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By Mike Collett
There was nowhere quite like the Collette Restaurant and Snack Bar on FA Cup Final day at Wembley Stadium in the 1960s. Nowhere. It is the kind of place
people no longer eat in. Actually, even when it existed there weren’t too many places like it that people ate in, but on Cup Final day it was absolutely magical.
It stood less than half a mile away from the Twin Towers, opposite the entrance to Wembley Stadium mainline station and for me, for a time, it was even more
magical and exciting than actually being in the stadium itself.
Well that’s not quite true, because all I longed for was the chance to find a ticket.
I used to imagine, as I poured out another Kia-Ora orange from the huge dispenser or prised open the top of another bottle of Coke or Seven-Up that I would find one carelessly discarded amongst the empty cups or plates, or that someone would just walk in, and offer me, a gawky teenager, a ticket for the final.
You think like that when you are 15.
Without realising it at the time, the Collette gave me a privileged position among football fans, because I went to Wembley for the Cup Final every season.
The Cup finalists often stayed not far from where I lived, either at the Brent Bridge Hotel off the North Circular or at the Hendon Hall Hotel and I learnt very early exactly what the magic of the Cup meant, both to the players and the fans.
We used to go to the hotels to get the players autographs. Then on Cup Final day I’d find myself among the fans, listening to their conversations about their heroes I’d been with the day before.
The optimism of fans never changes before a Cup Final. No matter what colours, or rosettes then, they happened to be wearing, it was always thrilling. No-one ever admitted they were going to lose, ever.
The desolation of the losers never changed either. Losing fans don’t stick around for cups of tea afterwards. Winning fans would come back and order steak and chips.
Forty years on, and no matter what else the big clubs may be aiming to win today, there is still nowhere quite like Wembley on FA Cup Final day and those
days at the Collette helped me fall in love with the world’s greatest cup competition.
My Uncle Jack ran the place and added the final ‘e’ to the Collett name on the tiled shop-front sign to give it an air of refined European sophistication.
But you cannot imagine a place less likely to attract refined European sophisticates.
“What’s that last ‘e’ for, Uncle Jack?” I asked him once as I carried a huge pile of empty plates back to the kitchen where the amazing El Greco, the one-armed washer-up, worked on match days. In fact, he was about the nearest thing the Collette Restaurant & Snack Bar ever got to the European game. And despite his nickname, he was Italian and told me he used to play for Inter Milan.
“But you’ve only got one arm,” I would tease him.
“I was not the goalkeeper … and I’ve got two feet,” he’d reply, and there was no arguing with that.
I never asked him how he lost the arm, but he was certainly the most effective one-armed professional dish washer I’ve ever seen.
While El Greco stayed year after year and did the washing up, cooks came and went, but none could match Vi. She was formidable with a mane of jet black hair
and a personality that could fill a room, or even Wembley itself. There were often so many people in the tiny kitchen you had to walk sideways to get anywhere.
“We need more plates, Greco,” she would scream at the one-armed dishwasher. “So hurry up.” Another arm wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Uncle Jack had thought about the final ‘e’ on the end of the name and as I walked out of the kitchen, through a little corridor where he had his ‘office’ and used to type up things like ‘1965 FA Cup Final Menu Special’, he was waiting with his answer.
“People will think it’s Italian. Then it should have an ‘i’ on the end then and be Colletti,” replied his precocious nephew.
“They’ll think it’s French then,” he explained, as if that made a blind bit of difference.
All they wanted was a steak and kidney pie and chips, or steak and chips or beans on toast or egg and chips. I don’t think they’d heard of pasta at Wembley in 1965.
But you had to hand it to him, Uncle Jack was certainly a showman with an engaging style. Small, balding and with a fine moustache and a wonderful sense
of humour, he would also usually wear a long white coat while on duty on Cup Final day. It made him look like a cross between a doctor and a butcher, which
perhaps wasn’t a bad thing.
He was a cross between Arthur Lowe of Dad’s Army fame and the great Spurs fan and actor Warren Mitchell and had been something in the City before a career
swerve occurred. He ended up running this madhouse.
There were in fact three very distinct sections to it. The Snack Bar part, where I began working on match days as a 13 year-old, was at street level. The restaurant was up a winding staircase where about 25 tables occupied the whole floor.
There was a Juke Box in the corner and every time I hear Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay I can picture the sounds and smells of that restaurant as if it was
yesterday. In 1968 an Everton fan put in about £2 – a fortune at the time – and keyed in Dock of the Bay which played non-stop about 25 times for more than an hour. It must have been the high point of his day. West Bromwich beat them 1-0 with Jeff Astle’s extra-time winner.
One floor above the restaurant were the mysterious rooms which were let out to all kinds of equally mysterious people. I found out later that El Greco lived up there where he had a box with a wooden, gloved arm in it.
I rarely ventured to the rooms, but in 1965 Uncle Jack had a brilliant idea. Years before Sky TV came along, Jack, although he didn’t know it, I reckon,
invented Pay per View TV. There was no satellite technology involved here however. He just put a TV in an empty room and charged all those without
tickets still in the restaurant at kick-off time five shillings to watch the match. He made a killing.
There wasn’t a lot to do while the game was actually on, and once I had cleared up the empties, he let me sit in with the world’s first Pay Per View TV audience.
There might have been 100,000 actually in Wembley across the road to see Liverpool beat Leeds, but it seemed to me there were almost as many in that
bedroom, all of them Liverpool fans as I recall, all of them in suits and all of them delighted to be seeing the match on a tiny black-and-white Rediffusion TV set.
However ‘seeing the match’ might be something of an exaggeration. After a while the room became so full of smoke, wild language and Liverpool fans going crazy, it was amazing anyone could breathe, let alone work out what was being beamed live from 200 yards away.
My lasting memory of the 1965 Cup final is actually ‘seeing’ Ian St John’s winning header through a dense fug of Woodbine cloud and an ecstatic Scouser
hugging me half-to-death celebrating Liverpool’s first ever FA Cup win.
The following year, 1966, saw the Collette decked out in World Cup Willie paraphernalia and the place moved into overdrive with so many matches at
Wembley. Everton and Sheffield Wednesday came to town for the Cup Final and the Snack Bar was doing a roaring trade.
The tea urn was being drained in record time, the sandwiches were selling like hot cakes, which of course, we didn’t sell, bottles of coke were going by the
crateload. A Sheffield Wednesday fan came up to the bar.
“How much is a ham sandwich ?”
“Two and six,” I replied
“How much is cheese sandwich ?”
“Two and three.”
“And how much for teas?”
He thought for a moment or two. I didn’t know whether he was gonna hug me like that Scouser had or belt me.
“I’ll have two teas. I’m not paying your thieving London prices.”
I served him two teas. He drank one after the other and walked out. Strange people football folk. Wonderful people too.
It was April 11, 1970, about half past two and the Cup final between Chelsea and Leeds was less than half an hour away. As was usual, the Collette was emptying as fans went across to the stadium.
I was cleaning up the Snack Bar when I heard the words I’d dreamed of for years. “Oi, mate, you don’t know anyone who fancies a ticket do ya? Face value.”
“What? I do. Wait there one second.”
I bounded upstairs and found Uncle Jack to tell him of this stupendous, earthshattering opportunity.
“You can go if you find someone to stand in for while you’ve gone,” came his less than encouraging reply.
Half an hour before kick-off and Where on earth was I going to find ANYONE to do that?
“But it’s the FA Cup final and some bloke is offering me a ticket.”
“Ok, go on, I’ll do it. Off you go, but be back here five minutes after the game ends or else you’re sacked.”
Twenty minutes later I was IN Wembley.
I’d been there before but never on Cup Final day, and yes I had to admit it. It was JUST a bit better than seeing the match on the black and white telly upstairs at the Collette.
The old place was pulled down many years ago and replaced by a bland office building. I’ve been a journalist covering matches at Wembley for over 35 years
now and often wish I could just pop in there for a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich.
And put Dock of the Bay on the jukebox. Over and over again.
Mike Collett, a member of the Football Writers’ Association national committee, is the author of the Complete Record of the FA Cup and the soccer editor of