“I could see it all opening up. When Micky flicked it on… all I’m looking at is lifting it over the defence and making sure it doesn’t run on to Alex Stepney. It worked out perfectly.”
The most iconic assist in Southampton history belongs to Jim McCalliog, 76 today, Saints’ creator-in-chief in ’76, as the club won its first major trophy and McCalliog his first FA Cup, ten years after suffering Wembley heartache in his last final.
The pain of that defeat is still detectable in the Scot’s Glaswegian accent, more than half a century later, as an early goal from 19-year-old McCalliog set Sheffield Wednesday on their way to victory over Everton. The Owls later doubled their lead in the second half, only to lose the final to three goals in 15 minutes.
A year later, McCalliog’s Wembley fortunes were reversed, as again he was on the scoresheet but this time in triumph, as Scotland defeated reigning world champions England in their own back yard. It is a result that will forever hold legendary status north of the border.
Another nine years would pass before the midfielder would return to the Twin Towers. Now 29, McCalliog had spent five years with Wolves before joining Saints from Manchester United in 1975.
It was in his first full season at The Dell that Saints, then in the Second Division, embarked on their greatest cup run of all. It began with an early top-flight scalp, via a replay at Villa Park, setting the tone for what was to follow.
“The start was really difficult,” McCalliog recalls. “Villa was a tough game. I thought we were a First Division team, to be honest, and probably beating them proved my point.
“We had a lot of good players, international players in our team, and it was good to get through against Villa. West Brom were a tough side as well, so those two games were the hardest early on.”
Having defeated Blackpool in between, Saints advanced to the quarter-finals, where McCalliog’s audacious volleyed free-kick earned victory at Fourth Division Bradford.
He tells of how he’d “lark about” in training with Peter Osgood, but even his former Chelsea teammate was not expecting McCalliog to want the ball chipped into his path in the 41st minute at Valley Parade.
“Once you get to the quarter-final, I’d been there before with Sheffield Wednesday ten years previously, you’re beginning to think, ‘can we do it?’
“When Os (Osgood) got the ball, he said, ‘what are you doing?’ I said, ‘just lift it up but lift it forward. As long as it goes forward, it shouldn’t be a problem.
“We never did it, ever.”
Osgood duly delivered and McCalliog connected sweetly on the volley, as the ball dipped over the wall and nestled just inside Peter Downsborough’s left-hand post.
In the hat for the semi-finals were Second Division Saints and Third Division Crystal Palace, along with United and Derby County, who were both flying high in the top tier. The Rams were the reigning league champions.
“We all sat in the dressing room when the draw came out. Man U and Derby were the first two teams out of the hat, and me, Micky (Channon), Os and I think Steeley (Jim Steele) all jumped up together, because we knew we were left with Crystal Palace.
“No problem, I thought it would be fine. But I remember we played up at Sunderland, and I was talking to Terry Venables on the way back from Sunderland to London.
“Terry was trying to get in my head, saying ‘we’re going to beat you, Jim,’ me knowing Terry from our Chelsea days, but I just gave his face a wee slap and said ‘I don’t listen to that rubbish.’”
Venables, a future England boss, was on the coaching staff at Palace, but McCalliog had the last laugh, as goals in the last 20 minutes from Paul Gilchrist and David Peach booked Saints’ place at Wembley for the club’s first final since 1902.
And so McCalliog’s Wembley story had a long-awaited trilogy, against his former club no less, who were heavy favourites to lift the trophy for the fourth time.
“I thought the bookmakers got it terribly wrong,” he says, his voice taking a stern turn. “To offer 6/1 in a cup final with the players we had in our team I thought was a bit of a joke. They totally got that wrong.
“Little things motivate you, like I said with Terry Venables. I was just looking forward to getting a winner’s medal – I’d already got a loser’s medal ten years ago, and trust me it was one of the worst moments of my football career, to lose a cup final, especially when you’re 2-0 up. That was quite unbelievable really.
“I loved my time at United, but the thing that was always in my head, and I was always very much in touch with it, was that even though you enjoyed your time at another club, you play for the team that’s paying your wages and you play for the supporters.
“That was the thing in my head – to win the cup for the supporters, because the supporters really came out of their shell a bit, because Southampton fans were a bit reserved back in the day, I thought.
“The northern clubs and especially the clubs up in Scotland, they were quite boisterous. I’d been used to that, but at Southampton they were a bit more reserved. Once we started on the cup run, they were absolutely behind us, and at Wembley especially in the final, they done us proud, they were magnificent.”
With his Wembley history still lingering in the back of his mind, McCalliog had the good omen he wanted at the coin toss.
“That was the first time since the Scotland and England game, so going back again it felt familiar, it felt good,” he says.
“I was perhaps in the back of my head hoping that in the second half we’d be shooting into the tunnel because that’s where I got my goals – the one in the FA Cup and the one against England, they were in the tunnel end goal, and we were shooting that way in the second half, so I was really happy about that.
“Lots of little things like that go through your head. I’ve always been a thinking footballer, that’s been my forte.”
Saints, by McCalliog’s own admission, were second best early on. Goalkeeper Ian Turner denied Steve Coppell, Stuart Pearson, Sammy McIlroy and Gordon Hill, before the yellow-shirted midfield maestro spotted the run of his good friend Channon, and picked him out with a clipped pass over the top. We’d be seeing more of that.
“I was a little bit disappointed with Micky when I put him through in the first half and he hit the goalkeeper,” he admits.
“But having looked at that a few times, I think the goalkeeper was really quite lucky with that – he happened to have his left foot out, and he just reacted, and Micky put it down at his left side and the ball’s been cleared.
“I thought we weathered the storm and then started to come into the game a little bit, but that was the best chance in the first half – especially for us.
“Coming into the second half, I was pretty confident we were ok. I didn’t think they were going to overrun us, which is what a lot of the press were saying, but I thought the more the game went on, the more chance we had of winning it.”
Saints survived another scare after the interval when McIlroy headed against Turner’s crossbar from close range, but the 23-year-old goalkeeper was rarely troubled again, as Saints grew in confidence. “They were a young side and they were fit, but I think because we held out, it dented their confidence a little bit,” McCalliog added.
Saints boss Lawrie McMenemy, meanwhile, was still in his 30s and only three years into his 12-year reign in the dugout, and liked to confide in his senior pros.
“Lawrie was quite an inexperienced manager, so I think he was leaning more on Micky, myself, Ossy (Osgood) and Pedro (Saints captain Peter Rodrigues) – he was listening to what we were saying a little bit, and maybe telling that to the other players.
“I told Lawrie about Man United and I’d said to him that once they clear their lines, they’ll come out to try and catch people offside.
“I said our strikers would have to make sure they came out with them to make sure they weren’t offside, and then somebody from midfield could get in behind them as they were coming out.”
The “thinking footballer” had concocted a plan that had already proved effective in the first half, only for goalkeeper Stepney to thwart Channon, Saints’ chief goal threat, who was still an England regular despite playing his club football outside the top division.
With seven minutes left, when a high goal kick from Turner sailed over Gilchrist, the plan worked.
“I could see it all opening up,” McCalliog explains, fondly. “When Micky flicked it on – and he was very good at that, because when you were supporting Micky he could flick it on in such a way that you’d be in the position to make your next move, the ball wasn’t running away from you, he’d taken the pace out of the ball – all I’m looking at is lifting it over the defence and making sure it doesn’t run on to Alex Stepney. It worked out perfectly.”
All of a sudden, Bobby Stokes had set off on a run from deep and was in behind the United defence – just as McCalliog had pictured it.
When the ball checked back on the turf, his mind was made up to shoot the bouncing ball first time, 20 yards from goal, before Stepney had time to set himself.
“I’d cushioned the ball so that when it bounced, it wouldn’t run on, it would actually come back to Bobby, similar to the one with Micky in the first half,” says the supplier.
“Bobby twisted his body round – he was a good technical player and he could hit a ball with both feet; he was good at volleying a ball as well. In fact, if Bobby had a bit more confidence in himself he would’ve been an even better player than he was.
“As he’s gone with his body to get himself in a proper position, I think Alex Stepney was in the process of moving out, thinking, ‘he’s not going to get this under control’, but he hit it beautifully and it’s gone in the far corner.”
Cue pandemonium inside the national stadium, as the yellow-painted Saints end erupted.
But whilst Stokes was mobbed by his teammates, McCalliog made a beeline for the dugout. A gentle reminder to McMenemy that the plan had worked?
“He’ll not believe that, he’s a legend in his own lunchtime!” the Scot quips.
“Honestly, I thought there was more time left,” he says of the nervous wait for the most euphoric whistle in Southampton history. “It really did go quick. I thought it would drag on, but it didn’t.
“I remember the ball going up to just outside our box, around about Peachy and Steeley, and seemingly Clive Thomas (the referee) said to David Peach, ‘congratulations, you’ve won the FA Cup.’ I wish he’d told me that!”
What happened next is a moment that has taken on even greater prominence over the past fortnight, as Saints skipper Rodrigues led his conquerors up the famous 39 steps to be greeted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who was about to hand over the trophy for the very last time at domestic football’s showpiece event.
“Ten years previous, Princess Margaret was at the game, so that meant I’d met the two sisters,” McCalliog says, proudly.
“She (The Queen) was handing out the medals and she had a lovely smile. Like a lot of people have reported, she had lovely skin. They were both lovely people with lovely smiles.”
Perhaps not quite as significant as his contribution to the goal, another piece of McCalliog’s advice that was taken on board was to keep the celebrations to Saints’ inner circle, heading to The Talk of the Town in Leicester Square, before the party resumed back in Southampton the following day, where the whole city was invited and its people rather less reserved.
“We told Lawrie about this, because when I played in 1966 we had a banquet after the game, and there were people at that banquet and I had no idea who they were.
“I said to Lawrie, ‘you don’t want to fall into that trap – win or lose, you want to have the people of Southampton, your staff, that’s the kind of people you want at your banquet.
“That worked out really good, we had a great night out in Leicester Square, we all went back to the hotel, and the next morning we all travelled down to Eastleigh and picked up the open deck bus.
“That was unbelievable. We had a big box of champagne at the front of the bus and we were just drinking the champagne, it was brilliant.
“There were people all over the streets, there were guys on top of the pub roofs, it was so good. We were busy pointing out people and where they were. For that to happen in Southampton was quite unheard of.
“We played Micky’s testimonial on the Monday night after the final and we were still drunk from all the celebrations!”
Remarkably, 46 years later, Southampton still waits to experience anything of the like again.
There have been near misses – the 1979 and 2017 League Cup finals, and most notably the FA Cup final at the Millennium Stadium in 2003, with the cast of ’76 in tow.
But whilst the legendary status of McCalliog and co. is enhanced with each trophyless year that passes, the brains behind Saints’ finest hour still longs to witness a repeat, and to share the joy he experienced with the class of 2022/23.
“I would like them to do it,” he says. “I thought they were going to do it with Gordon Strachan. We were invited to Cardiff, which was lovely, when they played Arsenal, and I thought they were going to do it then.
“I would rather Southampton have success than that carry on and on and on. We had our day, we really enjoyed it, it’s nice to be remembered, but football moves on.
“I still think there’s a place for nostalgia in football because there’s a lot of wonderful players that were in the team and it’s nice to see them getting publicity and things like that.
“There were quite a lot of young boys in the team and they did the experienced players proud on the day – and I think we did the same for them.”