Forty years ago Pompey fan Bobby Stokes won the FA Cup for Southampton. As author and Saints’ fan Mark Sanderson tells Ermis Madikopoulos, it’s a story which has fascinated him all his life. Now he has written the story of Stokes’ life.
When odds-on favourites Manchester United run out against Crystal Palace at Wembley this afternoon they would do well to recall the events of 40 years ago.
For it was the day a lad from Portsmouth caused one of the biggest FA Cup Final upsets in history – winning the cup for his home city’s arch rivals.
It’s not often you are told the tale of an FA Cup Final winner who crossed that yawning chasm between Portsmouth and Southampton.
That is what happened when I sat down with Mark Sanderson, the author of Bobby Stokes: The Man From Portsmouth Who Scored Southampton’s Most FamousGoal.
As we chat about the book Mark, a softly spoken Southampton fan, recalled it was originally going to be a magazine article. It then escalated into a project that took nearly two years to complete.
‘I was quite surprised that no-one had written it before because I think Bobby’s story is rooted in Portsmouth and Southampton’, Mark says.
‘With the football teams, I think it’s rooted in three ingredients: the most famous goal for Southampton, one major trophy in 31 years, the fact he’s from Pompey, and the fact he died at 44.
‘That’s when I thought I had a book on my hands.’
Mark then went about interviewing Bobby’s former team-mates, friends, and family.
‘Having realised I’d got a book I put a proposal together and the publisher said yes. That’s when I started to panic because I’m not really affiliated to either of the clubs.
‘So I just dug around, hunting for players, going on Portsmouth forums, just being nosy.
‘It’s amazing that a lot of the players from 1976 are still living around Southampton and Portsmouth. It wasn’t too difficult in the end. It just took a bit of time.’
Mark grew up in Botley and played in a variety of local football teams. This influenced his writing as he compared it to Bobby’s sporting upbringing where he shone at cricket and table tennis.
Bobby grew up at Paulsgrove and would often play football as a child on Portsdown Hill, overlooking the city.
‘If you go on the estate, you can see the city spread out before you, so when you’re growing up there, you want to play for Pompey.’
Mark, who now works in public relations, says he had a strong passion for writing from an early age, which inspired him to craft the book.
His job involves writing about a variety of subjects including oil nozzles and manufacturing, however his wife was supportive, saying he should write ‘something you actually know about’.
Mark’s passion for the project went into overdrive when he realised that despite Bobby scoring that winning goal in the 1976 final, there were few books written about him, and the fact he bridged the gap by playing for both teams added an ‘interesting dynamic’.
The book records Bobby’s affiliation to both cities, as despite the long-standing rivalry between the two clubs, he would play a game in Southampton and return home for a drink in Portsmouth.
Although Bobby had trials for Portsmouth as a young boy, they would not take him on because of financial pressures. He subsequently signed for Southampton in 1968, where he was respected for his diligence and commitment.
However six months before the cup win, Bobby nearly joined Portsmouth but could not agree personal terms. Mark reckons if he had joined them, Southampton would not have won the cup.
The cup final saw Manchester United as strong favourites, leading to overconfidence in their play, and thanks to Stokes’s shot past United keeper Alex Stepney, the underdogs from Division 2 toppled the Red Devils.
Being a Southampton fan, Mark says he enjoyed the challenge of visiting Portsmouth and interviewing residents who knew Bobby.
‘I’m not like other football fans, of course I’m aware of the rivalry, of course when they play each other I want Southampton to win, but as a writer I’ve got to look beyond that.
‘So for me I enjoyed poking around the pubs in Paulsgrove tracking down four blokes at the Manor House pub at Drayton from when Bobby was landlord there in the 1980s. That for me was part of the thrill.’
Despite interviewing former players, Mark knew the challenge of crossing the rivalry would be difficult and had to stay as neutral as possible.
‘I got in touch with Ian McInnes, the Pompey chairman who grew up with Bobby on the estate. We were going to do something for the book but it never happened.
‘I said “you do realise I’m a Saints fan” and he was like “Ah, I’ll invite you down to Fratton Park but the atmosphere will probably be a bit too much for you!”.’
Mark did visit Fratton Park to promote the book, however he made one crucial mistake during a short promotional video.
‘I did a lot of promotional videos. I did one outside Fratton Park and had my Saints’ shirt on underneath. I was going to reveal it but absolutely totally bottled it. There was a 65-year-old woman there and I thought she was going to punch me, I just totally lost my bottle!
‘So that told me no-one was there to judge me, but I thought “you’ve come to be the big man and it hasn’t worked!”’
Mark is married with two children, and lives at Swanwick. I asked him how he manages to balance a hectic work schedule with family life. ‘Not very well!’ he laughs. ‘A lot of people ask me that. I was so motivated to write the book it didn’t seem like a big deal. In my mind I had a clear vision of the story I was trying to tell – one that was set against the backdrop of the two cities. I had that driving me so I’d come home from work, help put the kids to bed, have tea, and sit out the back at 7.30pm. Sometimes I’d sit there until 2am.’
So what does the future hold for Mark? Perhaps he will be the next person to tear down a part of the divide between the two cities. Although it seems he’ll settle for writing books about those who do. Bobby Stokes: The Man From Portsmouth Who Scored Southampton’s Most Famous Goal, by Mark Sanderson, is published by Pitch Publishing and costs about £12.