There was something fittingly romantic about Bobby Stokes scoring the goal that won Southampton their one and only FA Cup in 1976. This was the triumph that wasn’t supposed to happen - the goal scored by the player who probably wasn’t meant to.

Led by Tommy Docherty, Manchester United were in a period of renaissance, finishing the 1975/76 season third in the First Division. Southampton ended up sixth in the Second. The bookies hardly gave them a chance and most neutrals assumed the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

As manager Lawrie McMenemy himself admits 46 years on: “nobody expected us to win, even our own supporters were just delighted we’d got to the final!”

But in one game, anything can happen. And it’s not as if Southampton didn’t have their own star power. Mick Channon played 46 times for England and scored more than 228 Saints goals. Peter Osgood led Chelsea to FA Cup triumph six years earlier. Captain Peter Rodrigues played 40 times for Wales. Jim McCalliog was a Scottish international.

Then there were the…non-stars, let’s say.

Daily Echo: Bobby Stokes waves to the crowd of Saints fans. Image by: PABobby Stokes waves to the crowd of Saints fans. Image by: PA

“We used to say in the dressing room that we had violinists and road-sweepers,” 1976 Cup Final starting left-back David Peach chuckles. “We were the road-sweepers and they were the violinists. They could win you a game from nothing and we were the road-sweepers that gave them a chance! You need the road-sweepers to make the violinists - and we had both. Bobby was a road-sweeper with us.”

It’s a sentiment manager Lawrie McMenemy brings up: “We had Peter, Mick…even Alan Ball around that time…big, big names, international footballers. Bobby always gave 110%, worked and worked and he realised that he was surrounded by high-quality players and he was grateful for that opportunity. He wasn't a regular goalscorer but he got the ones that mattered and the biggest single one at Wembley.”

Michael Channon, son of Saints legend Mick, grew up knowing Bobby Stokes as Uncle Bob. “I don't remember Bobby not being there, just part of the family really,” he says. “My dad was best mates with Bob but then again, Bob was best mates with everyone!”

Just 18 months old at the time of the epic Wembley afternoon, Michael was raised with the stories of 1976 and the legends of the triumph around him. “Everything about that game was romantic,” he says. “It was a terrible game, but who cares about that! 8/1 were the odds in a two-horse race!”

It probably shouldn’t have happened - none of this SHOULD have happened - but with one almighty swing of Bobby Stokes’ left boot it did happen. Saints were FA Cup victors.

Daily Echo: Southampton celebrate their epic FA Cup triumph.Southampton celebrate their epic FA Cup triumph.

In truth, it just had to be a road-sweeper who came up with the biggest of big moments on this day of David vs Goliath. With temperatures in London nearly reaching 40 degrees celsius, Southampton had to graft and graft just to stay in the game.

McMenemy laughs as he looks back on the relative absurdity of United’s opening onslaught in which a string of impressive Ian Turner saves kept the game at 0-0.

“The first 20 minutes or so, our goalkeeper, who was not a big name or anything, kept us alive,” the Saints legend explains. “He stopped the ball with every part of his body, his backside, his ankle. We could have been two or three goals down in the first 20 minutes!”

Perhaps it was the heat or the psychological blow United felt from missing chances, but that was the best they had to offer.

As McMenemy says, his side “gradually got our share and it could have gone either way”.

Of course, it didn’t go either way - it went the way of the Second Division side in yellow. With time running thin, McCalliog chipped the ball over the United defence where Bobby Stokes was running in behind.

To this day, United fans of a certain age will insist it was offside but the flag stayed down and despite the ball falling just behind Stokes, he hit it early and sweetly to beat United keeper Alex Stepney.

Daily Echo: Alex Stepney is beaten by Bobby Stokes' shot. Image by: PAAlex Stepney is beaten by Bobby Stokes' shot. Image by: PA

After just seven more minutes - seven minutes that McMenemy describes as a “lifetime” - the final whistle went.

“That was the way it had to be - it was like a fairytale from the start,” Peach says.

“Peter Osgood should have (scored), Mick Channon should have in terms of what the headline writers wanted to happen,” Michael Channon continues. “But what a great story. A little lad from Pompey who signed for Southampton instead of his hometown club, scored the winner in the 83rd minute against one of the biggest sides in the world for a Second Division team who had no chance at all.”

Historic goal aside, Bobby Stokes’ role both in this team making their unlikely run can not be understated.

“He was the grafter, he was the worker,” McMenemy explains. “He was a forward who dropped into midfield to help them out. Then when the ball went up he would chase to help them as well. He was a terrific hard-working player who didn’t have any airs or graces at all.”

On the pitch was where Stokes’ lasting moment occurred. But it was off of it where Bobby Stokes the human, rather than Bobby Stokes the footballer, truly shined.

Daily Echo: Saints player run to mob Bobby Stokes after scoring. Image by: PASaints player run to mob Bobby Stokes after scoring. Image by: PA

“Ossie was adored but Bobby was loved,” Michael says. “Bobby was one of the boys. But he was one of the boys who was very self-deprecating. He didn’t shun the limelight but he didn’t seek it out either. 

“Peter (Osgood) was gregarious, he had the big ego, he was a superstar. But Peter buzzed off the dry humour that Bobby brought to the room. And everyone did. They used to give him the nickname ‘the rat.’ He was the bloke that everyone would take the piss out of, but he would come back with a line that was so dry and self-effacing that everyone would just be in hysterics. It wasn’t bullying in any way, it was affectionate, so affectionate.

"He’d fill in the gaps after the big egos had thrown their thunder into the room and in many ways, Bobby would be funnier than all of them combined.”

Talk to anyone who had the pleasure of knowing Bobby Stokes and there was something about the energy he gave to others that made him so special.

Ted Bates called him “a great little man for team spirit”, the “jewel in the dressing-room.”

“My memory of Bobby is he was a great lad,” Peach who himself played 282 times for Saints recalls. “Full of laughter, full of fun, enjoyed his life to the fullest and what he achieved was something everybody dreamed of. Seeing his face in the morning just brightened your day because he would always have a great big grin across his chops.”

Unsurprisingly, the goal at Wembley would prove to be the high-water mark for Bobby Stokes’ Southampton career but the fall came quicker than most would have expected. Intending to rebuild for a promotion push, McMenemy quickly dismantled the FA Cup winning team and Stokes was sold to American side Washington Diplomats in May 1977. 

He went on to spend his summers with the Diplomats and winters with a flurry of lower-league sides in England - including a brief spell for Portsmouth before his career came to an end.

Returning to the outskirts of Southampton following his retirement, Stokes remained close to many of the Saints teammates he shared the 1976 FA Cup triumph with - not least the Channons, both families still incredibly close today.

Daily Echo: Saints captain Peter Rodrigues is congratulated by the Queen.Saints captain Peter Rodrigues is congratulated by the Queen.

Bobby was given a Ford Granada for scoring the cup-winning goal, but he didn’t actually know how to drive. That was a responsibility that fell on Michael Channon’s shoulders once he reached the age to get his own license. Michael was happy to do it, but he also wasn’t really given a choice - simply instructed by Osgood when and where to pick Stokes up.

One afternoon they went to Wembley for a charity day in which Stokes was helping coach disadvantaged kids. He joined Osgood, Alan Ball and former Norwich and West Ham midfielder Graham Paddon. All three were respected and established coaches. Stokes worked in a cafe run by his cousin.

That fact didn’t deter him in the slightest. Just as in those days of the Saints dressing room where Stokes knew his place as the ‘rat’, there to make everyone else happier, he took this as a personal challenge to give the kids present an unforgettable day. 

“Bobby wasn’t interested in improving them as footballers,” Michael laughs. “And the kids loved him! He just wanted everyone to have a good time - just giving everyone fun.”

Stokes lined up on the spot of the hallowed Wembley turf where he had scored his winner and each kid was given the chance to shoot at goal (with Michael as goalkeeper) and also be FA Cup heroes. 

It’s a story that Michael feels sums up his dear friend perfectly - someone who prioritised others’ happiness above his own.

Amidst all of this, there’s no escaping that Bobby Stokes’ story is a tragedy. On May 30th 1995, he passed away at the age of 44 from bronchial pneumonia. There’s no doubt it seems that Bobby Stokes went down a dark path, enduring struggles with alcohol while his health continued to deteriorate following the break-up of his marriage.

“The kindness never left him but he didn’t look after himself,” Michael says. “I don’t remember any nastiness. Bobby never cried out for help, he never abused anyone, he was never nasty. When I think of Bobby, I think of the horrible sadness and the tragedy - hopefully, these days we can reach out and cry for help. But Bob wasn’t like that, he was so understated in everything he did and maybe that was a problem.”

Daily Echo: Saints' victory parade after the 1976 FA Cup victory. Image by: PASaints' victory parade after the 1976 FA Cup victory. Image by: PA

Perhaps if there’s one lesson to learn from Stokes’ story it’s this one: anyone can be struggling and many do struggle in silence.

“Extraordinarily ordinary” is how Michael describes his Uncle Bob and some think his moment of epic history and fame didn’t go well with the ordinary lad he was. 

McMenemy tells a story of the victory parade the Saints players embarked on after winning the Cup. The streets of Southampton were packed to the point where the 20-30 minute route took hours. The crowd was delighted to serenade each and every member of this monumental achievement but there was one man they screamed for loudest: Bobby Stokes.

McMenemy says he was shy to accept their applause and it’s a theme that many have brought up since that day. Some believe his struggles with sudden fame contributed to his early death.

Daily Echo: McMenemy with Saints' payer Nick Holmes. Image by: PAMcMenemy with Saints' payer Nick Holmes. Image by: PA

That’s not a view shared by David Peach or Michael Channon in our conversations.

“He would’ve sooner scored it than not scored it!” Peach says. “That’s what you want to do in your life if you’re a footballer - would you want to score a winning goal at Wembley? Forget about whether he was the right person or not, he scored it and that was Bobby’s life. We never know what could go wrong in life anyways, do we?”

“It’s terrible what happened to him but I don’t think it was because of the Cup Final,” Michael says. “There are millions of people who develop problems and it doesn’t have to do with something 20 years before. I could never imagine Bobby going ‘it was because of the Cup Final.’”

Bobby himself called May 1st, 1976 the “greatest day of my life” just a few months before he passed away. For as long as anyone can remember he proudly displayed the golden boot he was awarded for scoring the goal in the front room of his house. While it may be a convenient leap, it doesn’t seem completely fair to fault the direction of his life on that moment in the heat of Wembley.

Legacy is never an easy thing to define and legacy differs depending on who you’re talking to. To most, Bobby Stokes’ legacy will forever be that golden boot on his mantlepiece, celebrating and commemorating the greatest moment in Southampton Football Club history.

But his legacy isn’t limited to the joy he gave people transcendently. Bobby Stokes’ legacy is built on the joy he gave to those who knew him on a day-to-day basis. Those he made smile with his massive grin. Those he made laugh with his ridiculously quick and self-deprecating humour. The team he made better with his willingness to be a road-sweeper. And the fellow Saints he made happier by playing the part of the rat, the butt of the joke and ultimately, the light that helped illuminate others.

“People say superstars light up the room, Bobby was like the table-lamp in the corner,” Michael says. “He never drew attention to himself but he was just a brilliant bloke. I’m protective of my friend who’s long gone. I don’t want him to be seen as a tragic figure even though what happened was tragic to all of us.”

Bobby Stokes should continue to be remembered for his moment that crowned Southampton as the unlikeliest of FA Cup winners at a time when the FA Cup was the peak of footballing dreams. The feelings he gave Saints fans will be etched in memory forever.

But even more so, Bobby Stokes should be remembered for the person he was outside of the 83rd minute at Wembley - complicated and undoubtedly flawed - but also hilarious to the extreme, kind, and a provider of joy to others. 

And here’s the thing about Bobby Stokes - the ultimate road-sweeper: he scored goals too - quite a lot of them in the end. Over the course of his Saints career he scored 55 times, at an average of more than 10 per season.

He may have been the unlikeliest of FA Cup winners in terms of name and dressing room character. But for one moment in front of goal, Stokes knew what he was doing. As he proved to Alex Stepney and the watching world.