest showpiece – the FA Cup Final.

It is hard to do justice to any explanation of just how exciting it was to finally arrive at one of these key moments in the football calendar. You genuinely looked forward to them for days, and the cup final was the best of the lot – an all-day experience in which to immerse yourself.

The BBC’s Grandstand programme featured interviews with the players at the team hotel. We saw them on the coach ride to Wembley. We saw them sample the turf in a walkabout that was as much about the novelty of seeing players in their bespoke outfits rather than football kits. We saw interviews with fans on trains heading to London.

We saw a roundup of the goals from the previous rounds and a summary of the two finalists’ ‘route to Wembley.’  We were treated to cup quizzes between fans in a studio and a special cup final It’s a Knockout (ask your folks about this one). We got our first ever glimpses of Wembley Way and wondered what it would be like to be there ourselves.

This weekend, however, it will be almost like any other game. There will be some pomp and ceremony and Abide With Me, but no cast-in-stone 3pm kick off. No feeling that you need to soak up every little detail because live games are so rare. It will not quite feel, as it once did, like witnessing history in the making.

I never missed the big day. It was not until 1990 that I finally attended the final in person. But even when I was not able to get a ticket in those days before becoming a sports journalist, I would base my whole day on the match.

Yet in 1994, I made a serious miscalculation and found myself panic-stricken and cursing my lack of planning. I was in the middle of a six-month backpack around east and southern Africa and instead of timing it to be somewhere TV-friendly like South Africa, I was in deepest Uganda. Not even the capital Kampala, where I might have found some screening, but in a far-flung rural setting. Don’t ask me why.

Of course, I needed, and had, some sense of perspective. The area I was in was close to the border with Rwanda and full of UN vehicles, for this was the height of the terrible atrocities during a brutal civil war that had torn apart that little nation. I knew that I did not have a major problem, by comparison. It was only a game of football. I had no right to feel any disappointment even, while others not fifty miles away were suffering unimaginable terrors. But I wanted something less grim than the terrible news I was hearing – both through my short wave radio, and via the first-hand accounts I was getting from UN personnel where I was staying.

But try as I might to find a television showing Chelsea v Man United, there was nothing doing. There were no satellite dishes within 100 miles. So I bought a beer, headed back to my hotel room and began the battle to find an adequate signal on my radio.

It was frustrating, as anyone who used a short wave radio in those pre-internet days will testify. You needed the dexterity of a heart surgeon and the persistence of a marathon runner with a stitch to find the right frequency. And the signal would shift all the time. So you were always having to adjust the dial to relocate the BBC World Service. But I did get to hear most of the commentary: The early promise shown by Chelsea, Gavin Peacock hitting the crossbar, and the Blues’ ultimate collapse in the face of a clearly-superior United side, coupled with the vagaries of David Elleray’s refereeing.

A 4-0 humbling. In the pouring rain. At far away Wembley. When I was on an unforgettable journey that would stay with me forever. That game is not something I should have craved or missed in the slightest. And yet I did. That was the FA Cup to me. As part of my life as birthdays and summer holidays. I'll always have a soft spot.

 

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