Mabbutt: No. 1 a lucky omen for Spurs
Reaching the top of the Wembley steps, the adrenaline still pumping and the euphoria building, you wrap your hands tightly around the glistening handles. With lips pursed, you slowly turn around, plant a loving kiss on the trophy and hoist it above your head to the thunderous applause of a partisan crowd.
Lifting the FA Cup at Wembley - usually after having scored a sensational winner - is a fantasy that still occupies the hearts and minds of football-loving children and adults from Chelsea to Carlisle. For the English football fan it is the quintessential dream of glory and, even amongst all the petulance and theatrics of a money-driven modern game, there remains a charming romanticism associated with the FA Cup.
There are few clubs with a prouder tradition in the competition than Tottenham Hotspur. In fact, if that assessment was based wholly on trophies, there are just two. Only Manchester United and Arsenal can boast more triumphs than Spurs and this is despite the club's failure to taste glory since 1991. The annual murmurings around White Hart Lane have begun once again in earnest as whispers of 'it could be our year' and 'it's ours this time, as the year ends in one' grow ever more audible.
The latter observation is a remarkable statistical superstition that has hung around the club for many years. Former Spurs skipper Gary Mabbutt has never been bothered by spilling salt; he has always been happy to plonk new pairs of boots onto tables, and in his 16 years at White Hart Lane managed to resist the temptation to pin a rabbit's foot to his peg in the home dressing room. But while Mabbutt may not be outwardly superstitious, he admits that there appears to be a touch of predestination about the pattern of Tottenham's FA Cup triumphs.
"At Spurs we always have this thing about when the year ends in one," Mabbutt explains to ESPNsoccernet. "Out of ten years that ended in one during the last century, we won the FA Cup on five occasions. The Spurs fans believe in that and the way the team's playing this season, there's no reason they shouldn't be able to rise to the occasion in 2011.
"I was involved in the '91 cup final and before then Spurs had also won it in 1901, '21, '61 and '81. It is an unusual stat but we've won the FA Cup eight times and five of those have been in a year that ended in one! The fans love to believe in lucky omens and it's always been brought up at Spurs - the 1991 FA Cup final song by Chas n Dave was even called 'When the year ends in one'.
"Spurs are third on the all-time winners list behind Arsenal and Manchester United - so it has always been a special part of the club's history. It's the biggest domestic cup competition in the world, I've been lucky enough to travel a lot since I finished playing and everyone seems to know about the FA Cup and have their own memories."
Tottenham's current crop are now looking to create some new cup memories, and their quest for a first triumph in two decades continues with a fourth-round visit to Craven Cottage on Sunday, live on ESPN UK. Spurs knocked Fulham out of the competition at the quarter-final stage last season, before being dumped out themselves in a semi-final shock at the hands of doomed Portsmouth. And while Mabbutt, Spurs' 1991 FA Cup winning captain and defensive rock, admits that he has some concerns over the club's backline at the moment, he believes Harry Redknapp's side have what it takes to see off the Cottagers.
"I think the biggest problem in defence is that we haven't been able to lay solid foundations. We've had so many injury problems with Ledley King being in and out and Michael Dawson missing for a while. There's been a lot of chopping and changing which obviously doesn't breed continuity and consistency. [Younes] Kaboul, [Sebastien] Bassong and [Vedran] Corluka have all had a go at centre back but I think Dawson and Gallas could form a formidable partnership if they were given the chance to play together often.
"Yes we have conceded some soft goals but Harry will be addressing that and we have been able to rely on some talented attacking players; we have got some excellent quality throughout the side - we can create and score goals from a number of positions. I think it's fair to say that focusing on attack has always been the Tottenham way, it's always been about trying to play good football and it's generally been the club's philosophy throughout its history.
"Fulham is always a tough place to go and we had a difficult league game at Craven Cottage earlier this season that we narrowly won 2-1. Of course, anything can happen in the FA Cup, but Harry will no doubt be as attack-minded as he has been all season. I think from the fans point of view, the FA Cup has got great traditions at Tottenham and it is a competition the club would dearly love to win again."
Mabbutt's own memories of the FA Cup are mixed to say the least. His first final with Tottenham in 1987 saw him score at both ends against Coventry, with his own goal at 2-2 proving the decisive contribution as overwhelming favourites Spurs were humbled 3-2 by the Sky Blues at Wembley.
"There are always highs and lows in life and I guess 1987 would be one of the lows," Mabbutt reminisces. "It was my first FA Cup final for Tottenham, we were the odds on favourites against Coventry and it was a great game of football. I scored a goal for Tottenham that people tend to forget about now, but it was my own goal that won it for Coventry.
"It was the first cup final Tottenham had ever lost; it was a depressing day. We had a good squad and a good team, but Coventry played incredibly well and came out victors. It just shows what the FA Cup is all about. I've been fortunate enough to be included on the shortlist for ESPNsoccernet's 'Cup of Dreams' fan poll and I'm hopeful I'll be included as one of the defenders in the all-time XI as I reckon a few Coventry fans will be voting for me!"
Four years after the despair of being a match-winner for the opposition at Wembley, Mabbutt returned to compete in one of the competition's most memorable finals. Spurs - minus Paul Gascoigne after he suffered a horrific self-inflicted injury in a clash with Gary Charles - came back from 1-0 down to beat Nottingham Forest 2-1 and give Tottenham's captain the opportunity to fulfil his childhood dream.
"Obviously I was a lot happier in 1991. We had beaten Arsenal in a huge semi-final - the first at Wembley - and they were the league champions so we stopped them being able to win the Double, which was one feather in our cap. The final was against Nottingham Forest and it was an incredible game. Stuart Pearce had given them the lead after Paul had gone off injured, but Terry Venables gave a great half-time talk and we went out and won. Rather ironically, it was an own goal by Des Walker that proved the winner.
"As a youngster I used to watch every FA Cup final, the whole day was an experience. We'd watch the build up and then, after seeing the winning captain lift the trophy, I would always go to the park with my brother and dad and play football. I remember having a Subbuteo FA Cup edition and they had a little plastic replica FA Cup; I used to run around the living room holding the trophy aloft. In 1991, when I was stood at the bottom of the steps at Wembley, I remembered back to then and thought how fortunate I was to be collecting the cup for real that day. The noise as you turn and lift the Cup to the fans is something I will never forget."
This year, another childhood dream will be realised at Wembley Stadium in May, but it remains to be seen whether it will be Spurs celebrating victory 'when the year ends in one'.
Gary Mabbutt was speaking on behalf of the ESPNsoccernet "Cup of Dreams" Fan Poll, where fans can log on to select their ultimate FA Cup dream team and enter a competition to win tickets to the FA Cup Final.