Bobby Stokes: The Portsmouth fan who won the FA Cup for Southampton

By Lewis Coombes & Adam WilliamsBBC Sport
Bobby Stokes: The Pompey boy who became Southampton's FA Cup final hero

They said it would be one of the most one-sided FA Cup finals ever, with pundits predicting scores of four, five and even six-nil in Manchester United's favour against Second Division Southampton at Wembley in 1976.

As Britain basked in a May heatwave 25-year-old striker Robert William Thomas Stokes - known fondly as Bobby - kept his cool for Saints.

Southampton, led by former Coldstream Guardsman Lawrie McMenemy, were given "no chance" against the superstars of Tommy Docherty's Manchester United before the kick-off on 1 May.

But, latching on to Jim McCalliog's through ball, Stokes despatched a shot past the diving Alex Stepney in United's goal, earning his side a 1-0 win and writing his name into Southampton folklore.

As the 40th anniversary of their day in the Wembley sun approaches, Stokes' cousin and the author of a new book on his life, lift the lid on his story.

From Pompey blue to Saints red

Bobby Stokes celebrates with his family in Paulsgrove
Bobby Stokes (second from left) and cousin Maria Johnson (far left) celebrate with family the day after the 1976 FA Cup final

As a child, Stokes lived 30 miles from Southampton on the Paulsgrove estate in Portsmouth, and dreamed of playing for their fiercest rivals.

"Unfortunately for Bobby, his trial coincided with Portsmouth having financial problems and they scrapped their reserve and youth teams," said Mark Sanderson, author of 'Bobby Stokes: The Man from Portsmouth Who Scored Southampton's Most Famous Goal'.

"The management at the time famously said, 'there's only money for fish in the sea in Portsmouth'. Bobby ended up signing for Saints in 1968."

But the residents on the estate did not turn their backs on their boy and on Sunday 2 May, 1976, Pompey's heartland was decked in red and white to welcome the Wembley hero back home.

Cousin Maria Johnson remembers the day well, as hundreds of people lined the street for a glimpse of the cup final hero.

"I don't think it bothered the Paulsgrove people he was playing for Southampton at all. Most of them supported him anyway," she told BBC South Today.

"There was red and white bunting, all to welcome Bobby home. They weren't celebrating Southampton as such, but Bobby - the local boy done good."

From fringe player to Wembley hero

Daily Express front page - 1 May 1976
The Daily Express gave Southampton no chance on the morning of the 1976 final

Six months before that May Day afternoon, Stokes might have left The Dell, Southampton's former home.

Transfer-listed by the club in November 1975, he turned down the chance of a swap deal with Portsmouth's Paul Went, and reportedly said: "I just don't think it's the right move."

How right he proved to be.

"These were the days when teams were only allowed one substitute, there were finer margins," Sanderson said.

Stokes was ever-present in Saints' run to the final, scoring against West Brom and Blackpool in the fourth and fifth rounds before his iconic goal against United.

"The cup final was one of the very few games shown on television," Sanderson added. "So whether it's grandparents or kids, all around the country they now knew who he was."

Life was about to change for Stokes and his family.

"Everything was mayhem, everyone was cheering," recalls Johnson. "I wore his semi-final shirt. It was just wonderful for him, and for us really."

David Coleman's Match of the Day commentary famously mentioned how the goal won Stokes not just the cup, but a Ford Granada car as well.

However, he was never able to drive it despite being filmed at team-mate Mick Channon's testimonial the following Monday, sat on the bonnet with his L-Plates.

He would catch the train to training from Southsea every day. Nobody knows what happened to the Granada.

From Wembley Way to Giants Stadium

Southampton's original 1976 open-top bus
Members of the 1976 Southampton FA Cup final team will parade through the city on the original open-top bus on Sunday

Despite his Wembley winner, Stokes would start only eight more games for Saints.

McMenemy was looking to shuffle his pack and, most importantly, secure Southampton promotion back to the first division.

Stokes found himself dropped after the first game of the season and after Ted MacDougall's arrival from Norwich, he was sold to Washington Diplomats in the North American Soccer League.

"In those days the American season was played in the summer," said Sanderson. "So he played in the summer of 1977, had seven months at Portsmouth in the 1977-78 season and then came back to the UK in 1980."

During his time in the USA, Stokes scored the winning goal in New York against the Cosmos in front of 50,000 people at the Giants Stadium.

Within a year of that goal against the likes of Pele and Bobby Moore, he was making his debut for non-league Chichester City.

A life ended too soon

After retiring, Stokes went into coaching and worked in a number of soccer schools alongside Wembley team-mate Peter Osgood.

He ran a pub called the Manor House in Cosham, near Portsmouth, before working alongside cousin Maria at the Harbour View Cafe down at The Hard in Portsmouth.

Bronchial pneumonia sadly caused his death at the age of just 44 in May 1995 in the same Paulsgrove house where he was born and to which he returned as a hero in May 1976.

"He was a lovely man, so kind, ever so thoughtful," she said. "He wasn't well. His marriage broke up and I don't think he had come to terms with it.

"When I knew he wasn't well, I took him home. His mum and dad nursed him until the day he died.

"He was a pleasure to know and I'm proud of him and I know his mum and dad would be too."

Bobby Stokes working at the Harbour View Cafe in Portsmouth
Bobby Stokes at work at Portsmouth's Harbour View Cafe following retirement

Stokes' cult status among Southampton fans lives on.

His surviving Wembley team-mates will parade through the city centre on the same open-top bus from 40 years ago before the Premier League match against Manchester City at St Mary's on Sunday.

"I don't like to think of it (Stokes' premature death) as a downward spiral," Sanderson added.

"If you score that goal, it's probably going to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Bobby might have died at a young age, but he packed a lot of life into those 44 years."

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