Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 6: Two Surprising FA Cup Winners in Two Years.

Part 1: Clough and Taylor conquer Europe (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings- The late 70’s and the 80’s when Football was really Football: Clough and Taylor conquer Europe.)

 Part 2: Bob Paisley and the legendary Anfield Boot Room dominate England and Europe ( Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 2- Bob Paisley and the legendary Anfield Boot Room dominate England and Europe.)

 Part 3: How Aston Villa won the League, then the European Cup, and were then relegated (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 3- How Aston Villa won the League, then the European Cup, and were then relegated.)

 Part 4: Elton John, Graham Taylor and the astounding rise of Watford (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 4- Elton John, Graham Taylor and the astounding rise of Watford.)

 Part 5: Howard Kendall and Everton change the balance of power on Merseyside and beyond (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 5: Howard Kendall and Everton change the balance of power on Merseyside and beyond. )

As tends to be regurgitated whenever the Final comes around (not least by your author) the FA Cup isn’t what it used to be. It has been inescapably diluted by commercial interest and teams prioritising the league over the world’s oldest cup competition, and with that comes a large dose of melancholic nostalgia for those of us who grew up when Cup Final Day was the football obsessive’s Christmas.

Back in the day there was a definite feeling of random unpredictability over the whole competition and in trying to predict which two teams would make the Final, let alone go onto win the Cup. The last Final not to feature at least one of the ‘Big Six’ was back in 2008 when Portsmouth beat Cardiff City, with Wigan the only team to have shocked one of the uber-elite since, when Ben Watson’s added time header beat Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City in 2013.

The FA Cup Finals of the 80’s started with Second Division West Ham United beating Arsenal thanks to a goal that even my West Ham supporting mates will admit bounced off Trevor Brooking’s head, as part of a miserable week for fledgling Gooners like yours truly as we then went on to lose the Cup Winners Cup Final to Valencia a mere matter of days later.

We then had Spurs winning the Cup two seasons in a row but needing a replay in each final to see off first Manchester City and then QPR. The following year it was Manchester United needing a replay to see off Brighton. As we covered last time, Everton broke the hearts of Elton John and Watford, then lost to ten-man Manchester United in the first Cup Final to see a sending off, and then lost to cross-city rivals Liverpool in the first ever all Merseyside Final. The following two finals were to give us fairy-tale stories the likes of which we may never see again.

 

The Sky Blues’ Day in the Sun.

Coventry

It is probably fair to say that going into the Third Round in January 1987 very few people fancied Coventry City to go on and win the Cup. A member of the top-flight since promotion as Champions in 1967, aside from four top-ten finishes in the early 70’s and then the late 70’s the Sky Blues tended to place in the bottom half of the table. In the Cups the biggest mark they made was reaching the semi-final of the League Cup in 1981.

Under the joint management of John Sillett and George Curtis, it is fair to say that the Sky Blues weren’t exactly chock full of luminary names. Goalkeeper Steve Ogrizovic went on to play more than 500 games in 16 seasons for the club but when he signed in 1984 boasted just 4 appearances for Liverpool between spells at Chesterfield and Shrewsbury.

The back four comprised: regular Wales international and goalscoring right back David Phillips, Brian “Killer” Kilcline whose nickname derived as much from his long hair and moustache as any genuine hardman attributes, Trevor Peake another dedicated servant who racked up more than 300 appearances for the club and striker turned left-back Greg Downes.

In the centre of midfield were the hard-working Lloyd McGrath and the more attack-minded Micky Gynn, while on the flanks were tricky winger Dave Bennett, who had appeared in the Final for Man City at the start of the decade, and Nick Pickering who won a solo England cap back in 1983 against Australia.

Up front were Keith Houchen something of a journey-man striker who was acquired for £60,000 from Scunthorpe, and “Big” Cyrille Regis the one man in the squad with a genuine pedigree given the reputation he had as part of the “Three Degrees” at West Brom alongside Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson.

For their first match of the cup campaign Coventry were drawn at home to Bolton Wanderers of the Third Division whom they despatched comfortably enough 3-0. The next round saw them given a trip to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United under the stewardship of one Alex Ferguson who had arrived from Aberdeen just two months previously. United were a less intimidating proposition at the start of Ferguson’s tenure than they would later go on to become and Coventry snatched victory thanks to a late Houchen goal.

Instilled with confidence after that victory the Sky Blues beat Second Division Stoke 1-0 away again thanks to a Houchen goal, and then beat Sheffield Wednesday 3-1 at Hillsborough in the Quarter Final to set up an intriguing Semi-Final clash against Leeds United still striving to return to the top tier after an absence of five years.

The Semi-Final, back at Hillsborough is one of those games that sticks in my mind, (not least because I wanted Leeds to win!) and I remember it as being an enthralling and dramatic Sunday afternoon tussle. The kick-off had to be delayed by fifteen minutes due to the swell of Leeds fans trying to access the Leppings Lane end. A grim forewarning of what was to come just two years later.

It was Leeds spurred on by their fervent support that started the match looking the more likely and duly took the lead on fourteen minutes when central midfielder David Rennie met Micky Adams’ corner with a thumping header that beat Ogrizovic at his near post.  All of a sudden, the Second Division side had belief that they might be on the way to their first FA Cup Final appearance since their defeat by Sunderland in 1973.

Stung by the prospect of a semi-final upset Coventry came back strongly, Cyrille Regis in particular seemed intent on dragging his team back into it missing three good efforts to restore parity in the tie.

Billy Bremner’s Whites held in there right up until the 68th minute when Bennett, who had been looking lively down the right ever since the goal, won the ball on the goal-line and played it low across the box for Micky Gynn, on as a substitute, to slot home.

Just ten minutes later Houchen latched onto a loose ball on the edge of the area, rounded Mervyn Day the Leeds keeper and tucked the ball home to give Coventry the lead.

Leeds weren’t done however and with just seven minutes remaining Keith Edwards, having entered the fray as a substitute less than a minute earlier, nodded home to give us a welcome extra thirty minutes of such a pulsating encounter.

In extra time Bennett was in the right place on the edge of the six-yard box to poke home a ball into the box that wasn’t cleared, Leeds’ fate was sealed and Coventry were on their way to Wembley for the first time in their history.

Coventry would face Tottenham at Wembley who had just completed one of the best seasons in their history: finishing third in the league with an exciting team in which Clive Allen scored 33 league goals and 48 in total, and which also featured such stellar names as Glen Hoddle, Chris Waddle and Ossie Ardilles. To say Coventry were underdogs was being somewhat generous, many couldn’t see how Spurs could fail to win. In the words of Chas & Dave from the traditional Cup Final record: “Seven times we’ve won the Cup, and number eight is coming up”.

The game itself was a classic, so much so that on the BBC commentary John Motson described it as: “the finest Cup Final I’ve had the pleasure of commentating on.” To add a slightly surreal feel to proceedings Tottenham were resplendently debuting their kit for the following season but because of a mix up, six of the team emerged without the sponsors Holsten’s logo on their shirts, in actual fact they were wearing shirts intended for the youth team. Trivial it may have been, but Club Secretary, Peter Day, left his post of ten years in the immediate aftermath.

The game got off to a lively start with Tottenham looking every bit the favourites that they were, in the just the second minute Chris Waddle skipped past Downes on Coventry’s left , fired in a cross and Clive Allen was at the near post to head home his 49th goal of the season. Those of us rooting for the underdogs, not solely from an Arsenal bias, sank deeper into our seats.

However, Sillett’s and Curtis’ side as they had displayed in the semi-final, possessed plenty of grit and determination and started to gradually edge their way back into the game and gain a foothold. Just over five minutes later they were level, Bennett was the first to react to a Houchen flick on, he waltzed round Clemence in the Spurs goal and side-footed home. Game on again, even for us ‘neutrals’.

After the frenetic start, the game settled down for a spell save for a Regis ‘goal’ ruled out for a foul on Richard Gough, until on the verge of half-time Pickering brought down Paul Allen wide on the right. Hoddle played the ball into box and a combination of Gary Mabbutt/ Brian Kilcline was enough to see it trickle into the net, the favourites were back in charge.

The second half saw no let up in the level of intensity with Dave Bennett on the right flank continuing to provide the Sky Blues’ most creative outlet. Just past the hour mark he worked space for himself and played in a cross, Houchen flying through the air powered a header past Clemence for goal that anyone who saw it counts as one of the iconic Cup Final goals of the 80’s, if not the grand old competition’s history.

The remainder of normal time was played out at a frenetic pace with both sides looking to end the afternoon after ninety minutes. Neither team could fashion the decisive chance and, as seemed all too usual at the time, the Cup Final headed to extra time.

Just five minutes into the additional period the matter was settled much to the chagrin of one of football’s genuine gentlemen. Lloyd McGrath, taking a brief moment away from marking Hoddle, broke down the right and played a low ball into the area, Gary Mabbutt in trying to clear it somehow contrived only to deflect it off his knee backwards looping over Clemence and into the net, making him an unwilling member of the club of players to have scored at both ends in the FA Cup Final alongside Charlton’s Burt Turner (1946) and Tommy Hutchinson of Man City (1981).

At the end of a long season in which they had come so close to tangible success, the own goal seemed like a body-blow to Spurs and Coventry saw out the remaining minutes fairly comfortably.

The final whistle provoked pandemonium on the Coventry bench and at their end of the stadium, Sillett had said all the way through that he felt their name was on the Cup, little did he know how prescient his thoughts were to prove. As a limping Brian Kilcline, he had injured himself attempting a ‘reducer’ on Mabbutt, climbed the 39 steps the sky blue and white hordes in the stand could reflect on their greatest ever day.

 

The Crazy Gang beat the Culture Club.

wimbledon

As legend has it when a team visited Wimbledon’s tiny Plough Lane ground, arch ring leaders Vinnie Jones and John Fashanu used to strut up and down the opposition’s line making derogatory and intimidating comments. This along with countless other tales of headbutting the door of the dressing room toilet (Jones), of practicing his martial arts in the tunnel (Fashanu), of new players having their clothes cut to shreds if they weren’t set on fire, and countless other ‘pranks’ usually involving dog excrement or a real danger to life, sometimes both, make up the madcap world of the one and only “Crazy Gang”, Wimbledon FC.

It all started back in 1977 when a team of part-time players were elected to the Football League. This was in the days before automatic promotion from the fifth tier, when getting elected was not necessarily a straightforward matter as clubs had to demonstrate their suitability. In Wimbledon’s case this was bizarrely achieved by a brochure that was designed to show how poor the club’s floodlights were but instead was taken by the committee in charge as a sign of how good the facilities were. Having visited (the legendary) Plough Lane myself, albeit some ten years later, I can only attest to what a serious misjudgement that may have been!

Wimbledon established themselves with a couple of steady seasons in the Football League, however when a new manager Dario Grady took the helm in 1978 things started to really move upwards. The Dons were promoted in 1979 but came straight back down the following year having won just 10 league games through the whole season. The next season Wimbledon won promotion to the Third Division again, in a season in which their chairman Ron Noades took over Crystal Palace taking Gradi with him. Gradi’s assistant Dave “Harry” Basset stepping up as manager.

Bassett couldn’t keep the Dons up and they were relegated back to the fourth tier once again. From there their fairy tale rise began. Wimbledon were promoted as champions in 1982-83 and this time instead of going straight back down they won a second successive promotion finishing in second place with a stunning 97 league goals.

The club’s first season in the second tier saw them finish a creditable twelfth and then the following season, 1985-86, a win away at Huddersfied Town on the final day of the campaign saw them finish third and secure promotion to the First Division, just four years after they had been playing in the Fourth, and just nine years after having being elected to the League. A meteoric rise that maybe even eclipsed Watford’s under Graham Taylor a few years previously.

In fairness, despite their undisputed success in climbing up the League Wimbledon, in a similar fashion to another South London club, Millwall who would follow them into the top-flight a couple of years later, were a difficult club to like. If Watford were criticised for their long ball tactics, then Wimbledon’s even more rudimentary approach was at best frowned upon by English football’s cognoscenti. In fact, the then Secretary of the FA, Ted Croker, went as far to suggest that: “Wimbledon should not be in the First Division at all.”, and none other than Terry Venables went further saying: “Wimbledon are killing the dreams that made football the world’s greatest game.”

In truth Wimbledon’s approach was rough and ready to say the least. Shrinking violets they certainly were not. The key premise of their play was based around getting the ball up to 6 foot 2 inch Fashanu as quickly as possible and for him to do what he did best, in other words fight off all comers to retain possession at the top end of the pitch. Anyone needing testimony to Fashanu’s no-holds-barred approach need only look back on the experience of Gary Mabbutt who felt the full force of “Fash the Bash” having his skull fractured in 1993 in an infamous incident.

Another key weapon in the Dons’ armoury was the crossing and set-piece delivery from the terrier-like wide man Dennis Wise aimed at the collection of man-mountains of the team including: Fashanu, Laurie Sanchez, Eric Young, Brian Gayle or long-serving Alan Cork often used as a sub. The very embodiment of Wimbledon’s “stick it in the mixer” approach.

The criticism they faced however served only to reinforce their commitment to the cause and to build an almost maniacal loyalty within the squad and towards Bassett as their leader. They were overly-aggressive no doubt, some might say downright nasty, but that fostered a kind of underdog us against the world spirit that helped them to achievements no one thought were possible for a team of misfits and drop-outs from other clubs.

Almost incredibly on the first day of September of their first season in the First Division they sat on top of the Football League, eventually finishing sixth. At the end of that season, 1986/87, Bassett left to replace Graham Taylor at Watford. No one could foresee what was going to happen next.

Bobby Gould was appointed manager in the summer of 1987 coming in from Third Division Bristol Rovers and the Dons continued to punch above their weight in the First Division, eventually finishing seventh in the table. It was in the FA Cup however that Gould and his team were to really make their mark. A 4-1 win over West Brom in the Third Round was followed by a win away at Mansfield Town and a 3-1 win away at Newcastle put Wimbledon through to a Quarter Final clash against Watford now under Steve Harrison after Bassett had been sacked in the January, not exactly a tie to be enjoyed by football purists!

In the clash at Plough Lane Wimbledon found themselves a goal down in the first half thanks to a scruffy effort which saw the ball bounce off defender Brian Gayle to gift Malcolm Allen the easiest of tap-ins. Gayle then compounded matters when he was a shown a red card for punching Allen in the throat before half-time. Gayle wouldn’t feature in the FA Cup again that season.

Whatever Gould said to shake life back into his misfiring team worked as second half goals from Young, a header from a Wise free-kick inevitably, and Fashanu, after a menacing charge through the defence, sealed their passage to the Semi-Finals where they would meet Luton Town, who would go on to win the League Cup later that season, at Tottenham’s White Hart Lane.

Just as in the previous round Wimbledon went a goal down after a cool finish from Luton’s Mick Harford. They equalized from a penalty slotted home by Fashanu after Terry Gibson had been brought down in the area, and then went on to seal the victory and passage to Wembley thanks to Wise sliding home a looping cross into the area.

Going into the FA Cup Final it is easy to forget just how big underdogs Wimbledon were as they prepared to face the mighty Liverpool who had comfortably won the League title and were looking for their second Double in three seasons. The Reds boasted players of the ilk of: John Barnes, John Aldridge, Peter Beardsley, Alan Hansen, Steve McMahon and had pretty much swept all before them throughout the season. Wimbledon by contrast were the lowest paid squad in the division and were derided as a kind of thuggish novelty act, all well and good to wish them well until you had to play them!

According to popular legend Gould decided that in order to relax his players he would pay for them to go to a pub near their hotel the night before the Final and some of the players even had bets against themselves some predicting a score of 3-0 or 3-1. Looking back at the footage of the players in the tunnel before the match it clearly worked as you can see how fired up the Dons’ players were, Jones leading a snarling nonsensical but no less intimidatory shout of “Yidaho!” at the top of his voice.

As if that wasn’t enough Jones set out his agenda clearly early when he “nailed” Liverpool’s self-avowed midfield enforcer Steve McMahon with a scything and late tackle that sent the Liverpool man cartwheeling through the air and left Jones bleeding from his cheek.

From there Wimbledon put in a tough, uncompromising and sometimes niggly performance that seemed to unsettle their more illustrious opponents, just how the Crazy Gang liked it.

With just over five minutes to go to the break Wise played in a free kick from wide on the left, Laurie Sanchez was first to it and flicked it past Grobbelaar in the Liverpool goal to give the underdogs a surprise lead. Surely, even after that it would be only a matter of time before Liverpool found their feet and took control of the game?

The key moment of the match came on the hour mark when Aldridge was felled in the area and referee Brian Hill pointed to the spot. As Aldridge, normally so reliable in pressure situations, stepped up to take the spot kick allegedly defender Andy Thorne stood behind the penalty taker shouting “Miss! Miss! Miss!”. Goalkeeper Dave Beasant guessed correctly, plunged to his left and pushed Aldridge’s effort wide for the first penalty save in Cup Final history.

Wimbledon doggedly held Liverpool at bay for the rest of the match and with the final whistle earned their place in English football history. Against all the odds as John Motson proclaimed in the aftermath: “The Crazy Gang had beaten the Culture Club”.

The FA Cup win was to sadly prove the highpoint of Wimbledon’s history: Beasant departed for Newcastle where he was to be joined by defender Andy Thorne, Jones moved to Leeds then several other clubs before eventually forging a new career in Hollywood, Wise left for Chelsea, full back Terry Phelan signed for Manchester City and John Scales was bought by Liverpool.

Even more damagingly the club was forced to sell its spiritual home Plough Lane and relocate to Selhurst Park due to their inability to develop the ground to meet new standards established by the Taylor Report after the Hillsborough tragedy. They struggling to attract crowds there and eventually on the 14th of May 2000, exactly 12 years to the day after their famous Wembley triumph there were relegated from the Premier League.

Two years later in a highly contentious decision, not solely for Wimbledon fans but for all football purists, approval was granted for the club to relocate to Milton Keynes and with it went a special part of football history.

 

 

 

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