This week Southampton reached a major cup final for the first time since 2003, and will face old rivals Manchester United – the team they beat in the 1976 FA Cup final. It’s the perfect time for Saints fans look back to what was arguably their finest hour. We chatted with Mark Sanderson, author of Bobby Stokes: The Man From Portsmouth Who Scored Southampton’s Most Famous Goal.
Some Gulls Are Bigger Than Others: Hi Mark. What first drew you to the idea of writing about Bobby Stokes? Were you surprised that he hadn’t been the subject of a book before, especially given his esteemed place among Southampton fans?
Mark Sanderson: Bobby was always in the back of my mind, ever since I got a VHS tape cassette of the 1976 FA Cup Final sometime in the mid to late 1980s. I never felt enough was known about him, especially given he’s a Pompey lad. I guess that’s the nut – most books about Saints and Pompey are about one or the other, but Bobby’s story is entwined with both cities and both clubs. They are the back drop of his life. But Saints books don’t tend to cover Pompey and vice-versa, it’s kind of taboo. That was exciting to get stuck into, to tread where other Saints fans hadn’t before. At the same time I was surprised nobody had written a book about him. It got me worrying that I needed to get a move on because it’s such a great story. Man from rival town scores club’s most famous goal, responsible for only major trophy in what is now 132 years and counting. Then he pretty much disappears. Of course, this is my first book and I had no contacts or experience other than writing the occasional article for football magazine When Saturday Comes. But I thought what the hell, let’s go for it.
SGABTO: Presumably some parts of Bobby’s life were easier to chronicle than others; did you find anything difficult to uncover?
MS: Sure. It took me a few years to trace his family. In the end I had a letter in the Portsmouth News and within a few days and a few phone calls I was in touch with Bobby’s cousin Maria, who still lives in Paulsgrove, where Bobby grew up. Also, we are talking about things that happened 40 years and longer ago. But the book was never meant to be a chronicle of his entire life, I wanted to capture a portrait of him during different stages of his life. There was a bit of a mystery surrounding the golden boot Bobby won for scoring the winner in ’76. It was presumed missing. A month or so after the book was published I was contacted by Bobby’s nephew, who wanted to meet me. I was a bit apprehensive – did he appreciate the book? Or maybe I’d upset him, but no. He had the golden boot and brought it to my house in an old case. It was some experience to hold that artefact in my own hands.
SGABTO: Did anything come up during the project that really surprised you about Bobby?
MS: Plenty. It’s kind of assumed knowledge Bobby’s career fizzled out after leaving Southampton in 1977. It’s not entirely true. Here was a bloke who played alongside Johan Cruyff in the US for the Washington Diplomats. Bobby scored the winner for the Diplomats in a shoot-out at the famous New York Cosmos in front of fifty-thousand plus. This was a side had Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer. A year later Bobby was playing for Chichester City in the Sussex League. Did he drop that in conversation with his new Chichester team-mates? No, they had no idea. That kind of sums Bobby up – very understated and modest.
SGABTO: Who did you particularly enjoy speaking to for the project?
MS: It was pretty cool to meet the Saints players from the ’76 cup final. Jim Steele was man of the match in tha game and he gave me Lawrie McMenemy’s number. I remember cold calling him at home – a bit nerve-wracking. He was a little unsure at first, but once I explained the project we agreed to meet. The venue was the Potters Heron – the same place he announced the club had signed Kevin Keegan in 1980. I pulled up in my old Peugeot thinking, is he really going to turn up, but he did, and we had a great couple of hours. Going up to meet Mick Channon at his stables was great too. Older Saints fans might like to know that Saints legend Brian O’Neil offered to lead me up there in a convoy.
SGABTO: Had Bobby not moved over to the Washington Diplomats in the NASL [North American Soccer League] for part of his career, do you think he would be more of a household name here?
MS: Good question. I don’t think so, sadly. Remember Bobby couldn’t drive, so a local move was preferable to him. He left Saints in April 1977 for the summer season in the US, but he was playing for Pompey in the 1977/78 season. It wasn’t a good time for Portsmouth. They had an inexperienced team and they were relegated to division four. The only other club in for him at the time were Bournemouth. But after that season at Fratton Park in 1978 he didn’t play professionally in the UK again; instead playing for Washington in the summer months.
SGABTO: If you were asked to, or decided to, write a book about another Southampton player, who would you choose?
MS: It’s got to be Franny Benali. The book would appeal to Saints fans as Franny could offer behind the scenes knowledge of the club from the 1980s to the early 2000s. He also played against a whole load of the world’s best players – from John Barnes, to Ryan Giggs, Thierry Henry and Ronaldo. Be great to explore what that was like from a local lad’s perspective.
SGABTO: Finally, what do you make of the Southampton / Portsmouth rivalry at the moment, when the two clubs find themselves in very different circumstances [they haven’t played each other competitively since 2012]?
MS: It’s still very much there, but as a Saints fan I was treated very well by Pompey fans when researching the book. It was pretty weird to go to the Manor House pub in Cosham to meet four Pompey fans who were locals when Bobby was landlord in the 1980s, but that’s what happened. The guys even came to the book launch at St Mary’s. Right now Saints have the upper hand – I’d love us to make some hay while the sun is shining and bag ourselves a trophy – we’ve got a great chance to do that now.
Questions by Tom Clayton