Northern exposure

Dave Cohen outlines the vital ingredient missing from this year's FA Cup final: the North v South rivalry

When the draw for the FA Cup semi-finals was made I prayed in vain for the perfect outcome: Liverpool v Chelsea. Normally, when your own team is not involved in a match, you assume a partisanship based exclusively on which of the two teams you hate less. As a Leeds fan, there was no contest as to who I would rather see win between Chelsea and Manchester United. But Liverpool or Aston Villa? Both teams had trounced us 3-0 in cup games within days of each other and the outcome of this particular match had about as much relevance to me as a Nuclear Electric Kent County League play-off. So what made me root for Liverpool? What swung it in the end was the lure of a North versus South final.

This is not another article gloryfying in the nostalgia of the 1970s. Apart from anything else, the articles about the 1970s written in the 1980s were so much better than the articles about the 1970s we read today. Or maybe I’m being nostalgic

I’m sure everybody remembers a single match that turned them from interested supporter into pathetic trainspotter. For me, that match was the 1970 Cup final between Leeds and Chelsea. Something in that game tuned into the national psyche. Until then, the dominating Northern teams possessed a glamour that Southerners could identify with. Merseyside and the Beatles, Manchester and Georgie Best, lovable moptops one and all. But Leeds? What contribution to the dazzling world of showbiz (ie London) has Leeds ever made? Jimmy bloody Savile.

Leeds were just northern. A one syllable town at the end of the M1 with a growing reputation as a team of dirty bastards. (Apart from the obvious culprits we were a beautiful team to watch but this is neither the time nor place. Whereas the word Chelsea had spent the previous decade wallowing in credibility. Chelsea Girl, Chelsea Hotel, King’s Road Chelsea, Chelsea Art College, Chelsea Boot. Alright, there was Chelsea bun and Chelsea pensioner, but that’s not bad going for a borough you could fit into a Ford Zodiac. Leeds was not yet even the name of a building society.

This was not just about football, not just Chelsea versus Leeds. It was elegance versus muck, glamour versus grind, rich versus poor. Regardless of the result, this game set the scene for the next few years, dominated by Leeds against Arsenal, Heath against Scargill.

I know there are North-South battles in every league, every season. But when was the last North-South Premier League match that mattered? The Cup final is, of course, a one-off, a never to be repeated death-or-glory occasion. When Sheffield Wednesday do battle with Arsenal, or Manchester City take on Spurs, they have all of the North behind them. Even the dreaded Manchester United were rooted for when they played Palace and Chelsea.

The North-South final gives us a chance to air our grievances – not all without foundation – that Southerners are a bunch of self-centred, insensitive, arrogant, snobbish oppressors. Any London side in the final has the advantage of being the home team. Then there is the appallingly patronising London-based media coverage that portrays us as a bunch of bucolic nitwits on a pilgrimage from the grimy back-to-back terraces to the mecca of English football (so called because it is as welcoming as a bingo hall).

When we reach your metropolis we are expected to doff our cloth caps in open-mouthed awe at being granted a whole afternoon in the company of the glitterati who inhabit the nation’s capital. The exception that proved the rule was the 1988 final between Liverpool and Wimbledon. A London team boycotted by their own population, against a Northern club complacent with success. On the day many thought Liverpool's defeat was what they deserved.

For the most part, the North-South FA Cup final encapsulates those deeply-rooted prejudices and differences that make us the country we are. That Southerners are now suffering economically does not unite them with the North – it merely lets us gloat that it’s all they deserve after acting so selfishly in the 1980s. It is simplistic to see things this way, but having lived in the South for over a decade I am still astonished by the level of ignorance displayed about the North by Londoners.

Just because you are suffering does not mean you have learned humility. Until you do, Northerners of the world will unite against you on Cup final day. Assuming you can get a team to Wembley in the first place, that is.

From WSC 112 June 1996. What was happening this month