5 May ~ Continuing our 25-year retrospective, in WSC 77 (July 1993) Nick Hornby was faced with a terrible dilemma – attending a book prize ceremony or an FA Cup final replay
I was entirely confident that Arsenal would win two cups this season. And if anyone had asked me last August who would score the winning goals, I would have gone for Morrow and Linighan – I've always felt that they were cruelly underrated, those two – without any hesitation. I could even have predicted that Tony Adams, in an exciting variation to the Wembley tradition, was going to keep a firm grip on the trophy and drop the player instead. If you had told me, however, that on the night Arsenal won their first FA Cup in fourteen years I would be sitting in the Savoy stuffing my face, I would have laughed in yours.
It was all very unfortunate. My book Fever Pitch was shortlisted for a prize – the £25,000 NCR award for non-fiction – and I had already accepted an invitation to the ceremony before I realised that there was going to be a disastrous conflict of very major interests. (Why was the replay on a Thursday? Thursday is usually the one day of the week I can pretend I'm a rounded human being, with a plurality of relationships and interests.) I only made the connection a couple of days before the Saturday game, and wasn't too worried; I was not then aware, however, of the new FA rule that bans Cup finalists from having more than one goal attempt per team during the game.
If Lee Dixon had lobbed Seaman from thirty yards – and he's done it before – during extra time, I would probably have stood on my backless, thirty-pound seat yards below the pitch at the Arsenal end and wept with relief. (For me, it's not the winning or the losing, but the taking part.) As it was, the two teams contented themselves with aiming long balls carefully at their friends, wives and hideously crippled colleagues in Row B. The Doomsday Scenario was upon me.
For two days, I agonised about what to do. Wembley has long ceased to be the Promised Land for most of us – I had been three times in the previous month, and hadn't seen a decent through ball in five hours of football; on the other hand, there is this residual fear that each time my team appears in a Final, it could be the last one during my lifetime. (Chelsea fans will understand this better than most.) But how many book prizes could I realistically expect to be nominated for? There was no way of finding out beforehand whether I had won the dash or not – I could only find out by going to the dinner.
In the end, it was the award organisers' guarantee of a TV set that swung it. I bought an Arsenal bow-tie from the World of Sport at Finsbury Park, put my Dad's old dinner jacket on and went to the Savoy. The TV was just outside the main dining room; a small table had been placed in front of it, so that I could eat my dinner in front of the box. It was just like home. For form's sake, I started the meal with the other guests, but I had only just squeezed my lemon over the smoked salmon when a waiter tapped me on the shoulder. "Excuse me sir, but you may care to know that Ian Wright has just scored for Arsenal." I raced off to see the replay.
Things continued in this vein until half-way through extra time, when the judges began their summing up. I listened to Margaret Jay rave about Peter Hennessey's Never Again and Michael Palin say kind and amusing things about Fever Pitch. But just as Diana Rigg was giving her considered assessment of Lewis Walport's The Unnatural Nature of Science, I got another rap on the shoulder – Linighan had scored for Arsenal. I reached the TV just in time for the final whistle.
There wasn't time for me to see Tone go up to lift the FA Cup, however: my partner came racing in to tell me that David Puttnam was about to award the prize. I opened the door to the dining room and the bearded movie mogul (and, disturbingly, Spurs fan) announced that the winner was Peter Hennessey even before I'd had a chance to get back to my seat. I felt like the man who had won the Cup and lost twenty five grand in the same evening. Hell, I was the man who had won the Cup and lost twenty five grand in the same evening.
The next morning I got married. We are poor but happy.