I was pretty complacent last time we went to Wembley. As a three year-old I’d been bought a blue football shirt by my parents and became an Ipswich Town fan during their glory years under Bobby Robson. The only other teams that I’d followed were from Roy of the Rovers. All teams were destined to make it to Wembley, I thought.
Wembley was still magical. You only saw it during the day for the FA and League Cup Finals, as if it came from under the ground Thunderbirds-like.
The day itself started normally. It was wet, the London Marathon was run in the morning, my dad headed out for the Sunday paper and made no mention of the game.
We hit the road; I was dressed in a blue and yellow jockey cap, a classic football-casual Oxford v-neck jumper, my 85/86 replica shirt and a flag. We drove up the M40 and every car had a yellow scarf out of the window.
My dad took his video camera. My job was to film the journey but managed to do the thing where you turn the camera off when you think it’s on, and on when you think it’s off. As a result we have great pictures of a Vauxhall Cavalier foot-well.
We hit traffic, minibuses around us emptied as people went for a pee or to restock with beer. There was a crescendo of sirens and car horns. Streaming through the traffic came the team coach flanked by police motorcycles.
We reached Wembley and parked up. As we circumnavigated the stadium we bumped into a friend; exchanged pleasantries, and then headed for the turnstile. Entering the bowl of the stadium, someone behind me shouted ‘WEMBLEY!’ as though seeing the Colossus Of Rhodes for the first time.
It was vast. Modern stadiums; Millennium Stadium, Old Trafford, New Wembley, are designed for spectators and TV. Old Wembley was an architectural gasp that sprawled out and screaming ‘look at us, rulers of the Empire’. As a result, everything was miles from the pitch; there was a sea of yellow and blue.
Fittingly, the first half passed in a dream-like state. We seemed comfortable and in control. Suddenly Trevor Hebberd broke free. The availability of tickets and prohibitive Manor prices had reduced our visits to home games. For me, Trevor Hebberd was little more than the bloke who turned up with George Lawrence from Southampton.
But suddenly it was Hebberd, Paul Barron and a gaping Wembley goal. It was a moment of striking clarity. We were going to score a goal at Wembley. Rather than shooting, Hebberd turned inside, then outside, then inside again. This went on for hours. Nobody closed him down; the moment we were going to score at Wembley and Trevor Hebberd had found a chink in the time space continuum that wouldn’t allow him to complete the bloody task.
After hours of shouting for him to snap out of it and shoot, he did. The ball went in. We were a goal up. Whatever is stage is deeper than a dream-like state. We were in it, all the way to half-time.
Half-time was an opportunity of consolidation. I remember a sense that we’d had a lot of fun, but that eventually reality would kick back in.
Despite selling 35,000 tickets, it was clear that not everyone was a true Oxford fan. We were surrounded by a group of quintessentially public school toffs. Shortly after the second half started, one of the girls chose to sit down because her legs ached. The boys’ conversation went from misguided and inaccurate football talk to general disinterested chit-chat. The distraction was blown apart by a Hebberd run which eventually tee’ed up Ray Houghton for number 2.
If anything, the second goal crashed together the dream and the reality. We’d floated through the first hour; but now it was all very real and we were on course to win the cup. BUT, if they scored, and then again, and again, then what had been the best day would become the worst day. There was a tangible fear of loss.
Of course, on the pitch, there was no evidence that things were going to slip. And eventually the ball broke to John Charles to slot home a rebound for number 3. We’d done it. I don’t remember the cup being lifted, only the feeling when it was.
Eventually we chose to leave. Outside we were filtered around the ground with QPR fans shuffling in the opposite direction. In the height of football hooliganism, there was a moment that defined the whole day. A QPR fan lunged at my dad…
The fan, draped in a Union Jack, shook dad’s hand and congratulating us on a great display. It capped the day off perfectly. I remember driving home being given the ‘wanker’ sign by another group of QPR fans, but it meant nothing.
From such a day, the sky was the limit, it seemed. What we didn’t know at the time was that we were already in the sky.