Saturday, 5 January 2013

Chris O's Favourite 5... FA Cup Finals

As it's FA Cup Third Round day, I thought I'd take a slow walk down memory lane to remind myself of my favourite five Finals from years gone by.

1. West Ham v Liverpool (2006)

“Surely the best Cup Final of modern times” according to BBC commentator John Motson and even now, some six-and-a-half years later, it’s difficult to disagree with him.

For any fan of a losing finalist in any competition, it’s some consolation at least when your team gives a good account of itself, and for me, West Ham certainly did that in 2006. Going 2-0 up through a Jamie Carragher own goal and a Dean Ashton toe-poke from close range, West Ham took the game to Liverpool but they hadn’t accounted for a one-man colossus in red called Steven Gerrard.

The Merseyside club clawed their way back to 2-2 thanks to a Djibril Cissé volley and a Gerrard thunderbolt, but even after Paul Konchesky’s speculative cross had put West Ham back in front at 3-2, Liverpool still weren’t prepared to accept defeat. A second incredible strike by the England captain ensured the game was tied at 3-3 going into injury time, and with the resulting penalty shoot-out swinging in favour of The Reds, this was not to be West Ham’s day.

And what of my feelings after the game?  Not disappointed really, no. Pride – that was my predominant emotion. Pride that my favourite club had played its part in a memorable Final and earned the respect of many neutrals watching from afar. You can’t ask for much more than that, can you?

2. Arsenal v Manchester United (1979)

When dewy-eyed nostalgists think of the perfect FA Cup Final, they probably think of one where both teams play football of the highest order for 90 minutes before a thrilling climax ensues. In many ways, the 1979 Final was exactly that.

Much like the West Ham/Liverpool clash of 2006, one of the teams – Arsenal – went 2-0 up and were leading comfortably by half time. Brian Talbot, who played for Ipswich against Arsenal the previous year, scored the first goal after 12 minutes and Frank Stapleton added a header just before the interval.

That two-goal cushion remained in place until four minutes from the end when United staged a late comeback. First, Scottish international defender Gordon McQueen swivelled and put the ball past Pat Jennings from close range, then, Sammy McIllroy industriously battled his way through the Arsenal defence to make it 2-2 in the 88th minute.

Everyone, myself included, couldn’t believe how Arsenal’s dominance could crumble in the space of two minutes. According to Brian Clough, ITV’s co-commentator on the day, United had earned their stay of execution having battled all afternoon, but surely Arsenal shouldn’t have given them the opportunity in the first place? Had they lost the plot?

Remarkably, the answer came only a minute later when, soon after kick-off, Graham Rix crossed to find Alan Sunderland in the penalty area. His outstretched leg reached the ball before Arthur Albiston could get to it and in so doing poked the ball over the line. With just a minute left on the clock, Arsenal had taken the lead once more and were able to hang on until the final whistle blew just moments later.

Very few Cup Finals had ever set such a high standard for excitement but this one became the benchmark for all future Finals to reach. I can still remember that last goal going in as if it were yesterday, but to be honest the rest of the game doesn’t come quite so readily to mind. Maybe it doesn’t have to when you have an ending to beat all endings.

3. Liverpool v Newcastle United (1974)

In 1974, Malcolm MacDonald seemed to be single-handedly transforming the fortunes of Newcastle United. Having won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1969, the Tyneside club had failed to build on their new-found success but the acquisition of MacDonald from Luton Town had gone some way to correct that.

A prolific striker in his day, he was at the top of his game come the 1974 FA Cup Final – so much so that, according to Emlyn Hughes, he’d been telling the press that The Magpies were going to turn over Liverpool at Wembley and that they had a far superior team.

When the big day arrived, Liverpool had other ideas – and a top strike duo that were more than a match for Newcastle. Kevin Keegan and John Toshack were fast developing a reputation as a lethal partnership that provided many goals for the Anfield club, and in the ’74 Final they and the rest of the Liverpool team were ruthlessly dominant.

Shots rained in on the Newcastle goal all day and quite honestly they were different class. Newcastle tried in vain to compete but Liverpool, having burst the black and white dam through Keegan’s first of two goals in the 57th minute, didn’t settle until they’d got what they came for. A second from Heighway a quarter of an hour before the end and another from Keegan two minutes from time eventually secured the 3-0 win that had been on the cards throughout.

“Goals pay the rent and Keegan does his share” said David Coleman during his BBC commentary, and if that was the case, Malcolm MacDonald and his Newcastle team-mates must have been in arrears for months.

4. Liverpool v Everton (1986)

It’s not often you get an FA Cup Final played between the two teams finishing first and second in England’s top flight, but in 1986 that very thing happened and we got a great final as a result.

The sight of Kenny Dalglish leading the team out as manager yet ready to play alongside his team-mates must have been a stirring sight for Reds fans everywhere, but Everton had talent throughout their ranks too. Andy Gray had been replaced by Gary Lineker, Kevin Sheedy and Trevor Steven provided flair and reliability while at the back Kevin Ratcliffe and Derek Mountfield provided a rock-solid base in defence. At the back, however, Bobby Mimms was deputising for the absent Neville Southall. Would that be the weak point in this all-too-rare Merseyside Cup Final?

The start of the match suggested otherwise as Lineker grabbed the opening goal after his early shot was spilled by Bruce Grobelaar. Everton still led 1-0 at the start of the second half and looked to have the bit between their teeth until Ian Rush rounded Mimms to equalise in the 56th minute. After that, Liverpool smelled blood and Craig Johnston was on hand to finish off a great move six minutes later to make it 2-1.

As Everton tried to get back into the game, the inevitable gaps opened up in defence and Liverpool finally took advantage when Ian Rush scored a second, just seven minutes before the end. When the final whistle blew, Bob Paisley’s side had won the double – the first time any team had achieved it since Arsenal in 1971 – and a truly great side from the red half of Merseyside rightly basked in the glory.

Despite being a Londoner who had seen so many local sides grace FA Cup Finals throughout the 1970’s and early 1980’s, this was still an enjoyable spectacle for me and one which lingered long in the memory thereafter. Everton, however, were still to have their day –they’d win the First Division title the following season.

5. West Ham v Arsenal (1980)

And so back to West Ham, I’m afraid. A final indulgence from me, but unashamedly so, not least because it was the last time I saw my own team actually win the FA Cup.

I remember the day of the Final with some clarity, despite my ever-faltering memory. Early on, my sister had been making rosettes from claret and blue ribbons – something that people probably rarely do these days. Yet it was all part of the build-up to the event for us local Hammers fans, keen as we were to wear the club’s colours with pride.

The weather was glorious. Warm, bright sunshine illuminated Wembley as Terry Neill and John Lyall led their teams out in front of a capacity crowd. West Ham were the Second Division underdogs and Arsenal were the First Division favourites. This was The Gunners’ third consecutive FA Cup Final but would ultimately be their second defeat in that run.

To their credit, West Ham never looked overawed by their opponents throughout. Under the cosh they may have been at times, but they didn’t look unduly flustered or nervy, and this was helped in no uncertain terms by Trevor Brooking’s goal after 13 minutes. ITV’s Brian Moore thought the goal had been scored by Stuart Pearson – in fact we all did, I seem to remember – but the confusion caused by the way the fast-moving ball in a congested Arsenal penalty area was eventually resolved and the tone was set for an ultimately joyous afternoon.

Of course we can’t let this review of the 1980 Final go by without mentioning the deliberate foul on Paul Allen by Willie Young when the former was clean through on goal late in the game, but it’s all water under the bridge now and not worth dwelling on. Instead, here’s a less than flattering picture of Willie during his Aberdeen days. Now let that be a lesson to anyone thinking of doing the same.


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