With the World Cup almost upon us, one of the fixtures I believe is completely pointless is the third-place playoff. I have two memories of third-place games. One being Poland beating France 3-2 in Alicante, 1982, which meant I got 3rd place in the office sweep. The other being an England team without Gazza going through the very friendly motions in 1990. I appreciate there is likely to be football fans out there who actually like this fixture, particularly as it’s the penultimate game in a tournament that won’t be around for another four years. I can safely say I’ve watched two of them only and wouldn’t lose sleep if it was ditched. There is, in the history of the beautiful game, a more pointless fixture. One that was abandoned five years after its inception. If you think there was something missing from the ‘spectacle’ and excitement surrounding last week’s FA Cup final, you would obviously have been missing the FA Cup 3rd place playoff.
Its history goes back to 1954 when the Football Association decreed that on the eve of the FA Cup final, fans descending on London and at a bit of a loose end, would quite like to attend a football match and England v Young England was born. The first match took place at Highbury in front of nearly 44,000 spectators and featured in the England team, such names as Stanley Matthews, Wilf Mannion, Tommy Lawton and Len Shackleton. The Young England side was represented by the under 23 team and featured Duncan Edwards and Dennis Viollet. For the record, the score was England 2 (Mannion, Lawton) Young England 1 (Hines).
The fixture continued in that format, changing to England V The Football League for one year only (1963). It was often referred to as old England v Young England. I find it amusing to think of what would happen today with such a fixture and imagine a young energetic Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling running at John Terry and Ashley Cole. Although Highbury was its home, it moved to Stamford Bridge on occasion until the fixture was finally laid to rest in 1969. Its demise was due to dwindling interest and plummeting attendances with a little over 18,000 attending the last fixture at Stamford Bridge.
The football authorities decided on a change and needed something to take its place. There isn’t a football fan that exists who hasn’t invented an imaginary team selection, whether it be a Football League select 11 or a greatest 11 of various types. In the times of England V Rest of the World games, there were plenty of ideas. Suggestions for a new fixture even included a North V South game. Eventually, the football authorities decided a third-place playoff for the FA Cup would be a big draw and the equivalent of Jim Bowen’s speedboat, the ultimate “look what you could have won” was born.
There were a number of new and ultimately doomed competitions of the early 1970’s. These included the Watney Cup, the Texaco Cup which became the Anglo-Scottish Cup and Anglo-Italian Cup. These competitions, however, became somewhat ground-breaking in their own right, achieving a number of firsts. The FA Cup playoff was no exception. One particular FA Cup achievement that will never be equalled is that of Bobby Charlton and Alex Stepney. I’m sure avid football fans will know exactly what this particular 1st and only achievement is? OK, for those who don’t know, they are the only players ever to pick up an FA Cup Winners medal, Runner-Up medal and Third place tankard! Yes, the players picked up a tankard for coming 3rd and even 4th…
The first 3rd place play-off took place on 10th April 1970 between losing semi-finalists Manchester United and Watford at Highbury. Despite the apparent pulling power of Charlton and Best, the game was played out in front of 15,105 spectators, some 3,000 short of the previous years’ England V Young England Match. Manchester United won 2-0 with goals from Brian Kidd.
Friday 7th May 1971 and Everton and Stoke City head down to London for the FA Cup 3rd place playoff. The game Everton and Stoke really didn’t need was at the enticing venue of Selhurst Park on the eve of the Cup Final. Just over 5,000 attended and I would doubt many if any were from Everton or Stoke. Embarrassingly, a fourth division match between mid-table Colchester and Stockport on the same night drew a bigger attendance. For the record, Everton lost 3-2 with goals from Bernard (2) and Ritchie for Stoke and Alan Ball and Alan Whittle for Everton.
Changes needed to be made the following year and two were made. The game took place pre-season, on the same day as the Charity Shield. Significantly, however, the venue was at the home ground of one of the participants, St Andrews, home of Birmingham City. Although the game ended 0-0 it was played in front of 25,841 spectators. Significantly, history was made with the blues winning the FA Cup’s first ever penalty shoot-out 4-3. Opinion was divided over the penalty shoot-out format with the Sunday Times calling it a ‘coconut shy ritual’. We didn’t see penalties in an FA Cup match again for another 20 years.
Back to Highbury for 1973 and Arsenal entertaining Wolves. An attendance of 21,038 saw Wolves win 3-1 with goals from McCalliog and Dougan (2). Again played in the pre-season sunshine, the highlights can be captured, all 1.13 minutes of it, on YouTube.
The final 3rd place play-off was on 9th May 1974, five days after Liverpool had lifted the trophy. 4,432 saw Ray Hankin score the winner for Burnley in a 1-0 victory over Leicester at Filbert Street. It was clearly becoming a problem fixture as the programme notes that night read:
“We make no secret of the fact that we would have preferred the game at the beginning of the next campaign, but unfortunately the Football Association insisted that the issue be settled this week”
The game was further blighted by injury and international call-ups so it was no surprise when the FA Cup committee released the following statement:
“After a full discussion, and bearing in mind the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the clubs and the public for this match, it was agreed that it should be discontinued”
So that was it. Of course, we later had the introduction of the Full Members Cup and the very ill-advised and badly named ‘Screensport Super Cup’ but none would ever be met as lethargically as the FA Cup 3rd place playoff. In these days of no replays and teams jetting off all over the world for post and pre-season fixtures, it’s inconceivable we will ever see it’s like again… Thankfully.