Bobby Stokes - Southampton's modest and 'reluctant' FA Cup hero whose name lives on

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Jeremy Wilson
·6 min read
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FA Cup hero Bobby Stokes celebrates by kissing the famous trophy - PA
FA Cup hero Bobby Stokes celebrates by kissing the famous trophy - PA

The Harbour View Café in Portsmouth was where Bobby Stokes could be found on most mornings during the early 1990s, serving up mugs of tea and bacon sandwiches to coach drivers, dockers and tourists.

Stokes would liken the camaraderie of the café to a football dressing-room but, with his broad local accent and personality utterly bereft of ego, no casual customer could have ever possibly imagined what he did on the hallowed Wembley turf at 4.38pm on May 1, 1976.

With the FA Cup final between Manchester United and Southampton still goalless after 83 minutes, Jim McCalliog had looked up, shouted the words ‘go Bobby’, and lofted a pass over the defence. Stokes timed his run perfectly and then, with one legendary swing of his left foot, directed the ball past Alex Stepney. It was the winning goal and, before Southampton’s return to Wembley in the FA Cup against Leicester City on Sunday, remains the greatest single moment in the club’s history.

Such triumph, however, would be followed by tragedy.

Stokes should have celebrated his 70th birthday this year. He should still be revelling in an achievement that was celebrated with a banner - ‘Welcome Home Son: You Did us Proud’ - and a street party in Paulsgrove, the estate in Portsmouth where he grew up.

Manchester United goalkeeper Alex Stepney can only look in vain as Stokes' fearsome shot heads for the back of the net  - PA
Manchester United goalkeeper Alex Stepney can only look in vain as Stokes' fearsome shot heads for the back of the net - PA

Stokes died suddenly, aged only 44, in 1995. He had recently separated from his wife and his death certificate describes the cause of his passing as bronchopneumonia.

“He would drop everything to attend a charity event or bring a smile to the face of a sick child,” wrote Brian White in his obituary in the Southern Daily Echo. “The only person he was unable to help was Bobby Stokes.”

A testimonial year had been about to start in Stokes’ honour and that there was a real hope that this would be a catalyst in his life.

“I still think about him all the time,” says Denis Bundy, who was the chair of the testimonial committee. “I used to compère at The Dell and I would pick him up from Pompey a few times a year. He had such modesty and was genuinely puzzled by the reception he would get. Fans would ignore the current players if he was around. They all knew the name Bobby Stokes.

“He would sign autographs until his hand fell off. He never stopped being who he was from the day he was born until the day he died. I don’t think he ever had to buy a drink after the Cup final. He was a heavy smoker too, and I really think it all took its toll.”

'Halo' wearing Stokes waves to a vast crowd from the balcony of Southampton Civic Centre after the FA Cup triumph - PA
'Halo' wearing Stokes waves to a vast crowd from the balcony of Southampton Civic Centre after the FA Cup triumph - PA

Stokes grew up dreaming of playing for Portsmouth but his opportunity would arise at arch-rivals Southampton where, despite scoring on his debut, he was often in the shadow of attacking players like Mick Channon, Terry Paine, Ron Davies and Peter Osgood. Paine says that Stokes was an “instinctive” finisher while Channon still describes him the best volleyer of a ball he played with. Both attributes were evident in his winning goal when he shot first time from outside the penalty area. Stokes received a 24-carat gold-plated boot worth £1,000 and was also presented with a Granada Ghia 3-litre car worth £4,500. The great irony was that he was the only non-driver in the Southampton team and still living with his parents in Cosham at the time of the Cup final.

“I reckon I could go to 10 different functions every day for months and still not be able to say ‘yes’ to all the invitations,” he said in an interview two weeks after the final.

By the age of 30, he had dropped down to non-league football and would become landlord of a pub in Cosham before working in his cousin’s café. Stokes never did learn to drive and so Channon’s son, Michael Jnr, became a self-appointed chauffeur for any social events.

“Bobby was a reluctant hero,” says Channon Jnr. “I would collect him in my little Fiesta and I used to just gaze at his Golden Boot. I don’t think he ever realised how much he was loved. He was not a tragic figure. He was ordinary in the nicest possible way.”

Channon even took Stokes back to Wembley for the final of the Zenith Data Systems Cup in 1992. “He was coaching some inner-city kids before the final and stood right near the spot where he scored the Cup winner,” he says. “I remember at one point he said to them loudly, so that Bally [Alan Ball] and Ossie [Peter Osgood] could hear, ‘you have got to hit the target from there. I hit the target from back here with my left foot!’

“There was also a little game played before the final and he was supposed to play, but when it came to it, he just whispered to me, ‘I’ve failed a fitness test. I’ve had my day in the sun, now you go and play’.”

Bundy recalls once asking to see the Golden Boot. “He didn’t have a clue where it was – the same with his Cup winner’s medal,” says Bundy.

“Eventually we found it and it was under the stairs. It was all dusty. He just looked up at me and said, ‘don’t worry nipper, I’m not fussy’. But then the boot disappeared and what happened is still a mystery. We had done a dinner at Shooters in Southampton a few months before he died. Some chancer must have nicked it.”

Stokes never did properly benefit from his testimonial year although fans did at least posthumously show their appreciation, selecting him with Paine, Channon, Ted Bates and Matthew Le Tissier to have a room named after them at St Mary’s.

The crematorium in Portchester was packed for Stokes’ funeral, which began with the great FA Cup hymn Abide With Me and concluded with a rendition of When The Saints Go Marching In. His ashes were later scattered at The Dell.

“Everyone remembers me for the Wembley goal, but they forget all the times I was kicked up in the air at Newcastle on a raw winter afternoon,” said Stokes, in one of his last interviews, before prophetically adding, “even some England internationals fade from the memory. I didn’t reach those heights as a player but, through what I did, my name will live on.”