Looking back on almost four and half decades of following football, it occurs to me that I don’t bookmark landmarks in life quite the way other people do.
While some Americans of a certain age can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination, and some Brits are able to dredge up precise details of how they came to be informed of the death of Lennon or Diana, us football fans have the rather unique ability to patch our lives and memories together according to football-related events and happenings.
As I tip-toe into my sixth decade (my 50th birthday was last week, if anyone cares) my memory party tricks are perhaps not quite as impressive as they once were. I used to be able to recall every opening day fixture played by my team (Liverpool) going back to the start of my footballing consciousness, along with every FA Cup and European fixture in the same period.
Not only could I recall all the games, results, and often the goal scorers, but also exactly where I was and what I was doing at the time. Although the onset of middle-age has diluted this fascinating (or not) ability somewhat, I am still able to relate at random, for instance, that Liverpool beat QPR 2-1 at home on the opening day of the 1978-79 season on Alan Kennedy’s debut, and that I spent the day visiting my grandparents in London.
I very much doubt that I am unique amongst football fans in living at least part of my life in this manner. As many, a friend or colleague has commented over the years, if only I could have put this wealth of (useless) knowledge, or capacity for retaining such, to use in some manner, I would be much wealthier and infinitely more successful than I am.
Anyway. One of my favourite days of the footballing calendar growing up was always FA Cup semi-final day. This was especially so when both semi-finals were played at 3 pm on a Saturday with a simultaneous league programme ongoing.
Once again, I have retained the memory of most such matches, results, and venues, from 1975 to about 1995, and through such memories can piece together at least the partial personal odyssey of a misspent youth.
What follows herewith, then, are some particular personal highlights of FA Cup semi-final day.
Liverpool-Manchester United Family Divide
In 1976, Manchester United met Derby at Hillsborough on the same day Crystal Palace met Southampton in an all-non first division match at Stamford Bridge. I remember my ‘Manyoo’-supporting father echoing Tommy Docherty’s famous boast that the ‘real final’ was taking place that day in Sheffield. In fact, my dad was convinced that Palace would also win and so provide the easier opposition for United in the final.
Although I had no particular dog in that scrap, I certainly did the next year when Liverpool met Everton at Maine Road, while dad’s team played Leeds, again at Hillsborough.
Personal memory for me this year involves watching Grandstand with my father whilst nervously awaiting the final scores. I remember saying to him with just a few minutes to go: “Both our sides are winning 2-1. Looks like we’re on for ‘our final’”. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, of course, up came the dreaded ‘Football Latest’ flash on-screen informing us that Everton had equalized.
Although that semi-final ultimately turned out fine for me (the less said about the final the better), two successive semi-finals in upcoming years left slow-healing scars.
The first of these came two years later when Liverpool were back at Maine Road, this time to lock horns with United, while Arsenal were putting Wolves to the sword at Villa Park in the other.
By now I was 10 and was beginning to get nervous during big matches. I was in the last year at primary school and on the big day we held our annual school fete. I remember spending time joshing with Man United classmates as to the big game coming up and then walking home oblivious to events in Manchester. When I came through the door the old chap was watching Grandstand (inevitably) and trying not to look too pleased with himself.
“United are winning 2-1,” he in no way gleefully intoned.
Although Liverpool did grab a late equalizer to stem my tears the relief was short-lived, and the tears flowed once more a few days later when listening to Jimmy Greenhoff score the only goal of the game in the Goodison Park replay.
The Agony of FA Cup Semi-Finals on the Radio
Although the ‘magic’ of the cup has somewhat dissipated over the past 20 or so years, listening to the radio commentary of an FA Cup semi-final had to be the most nerve-wracking experience a young boy could have had to endure in those days. It certainly didn’t get any easier for me the next year, 1980, that’s for sure.
Once again Liverpool were in the semi-final, and once again I had a family member joining me in the agony stakes. This time instead of my dad it was my brother who kept me company, as his team, West Ham, were amongst the final four.
Kept apart in the draw, the absolute nightmare scenario of a Liverpool – West Ham final was a real possibility. Trust me, this would truly have been a nightmare. Even now 38 years later I can’t begin to imagine the drama such a coming together would have provoked in our house come cup final day. It just doesn’t bear thinking about.
Anyway, Liverpool and Arsenal drew in a scoreless stalemate at Hillsborough, while West Ham and Everton beat each other up in a bad-tempered 1-1 draw at Villa Park. All while these events were playing themselves out, my brother and I were cowering in the back seat of the car on the way back from a shopping trip begging my dad not to put the radio on as we were too nervous to listen.
The replays took place simultaneously four days later and must have passed as the single most petrifying evening in the history of chez Nesbit. My younger sibling and I were both literally shaking from the time we got home from school until the time we retired to our beds seven hours or so later with West Ham safely in the final, and Liverpool hanging on for another replay.
King Kenny’s Semi-Final Drama
That second replay at Villa Park is responsible for one of the most enduring memories of my childhood.
In a truly remarkable game, Liverpool fell behind after 14 seconds without touching the ball as Alan Sunderland put Arsenal ahead. There then followed 93 minutes or thereabouts of incessant Liverpool pressure, all to no avail. Wave after wave of attacks were repelled, with a resolute Arsenal defence clinging on and Pat Jennings playing the game of his life.
At one point, Liverpool went down to ten men as David Johnson suffered a concussion and had to leave the field with the substitute already deployed. Yet still the pressure was piled on and Arsenal could barely get out of their own penalty area at times, never mind their own half. Try as they might, though, no Liverpool breakthrough was forthcoming.
Into injury time and this 11-year-old listening to the match on the radio was praying for a goal. Any goal. Preferably, of course, a Liverpool one, but at this point, he would have gladly accepted another Gunners’ goal if only to put him out of his misery.
Then, with all hope seemingly extinguished, there came about a sequence of events that ultimately led to the sweetest of all footballing eventualities: the last minute FA Cup semi-final equalizer.
It is possibly a poor reflection on my very existence, and something I should consider in depth at some point, that almost four decades on Kenny Dalglish sweeping in at the death as he did remains firmly encased as one of the top ten moments of my life.
Sad but true.
The fact that the third replay was ultimately lost was almost an anti-climax after all that.
The Allure of Semi-Final Failure
So, into the eighties and the near misses in the FA Cup were adding to its magic and mystique.
1981 was the year Ipswich Town pushed for a treble of League, UEFA Cup, and FA Cup. Going to school in East Anglia as I did at the time I was surrounded by Ipswich fans delighting in telling me Liverpool’s day had come and gone, and that the Tractor Boys were the here and now as well as the future.
Worried that they may well be right, I was more than keen for them to be stopped in their tracks in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park against Man City.
Back in the seventies and eighties, there was an archaic rule stating that if the strips of teams playing on a neutral ground clashed, then the clubs concerned had to agree between them who was going to change, and if they couldn’t agree they both had to change. So it came to pass that City lined up in their classy red and black striped second-choice kit, while Ipswich wore a classic all-white Adidas number with black.
Talking of super kits, the other semi-final at Hillsborough saw Tottenham wear a fantastic all-white Le Coq outfit against Wolverhampton Wanderers in a match refereed by our old friend, Clive Thomas.
In a frightening preview of events eight years later, more than thirty-five Tottenham fans were injured due to overcrowding on the Leppings Lane terraces.
Personal memories of this year include having friends at both semi-finals purchase a programme for me, and once again watching Grandstand as news came through of Paul Power’s winning goal at Villa Park.
Something special always seemed to be in the air come semi-final day, irrespective of whoever was playing. Venues such as Highbury, Villa Park, and Hillsborough were regulars in those times, and the day had a magic all of its own. The balmy spring weather always helped add to the occasion, and although age might be playing tricks on me, I barely remember any bad-weather semi-final days in the eighties.
Rare Rain-soaked Semi-Final Days
The only exceptions to this rule came in successive years in ’85 and ’86 when it poured down each time. As a Liverpool fan, the events of both years are still ingrained vividly upon my soul.
Firstly, ‘The Battle of Goodison’ against Manchester United allowed me to relive the euphoria of the last-minute equalizer not once but twice on a shameful day when hooliganism reached fever pitch and blood literally ran in the streets.
Then, the next year, 1986, finally saw a successful semi and a truly happy memory as I was present at White Hart Lane to see two Ian Rush goals in extra time finally see off a stubborn Southampton side. Meanwhile, Everton were putting Sheffield Wednesday to the sword, also in extra time, at Villa Park to set up the first all-Merseyside FA Cup final.
Semi-Final Magic Begins to Crack
In a weird way, though, this success at White Hart Lane, as welcome and long overdue as it was, signaled the beginning of the end of something for me. For some reason the mystique of semi-final day was, if not shattered, then certainly cracked a little from then on in.
Having been so close so many times – Liverpool played eight semi-final matches between 1979 and 1985 without winning one – there was an ever-so-slight anti-climatic feeling that abounded once success had been achieved, and for some reason, semi-final day lost just a touch of its aura for me that day.
On semi-final day the next year, while Spurs were running into a 3-0 first-half lead at Villa Park against Watford, I was on the terraces at Carrow Road. It was here I stood watching Liverpool practically concede the league title to Everton courtesy of a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Norwich.
This was the first year the two semi-finals were not played at the same time. Police fears over Leeds’ then notorious support led to their Hillsborough match-up with Coventry being played on a Sunday.
It was also the year that the FA, in their infinite wisdom, refused to hold the Spurs–Watford match at Highbury on the grounds that the Arsenal hierarchy wouldn’t agree to put perimeter fences around their pitch. Instead, 45,000 plus fans were forced to make the hundred-mile or so trek up the motorway to Birmingham.
As the eighties started to draw to a close, Liverpool, of course, made it to two successive semi-final match-ups against Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough, the second of which changed the landscape of English football forever.
Since 1990 the two semi-finals have never been held simultaneously again, and matches are now held on successive days over the course of a weekend.
With both games held at Wembley in order to help pay off the cost of its construction, yet more of what was once special about the competition has been lost, probably forever.