Top Of The League

Although I’ve got many brilliantly vivid childhood memories, my football memories of that time are patchy and vague at best. Sadly, my team Southampton’s win against Man United in the 1976 FA Cup Final is a hazy highlight set against the backdrop of that long, hot draught-stricken summer. Maybe my memory of May that year’s not helped by having bad concussion after being knocked unconscious on a 20-foot slide, built in those days before Health and Safety got into the playground.

How many seven-year-olds must be thrilled, scooped up in the moment when they now ‘have’ a team, and their team wins the cup? I’m sure that moment colours everything, even long after the team’s glory fades.

Years later, at secondary school, I found my best friend had watched that ’76 cup final too. Living in Sydney at the time, it was the first big football match he remembered. It really got him into the game, picking your team and all that. But he chose the wrong team of course. Decades later, I read that Bobby Stokes, the scorer of the winning goal, was presented with a car in appreciation. Bobby Stokes couldn’t drive. He didn’t even hold a provisional licence.

As much as the 1976 FA Cup win was the crowning moment for many Saints fans, for me the highlight has to be those brief weeks in February 1982 when we were top of the league.

The early ’80s were glory days for club. Manager Lawrie McMenemy had achieved a major coup in signing Kevin Keegan from Hamburg. And it was Keegan whose eighth-minute goal against bottom-placed Middlesbrough was to put Saints at the top of the league for the first time in the club’s 97-year history.

I kept the newspaper cuttings for years. And when I look at them, I can’t believe how long ago it was – those same newspapers show Bucks Fizz at number one in the charts with The Land of Make Believe.

Saints didn’t go on to win the league that year, finishing a disappointing seventh. Their best placing since was runners-up, the next season but one.

This makes me wonder how many clubs have, at some point in their long histories, savoured a brief time at the top of the league. A moment forgotten by just about everyone except the fans who’d been there.

As for Saints, things never seemed quite the same after the legendary Lawrie McMenemy resigned in 1985. Surely only the most dedicated fans can name all his two dozen plus successors between then and now, leave alone place them in chronological order.

I grew used to jokes from friends and strangers supporting more successful teams, as well as that annual stomach churning about whether or not we’d be relegated. And that dreaded day finally came in 2004-5, after 27 seasons in the top league. Now, mockery could truly turn into pity.

There have been many better times since, and of course what’s to say there won’t be another FA Cup Final win? But even if Saints achieves the most spectacular triumph, or someone digs out some long forgotten footage of beautiful play from a bygone age, for me nothing will ever trump those weeks in 1982, when I was 13 and my team were top of the league.