Tony Christie describes an odd encounter at a public exhibition of the FA Cup

It was in the North Country that I encountered him. At Doctor Pit Welfare Park, Bedlington, on a night when the darkening sky sat heavy on the ancient chimneys and the air was silent save for the occasional deranged hoot from a flock of Northern League urchins which had alighted in the blackness behind the away dug-out. Before a silken banner of richest cerulian blue and ivory embroidered with the runic slogan “AXA”, upon a velvet cloth there sat a great chalice of burnished silver.

“Do you suppose,” my companion pondered, “that that is the real FA Cup, or is it simply a replica?” “It is the original,” a voice deep and sonorous responded from the shadows of the clubhouse. “The tournament’s third trophy, made in Bradford and presented to the winning captain from 1911 until 1991.” The speaker stepped into the glow of the floodlights. He was fully six feet in height, bedecked in a lustrous coat of steely grey that reached to his ankles. His sleek dark hair was touched with frost about the temples, his skin the colour and texture of a calf-leather casey. He appeared to be wearing make-up. “Since 1991 a new trophy has been presented, but this one is always at Wembley on the day of the final to provide a link with the past.”

Awestruck we gazed upon the mysterious figure before us. “W-who, who are you?” we stammeringly inquired when our wits had returned. “I,” the tall one explained gravely, “am...The Keeper of the Cup.” He paused to allow the import of what he had said sink in. “Please,” he added eventually, gesturing at my companion who, in his confusion, had moved to place his coffee mug down next to the trophy, “do not put that on my table. It will leave a ring on the cloth.”

“Is that,” I said in an attempt to recover the situation, “a full-time position, then?” The Keeper nodded. “When I am finished here I must drive over to Swansea,” he replied. “That’s a long way to go at this hour of the evening,” my companion exclaimed. The Keeper smiled at his concern. “I shall not,” he reassured, “go all the way there. I expect I will check in to a Travelodge somewhere in the vicinity of Worcester.” The notion of this singular servant of so proud a tradition in such mundane surroundings as a motel struck me as peculiar, a fact which clearly registed with The Keeper for he quickly explained, “I value the security and anonimity of the Travelodge. I arrive after dark, park near the front entrance and slip swiftly inside with my overnight bag and, of course...” he nodded affectionately in the direction of his metallic charge.

“Is it not a bit conspicuous?” I asked, envisaging The Keeper striding into a Little Chef and ordering an all-day breakfast (extra egg, no hash browns) with the FA Cup tucked under one arm. The keeper smiled sagely. “No,” he countered, “ for I carry it in a plain box.” Then, leaning towards us, he lowered his rich voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “On occasion I have walked through vast crowds bearing the Cup and not a single person has had even the barest inkling that it was amongst them,” he said. And with that he gave a discernible shudder.

Perhaps it was the chill of a breeze whipping in from the North Sea, or maybe it was the delicious frisson of such sweet memories. Whichever, we may never know, for moments later The Keeper had vanished into terraced streets of Bedlington bearing his unmarked casket. His Northumbrian mission completed, the Quest to the Vetch had begun.

From WSC 144 February 1999. What was happening this month

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