Belfast Telegraph

Manchester United v Southampton League Cup final: Sad and tragic tale of Saints' Cup hero Bobby Stokes

BY Jon Culley

There is a statue outside St Mary's of Ted Bates, the former player, manager, director and president who gave a lifetime of service to Southampton Football Club and took them into the top tier of domestic football for the first time in 1966.

Among Southampton diehards, no one argues that such recognition is not deserved. Many, though, think he ought to have company, perhaps of the player who scored the club's most famous goal, the one that won their only major trophy in 131 years.

Given that this was the goal that beat Manchester United in the FA Cup final of 1976, it is being recalled this week in particular as the current Saints side prepare to take on United at Wembley again on Sunday.

So too is the rather sad story of its executioner, the attacking midfielder, Bobby Stokes.

I interviewed Bobby 22 years ago as part of a Where Are They Now? series. Back then, there was no trail of digital footprints to help track down a subject and it took several calls before I found him at the Harbour View Cafe by the docks in Portsmouth.

The cafe was owned by his cousin, Maria, and he had worked there, he told me, for about eight years, brewing tea, cooking breakfasts, wiping down tables and chatting.

When I suggested that it might seem an unlikely situation in which to find a man who had scored the winner in an FA Cup final, I was struck by his humility. "I don't wear my medal around my neck," he said. "But I'll happily recall every detail of the match with anyone who has 90 minutes to spare. It was the best day of my life."

Clearly, the goal had not made his fortune, although there was no hint of bitterness. He did confess that after 11 years at Southampton he had been disappointed not to be given a testimonial. Yet that had been remedied, he was pleased to say, after he decided "to just brassneck it and ask" a few weeks before we spoke. A series of fundraising events were in the planning.

Only three months later, Stokes was dead. Living alone after his marriage broke up, his health suffered. An infection turned to bronchial pneumonia and he was not able to fight it off.

Today, Maria says she will never forget losing him. "It was heartbreaking," she told me. "He was my cousin but we were more like brother and sister. My mum and his mum were sisters and their houses backed on to one another. To get to Rob's house - he was always Rob to us - you just climbed over the fence. We were all the same family, really.

"He lived in Southsea when he married and after they broke up he was choked, lonely I think. I used to pick him up sometimes and I knew he wasn't right.

"He would always shrug and say he was okay but eventually I brought him home. To begin with he seemed to improve but when the pneumonia took hold that was it. I was pregnant.

"He'd told me he wanted me to have a girl and that when she was born he wanted me to put her on his shoulder. It was a girl. She was born four days after he died. I took her to see him and I did lay her on his shoulder."

Stokes' life had begun to change within months of his Wembley triumph. Southampton had won the Cup as a Second Division side, but the manager, Lawrie McMenemy (right), needed to build a team to win promotion.

Stokes lost his regular place and by May 1977 had been sold to the Washington Diplomats of the North American Soccer League. He stayed for two seasons, in between times achieving his dream of signing for Portsmouth, although the move was not successful.

On returning to England permanently, he played for a number of non-league teams, followed the well-trodden footballer's path into the pub trade and also worked as a labourer before settling to his job at the Harbour View.

The plumber who took him on was John Robson, who had played professionally in Scotland and sometimes lined up alongside Bobby in charity games.

"He was such a warm guy and everybody loved him," Robson said. "He never wanted to brag about what he'd done. He loved to meet up with his old team-mates, but he never thought he was anyone special.

"Once when I took him to the village near Bishop Auckland where I was born, he disappeared. My brother-in-law eventually found him at my old football club. Someone had recognised him and invited him in to meet the lads.

"Afterwards, he couldn't get over it. 'Wasn't that fantastic?' he said. 'They wanted to listen to me and I'm nobody'. I said to him 'Bob - you scored the goal that beat Manchester United in the FA Cup final!'"

Jim Steele, the Scottish centre half in the 1976 team and a team-mate for the Diplomats, believes Stokes simply was not equipped to deal with life after football.

"He made some money in America but not a lot," Steele said. "When he came back he ran the pub but he wasn't cut out for that, really. I just think he didn't know what to do with himself after the football had finished."

There are pictures of Stokes on the walls at St Mary's and his Cup final shirt is on display in a frame in the boardroom but a suite named after him disappeared during changes to the stadium's infrastructure. His name on an apartment block where The Dell used to be hardly equates to a statue.

Robson said: "It is disappointing. I did ask Lawrie (McMenemy) once about a statue but he told me they would have to go through the council, which I know is true. As for the testimonial, he should never have had to approach the club. It should have been the other way round."

The closest to a lasting memorial to Stokes so far is a book written last year by Mark Sanderson, a local journalist, which tells the player's story from the viewpoint of those who knew him best.

His cousin Maria added: "I loved the book and it's something I'll never part with. I want people to know what Rob was like. He was a real gentleman, just a lovely person.

"He didn't complain. He was happy with what he had and proud as punch with what he'd done. No one could take that away from him."

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