Apart from the obvious, I have two enduring memories of Bobby Stokes. One: two days after the 1976 Cup Final, before the kick-off of Mick Channon’s testimonial at The Dell, when he was presented with a brand new Ford Granada by the Ford Motor Company for scoring “the goal”. Two: his debut, in which he scored two goals.
“The goal” is analysed in some detail. Given the quantity of literature on that goal and that game there are legions of Saints’ fans, many of whom were yet to be born on May 1st ’76, who believe they know everything there is to know about the players, the era, the day and the score, but Mark Sanderson treads well-worn ground with a fresh eye, and sheds light in places nobody has before. No matter how knowledgeable you are, or think you are, about the Saints, you will learn from this book.
Mark devotes seven pages to the moment Bobby transformed to score of the 1976 FA Cup Final from Manchester United 0 Southampton 0, to overwhelming favourites 0 Underdogs 1! Drawing on the memories of, among others, Mike Channon, Jim Steele and Mel Blythe, as well as United’s skipper of the day, Martin Buchan, and goalkeeper Alex Stepney. It’s a masterfully acquitted piece of football writing.
The author is less assured when dealing with what passed on the evening of Monday May 3rd. This is understandable. Mark reveals in the Forward, he is not old enough to have seen Bobby play. Further, the only coherent report of Mike Channon’s exquisitely timed testimonial match is Peter East’s in the Southern Evening Echo. He pronounced it: “glorious bedlam.” That is probably the only thing that all the participating players, match officials, match-day staff, the 29,805 spectators and the Romsey Old Boys Brigade Marching Band (masquerading as bees) could agree on. That and the presentation of that car. The joke, at the time was, Bobby didn’t drive. The following afternoon Bobby was featured on the front page of the Echo holding an L-plate in front of the radiator grill. What happened to the car?
A BRACING DEBUT
Bobby’s debut was a 5-1 home win over Burnley as the 1968/69 season was petering out. I do not recall the match so much as the reactions to Bobby’s performance. It was not just the brace of goals that suggested that Ted Bates had unveiled another marvel. Bobby, if a tad earnest, had looked comfortable playing top flight football, kept himself involved, covered a lot of grass and could ride a tackle. By this time Micky Channon was established as a front-runner, and while he had a lot of admirers, they tended to be his age or younger. The Dell’s self-appointed cognoscenti, were less enthused. Micky scored goals (eight in 33 League matches in ’68/69), some of which were spectacular, but he was also prone to glaring misses. And those breath-taking slaloms through defences he would become renowned for, as often as not, would end with him falling over for no apparent reason. Fielded alongside Ron Davies for the last four games of the season, and netting thrice, Stokes looked the business.
Those are my pertinent recollections of the era. I cannot think of any reason that Mark, whose researches have evidently been thorough, should have discovered that Channon was nicknamed “Bambi” by many of my fellow programme sellers. The greatest strength of the book is the use of quotes from the 70 odd individuals he interviewed; particularly former teammates. They all attest to what a “lovely fellow” he was. They also tend to agree that one of his few failings as a footballer, the reason he never realised his potential, was a lack of confidence.
Hughie Fisher observes that “self-belief” is a “huge part of being a professional footballer”. He identifies three teammates who were “super confident of their abilities right away as teenagers: Alan Ball – who Hugh shared digs with … at Blackpool; Mick Channon and Steve Williams …” (Williams, for those too young to have seen him, being both the “Saints’ legend” and the “Arsenal legend” that never quite was). Nevertheless, even if Bobby did lack that spark of genius that makes a Channon or a Terry Paine, he was not short of the skills and energy to make him a better than average First Division performer. He could beat defenders for pace, tackle back effectively, acquit clever passes under pressure and shoot with either foot. One only has to replay “the goal” to grasp there was more about him and his game than having a “good motor”. Bobby’s run allowed for Jim McCalliog’s pass to drop the ball over his shoulder; then, still moving, he lets it bounce before executing a precise, not powerful, left-footed strike. “Not only was Bobby’s goal not a fluke,” insists Mark, correctly, “it was a difficult technique to execute.”
A LONG GOODBYE
Ironically, Bobby was on the transfer list when he turned up at Wembley that day. He had been close to signing for his home town club Portsmouth earlier in the season. His career as a Saint ended with a transfer to the Washington Diplomats in May ’77. He was 26 years-old. HH e had made a dozen starts ’76/77 – eight in Division Two and four in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. The arrival of the prolific Ted MacDougal had rendered Bobby more-or-less superfluous, but it is surprising that no serious offers came in for him.
Bobby finally signed for Pompey in August 1977. It was an unhappy episode between his two summers playing in the USA. Incredibly, his career as a full-time professional was over at the age of 28. After that he failed to make a significant impression on non-League football. Bobby was 44 when he died. His decline is tastefully handled.
Complaints? I have a few, but they are too few and too trivial to make a meal of. For instance, while lamenting that there is no longer a Bobby Stokes Suite under the Itchen Stand, Mark observes that there are quite a few old-Saints, many of them Bobby’s contemporaries, who could make themselves available in the hospitality areas on matchdays, but pointedly aren’t: “this followed a trend whereby [Nicola] Cortese fell out with several of the club’s former stars. At the time the club was on the up after a few dreadful seasons which nearly saw it liquidated.” He goes on to suggest that Cortese had “a rift with the club’s past” that “seemed to run deeper than a bun fight. The implication from the administration was that they didn’t want anyone enjoying a free lunch at the club’s expense.” This is a fair point, given the author’s perspective. However …
Back in 2009, soon after Markus Leibherr picked up the smouldering remains of the Club, plus its considerable assets (probably for less than the St Mary’s Stadium was worth as an inner-city brownfield site) it was brought to my notice, officially, as an “official historian” that the Club had been issuing over 800 complimentary tickets per game. That is a lot of “fee lunches”. Something had to be done. Those disenfranchised who complained got short shrift. Quite right too. This is not, however, the place to discuss Cortese’s attitude to Saints’ past, ancient or modern. Suffice to say, he had no problems with qualified Saints (i.e. dead ones).
As already noted, Bobby could not drive. This inability works well for the author as valuable insights are gained into Bobby’s post-Saints’ life from those who chauffeured him about. In particular John Robson, who employed him in his heating and plumbing business; and Denis Bundy, during his stint as a matchday commentator at The Dell, who drove him to various events as well as matches.
Which brings me to another beef: we aren’t told why Bobby didn’t drive himself? Given how comprehensive this biography is – and it is arguably the best book on an old Saint published to date – how come we are not only left wandering what happened to the Granada, but whether or not Bobby even took a driving lesson?