When Arsenal face Aston Villa at Wembley today there will be one 100-year-old fan who can’t lose, whatever the result. Because Jim Errington, who turned 100 earlier this month, will have fulfilled a lifelong dream by walking onto the Wembley turf to sing his heart out. More to the point, he will have done so while dressed in his beloved Newcastle United’s famous black and white stripes – certainly the only outing that classic strip will get at Wembley in 2015 after the club was knocked out by Leicester in the third round.
A Newcastle fan for decades, Errington is the oldest member of a fans’ choir, made up of supporters from 64 different teams, who will lead the singing of the Cup final’s traditional pre-match anthem – the hymn Abide with Me.
The group has been put together by the BBC’s Songs of Praise, to represent all 64 clubs that reached the third round of this year’s competition. As a Methodist minister who still preaches today, Errington is no stranger to Henry Lyte’s 19th-century hymn. “The BBC have offered people an internet tutorial, but I know all the words,” he says. “I have lived through three editions of the Methodist hymnbook, and we Methodists are noted for our fervent singing.”
Errington, the eldest of ten children, went to his first Newcastle game 86 years ago, taken by a teacher as a reward for playing for the school football team. His favourite player of all time is Hughie Gallacher, a Scottish striker who scored 143 goals in 174 games for the club in the late 1920s. “He was my boyhood favourite, and he was absolutely marvellous,” he says. “I got to know him well, before he died. There was a charity match during the war, and he was captaining one of the teams. He said he’d only organise it if Jim Errington could play up front. We lost 7–0!”
Leona Lewis singing Abide with Me at last year’s final
While the club has clinched the FA Cup on six occasions, including three times in the 1950s, Errington was based elsewhere during that period, and missed the games. He did manage to get to the 1974 final against Liverpool, only to see future Newcastle idol Kevin Keegan score twice for the Reds to sink the Magpies 3–0. “Recently the FA Cup has been a thorn in the flesh of the supporters, because we’ve not made any progress,” he says.
Errington has been ever present at St James’ Park since buying a season ticket when they were first introduced, in the 1980s. But this year has been a painful one for Newcastle fans, with the club slipping down the league table and narrowly avoiding relegation, something that Errington blames on a lack of investment by the club’s owner, Mike Ashley. “Others are spending millions but it hasn’t happened at Newcastle,” he says. “But the support is still there. There’s a football fervour on Tyneside and you’ve got to capture that.”
He spent the Second World War in the Navy, and sat his exams to join the Methodist church while based in Sri Lanka. After being demobilised he attended a Methodist college in Manchester, where he met his wife Nora, whom he married in 1949. “We worshipped at the same church,” he says. “And that was that.”
Nora died in 2007 on Christmas Day, and Errington has lived alone ever since, but says he has “very good neighbours, very good friends, and a very loving family”. He marked his century by going out for a meal with his two children and three grandchildren, but only after being treated to a tour of St James’ Park by former captain Bobby Moncur.
On Saturday he will represent the club out on the Wembley turf. Does he have any fears about stepping out in front of a crowd of nearly 90,000? “I’m not a bit nervous,” he answers confidently. “I have a high sense of privilege at being there, and that will melt away any fear.”
The FA Cup Final begins on BBC1 today (Saturday 30th May) at 5.15pm