The Day the Saints Beat the Devils: The Peter Rodrigues Interview

by Mark O Toole

With 35 years elapsed since Second Division Southampton beat Man United in the FA Cup final Mark O’Toole spoke to the Southampton captain that day Peter Rodrigues on that unlikely victory and playing in the last FA Cup final that Man City won in 1969.

The 1976 FA Cup-winning captain of Southampton Peter Rodrigues watched the 144th FA Cup final as a neutral in the Algarve.

Having “dashed off “in a camper van to travel around Europe for the past two years his plan of action was to have an “early lunch up in the mountains, come back and find a little bar and watch the cup final.”

He has says he has a special affinity with Man City despite them dealing him his first major heartache in the FA Cup with Leicester in 1969. At the same time also empathised with the scrappy underdog spirit of Stoke as they took on the nouveau riche glamour of Sheikh Mansour’s Sky Blues.

This is because 35 years ago his side, the unfancied 5/1 outsiders of Southampton from the old Second Division took on the might of City’s neighbours and rivals Man United at Wembley and won.

1969: FA Cup Heartbreak

Rodrigues has regularly found himself holding court with a set of football fans since being recognised in a bar near where he is staying prior to returning home to Britain in three months time.

When it is mentioned to him that City’s last FA Cup triumph coincided with his own FA Cup final defeat as a tough-tackling full back with Leicester in 1969, he mentions how the final was brought up in the bar and one customer bought him a copy of the final on DVD. “Yeah they were talking about it in the bar the other day and we ran through it and, you know, I thought we got hammered until I saw the video and it was closer than I thought on the day.”

Leicester only lost the final by a goal scored by the late Neil Young, whose death earlier this year saddened Peter when he heard.

Rodrigues also reflects that, despite the final being a lot closer than he thought when viewing it again, he still missed Leicester’s best chance of the day as his fellow bar customers pointed out.  “Oh yes that was highlighted, two chances in a split second… One came across on the left and I missed it on the left peg, it ricocheted off someone else’s shin and then it came back to me and I scuffed it with my right foot. It was only when I got back to the half-way line that I thought ‘My goodness, I’ve missed it’ and then it took all those years before I saw the match again, and the match was a different story to what I tell, but it was the same miss basically.”

1976: The Cinderella Story

Fast forward seven years and at 31 years of age Rodrigues would have been forgiven for thinking that his shot at cup glory was well and truly over.

“I had just got a free transfer from Sheffield United. I had started to look for a profession outside football” Rodrigues explains before future Northern Ireland boss Lawrie McMenemy brought him as cover for the injured Steve Mills.

“Lawrie plucked me for the last two years of my career to play for him because his full back was in a car crash and he wanted me short term.  He gave me a two year contract but said if the guy (Mills) was fit in six games he plays, because you’re 31 and he’s 21 and I’m not silly. In my mind I was finished at that point, but managed to get a two-year contract.”

Mills injury didn’t clear up and Rodrigues was in the side, even more unlikely still, he was made captain in his first season. “Mick Channon was skipper and I don’t think he and Lawrie were seeing eye-to-eye and he went in and gave up the captaincy.”

“It was only after the cup final in an interview on TV that Lawrie was asked how I became captain that I found out why he selected me. I think Lawrie’s statement was that he went into the dressing room and saw a 40-cap international with 450 league games behind him and thought ‘That’ll do’ and he gave me the job thankfully.”

If Rodrigues’ road to redemption from the 1969 final was movie-script stuff, equally so was Southampton beating seven teams en route to the final, while only finishing sixth in the Second Division that year. Reaching the final with a chance to beat the most glamorous side in English club football in Man United was a fairytale.

Like most fairytales though, it didn’t start too well for the Saints as the former Welsh international explains, “We were in the coach travelling up Wembley Way when this guy stumbled on the kerb, the bus clipped him and everybody stood up. It didn’t matter if it was a Man United or Southampton supporter, we were all very concerned.”

The players were agitated following the incident as they got into the dressing room. Their boss Lawrie McMenemy decided to calm his players by checking on the man personally. There was a lot of tension in dressingroom. “When he came back into the dressing room we all looked up longingly and Lawrie confirmed that the chap was okay, so then we could concentrate.”

No one had given Southampton or Rodrigues a chance that day against the pace and trickery of United’s wingers, Steve Coppell and Eamon Dunphy’s Millwall nemesis Gordon Hill, but there was an unusual confidence amongst the Southampton squad according to Peter. “If you look at the interviews before the final with Mick Channon, Peter Osgood, Jim McCalliog and myself – we weren’t brash, but we were quietly confident even though you are coming up against this giant club. We had a good balance of both youth and experience and as long as we felt that we could hold on in the first ten or fifteen minutes we had every chance of doing very well.”

The match panned out as the Southampton players foresaw including an opening onslaught from the Red Devils, “ If you have ever seen the game, the first fifteen minutes we were absolutely all over the place against the Man United youngsters who were some cracking players. We sort of weathered the storm after fifteen or twenty minutes so we felt ‘Well there we go, we’ve done one part of the job so lets see if we can get a goal’ and fortunately it eventually came. So hand on heart I think we deserved to win it, despite the magnificent club that they are, I wasn’t surprised with the victory.”

The single goal of the match goal, an 82nd minute half-volley from Bobby Stokes has been firmly lodged in the mythos of the FA Cup’s giant-killing phenomenon, but what about the performance of the veteran right-back ? Had he redeemed himself on a personal level from the 1969 final ?

“Well the Man United wingers were going to destroy the two fullbacks, myself and David Peach. We had a job to do, we went out and did it. Hill was taken off, I felt I did my job.”

Leaving Football

The FA Cup final was Rodrigues’ peak to bow out on.

The following season he was persistently injured and he exited gracefully, feeling that his penultimate season at the Saints was an extension to a career he had thought was over. “Lawrie told me I’m not up to it anymore and I accepted that. I’m a realist in that sense. So I was happy to move away with that under my belt and I think I’m one of only 143 times that a captain has lifted that cup – so if I can’t be proud of that, I can’t be proud of anything.”

At the bar the other night Peter was asked where his cup final medal was. “It’s a long story and it’s a family-feud-type thing. It’s now in the front reception of Southampton, which is fine, it’s back where it should be.”

Peter’s medal was sold without his consent, but as it transpired it was actually bought by Southampton’s then chairman the unorthodox and controversial Rupert Lowe. Peter hopes that after a “fantastic year” that has seen Southampton promoted to the Championship that the medal might inspire them to greater heights again.

2011: David or Goliath?

As for this year’s champions, Peter has a fondness for Man City that wouldn’t extend to other neutrals drinking in that little bar in Portugal.

“Well, I’ve got a soft spot in all fairness for Man City and the people who surrounded the club, they were a lovely club and they had a lot of nice people around in that era,” says Rodrigues whose connections to the club follow through to modern times with his brother-in-law Mark Allen who is City’s Academy Director.  “I was the first person he told when he got his job and I’m very happy for him because he’s such a lovely person so I have a bit of an affinity for Man City you could say.”

Despite the affinity for Man City he can also relate to Stoke having been beaten narrowly in a cup by Man City himself.

Rodrigues has some advise for Stoke and all those clubs who attempt to replicate that rare giant-killing moment of 35 years ago. Victories of that nature can’t be boiled down to science, tactics or technique according to Peter, but mentality. “You don’t need a coach against Man United or Man City, you have seen them time and time again. Go play them – don’t feel inferior to these players! It’s a one-off game. You have your formation and your tactics and they have to be applied, but at the end of the day your determination within you will hopefully be enough.”

That’s the carefree spirit of Rodrigues who downed tools and has travelled the continent for the past two years.

The spirit that in today’s sterile, money-dominated world of English football that has made Southampton’s feat all those years ago still memorable today.

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