It started with a kiss and ended-up provoking questions in Parliament.
Forty-three years have passed since they famously puckered-up in front of nearly 30,000 people at Bramall Lane. But Alan Birchenall, the former Leicester City midfielder, can still remember the whys, wherefores and ramifications of his smooch with Tony Currie in pinsharp detail.
“We were getting battered at the time,” he laughs, “So I wasn’t in the best of moods and we were both tangling for the ball. We ended-up on the deck, looked at each other and it just seemed like a funny thing to do. TC and I have been doing it at least once a year since because everytime we meet up, people keep asking us too.”
Birchenall had been expecting to recreate one of football’s most iconic moments for umpteenth time tonight when legends past and present gather at Sheffield United’s stadium to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Currie’s arrival in South Yorkshire. Unfortunately for him, not to mention The Blades’ greatest ever player, the scheduling of this evening’s FA Cup tie between City and Chris Wilder’s side means he will be otherwise engaged. But Birchenall, who started his career with United before moving to Filbert Street in the early Seventies, is still keen to pay tribute.
“What a talent Tony was,” Birchenall, now City’s official club ambassador, continues. “He’s got the same role as me now at United and quite right too because I don’t think there was anyone better. I actually left United to go to Chelsea and the £100,000 fee was a lot of money in those days. TC cost a fraction of that and I think it’s fair to say United got a bargain because can you imagine what someone as good as him would cost now? I reckon most clubs in the country wouldn’t be able to afford him.”
Although people now reflect on their embrace with fondness - a national newspaper recently named it as one of the game’s most hilarious moments - Birchenall admits it did not receive universal approval at the time. Only a month before United’s 4-0 dismantling of their rivals from the Midlands, the National Front had marched through London surrounded by 2,000 police officers. A year earlier, clashes between the extreme right-wing group and counter-protesters at Red Lion Square left a young student dead.
“I got letters from all sorts of people saying it was disgraceful,” Birchenall says. “You’ve got to remember, the country was a very different place back then. On top of the hate mail, I even got told it got brought up by an MP on the Floor of the House, asking: ‘Is this what English football is really coming too?’ Most folk, though, weren’t bothered and they took it for what it was: a joke between two good mates. You can’t take life so seriously all the time.”
Currie made 378 appearances for United and scored 67 goals during a career which also included spells at Leeds, QPR and spawned 17 England caps.
“What TC couldn’t do with the ball was nobody’s business,” Birchenall adds. “He was a top player and a top bloke who I’m proud to call my mate.”
*Tony Currie: ‘A Quality Night with a Quality Player’, Bramall Lane, 7pm, tickets prices £45 and £75.