Following on from last week’s article that looked at some of the general differences between modern day football and that of days gone by, this week I take a more concentrated look at one particular change: That of the League Cup Final.
As I wrote some time back, football has often tended to bookmark my life. For example, I can tell you where I was and what I was doing on the third Saturday in August 1981, or the fourth Saturday in March 1986, just by running down the fixture lists for that day and seeing who my team, Liverpool, were playing that day.
This particular party trick is not limited to Liverpool games only though, and one date in the footballing calendar I always used to especially enjoy was League Cup Final Day.
The League Cup’s Early Years
The Football League Cup was initially the brainchild of Sir Stanley Rous who saw the competition as a subsidiary one to the FA Cup, but it was Football League Secretary, Alan Hardaker, who subsequently took the idea forward and made it become a reality.
In its early years, the League Cup was not the most popular of concepts. In fact, as entry was not compulsory in its early years, a number of teams refused to take part and it was not until the 1971-72 that participation was made mandatory.
By that time, the format of the final had altered and the prestige involved in winning the competition increased. Whilst the first six finals were two-legged affairs, in 1967 the decision was taken for Wembley to host a one-off final with the winners receiving a place in European competition the following season providing they were from the top division.
The next seventeen years then saw the final of the Football League Cup held at Wembley, usually on a Saturday afternoon in March, while a full day’s league programme carried on elsewhere. It was not until 1984 that the game was moved to a Sunday and televised live for the first time.
It is these years of Saturday finals that I personally remember most vividly. Starting my football consciousness in the 1974-75 season, the first final I remember was Norwich v Aston Villa. At the time the two sides were in the old Second Division, although both would go onto to win promotion that season alongside Manchester United.
A dour game was locked at 0-0 until a late goal scored by Ray Graydon of Villa settled the tie. The game was rather forgettable save for a remarkable handball off the line by Norwich City’s Mel Machin, who later went on to manage Manchester City.
With his goalkeeper, Kevin Keelan, well beaten by a Chris Nicholl header, Machin flung himself full length to tip the ball around the post in a remarkable show of athleticism.
Although Keelan brilliantly saved Graydon’s initial strike from the penalty spot, the ball struck the post and landed back at the feet of the grateful Villa player who made no mistake the second time around.
The following year my family and I were living temporarily on the outskirts of London near the infamous North Circular Road. This meant that the highlight of the 1976 final was counting the number of cars passing through with either black and white Newcastle United scarves flying out of the windows or sky blue Manchester City ones.
A slightly better game than the year before ensued with Dennis Tueart’s spectacular overhead kick providing the winning goal in Manchester City’s 2-1 victory.
Bum-numbing matches and extra time?
The next season saw 1975 winners Aston Villa making their fourth appearance in the final as they met Everton. In one of the most bum-numbing games to be held at the old stadium a scoreless draw was played out in front of a full house.
After the game, a debate was held regarding the fact that no extra time was played at the end of ninety minutes and subsequently it was decided that all future finals would have a further thirty minutes in the event of a draw. The 100,000 trudging their way home from Wembley after ninety minutes that day in March 1977 must have felt grateful that they hadn’t been subjected to a further half-hour, however.
Still, a good constitution was also required for the replay at Hillsborough five days later. This time a marginally better game ended all square at a goal apiece after extra time. These were the days of long-running replays, and because of FA Cup commitments, the second replay didn’t take place for another four weeks when most people barring the protagonists had probably forgotten all about it.
If the neutral really had lost interest in the game and failed to tune in to watch the highlights on TV (no live coverage then, remember) then it would have been a shame as this time the two sides served up a cracker.
Once again the match moved past ninety minutes with the sides locked together, only this time it was 4 goals they had shared as they headed into extra time. With time running out and the first ever penalty shoot-out in a major English cup final just ninety seconds away, Brian Little popped up to write himself into Aston Villa folklore with a last-gasp winner.
Almost twenty years later in 1996 Brian Little would be the manager of Villa when they won their fifth League Cup, beating Leeds United 3-0 in the final.
As mentioned before, during this period there was always a full league programme continuing parallel to the big match being played at Wembley and the highlights of the match were shown the following day on ITV.
This seemed (to me anyway) to give the day a special kind of magic in itself. Supporters of others teams wherever they were and whoever they were playing would invariably have half an ear out for events at Wembley and, like FA Cup Semi-Final day, there was a uniqueness to the day.
My side, Liverpool, were one of the teams that treated the competition with disdain in its early years, and with the exception of the inaugural 1960-61 season, they did not deign to enter until 1967-68. In the ten years since seasonal interest in the cup had not lasted beyond a couple of appearances in the fifth round (quarter-finals).
In 1977-78, however, the final was reached where they met Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest side. Despite being newly promoted the season before, Forest were taking the First Division by storm and going into the final showdown were top of the table by four clear points over Everton having played two games less. Liverpool for their part were down in fifth, a further three points behind Everton having played the same number of games.
Three in a row
Despite the hype of the match being billed as ‘The Old Guard against The New Pretenders”, another rather turgid goalless draw ensued. Even extra time couldn’t separate the sides and so it was to Old Trafford the following Wednesday for the replay. For the second time in five days Liverpool had something like 75% of possession in their opponents’ half of the field and yet couldn’t manage to score.
Unfortunately for this nine-year-old, John Robertson, the aesthetically-challenged Forest winger, had no such problems in converting a second-half penalty to score the only goal of the final.
This appearance in the final was the first of three successive ones for Brain Clough and his merry men of Nottingham, and the first victory of four in a total of six appearances for Cloughie in all.
The next year Forest were back at Wembley to meet Lawrie McMenemy’s Southampton side who were making their third Wembley appearance in a little under three years. For once a reasonably exciting game took place at the first time of asking, with Forest overcoming a single goal half-time deficit and a last-minute strike to run out 3-2 winners.
Efforts to complete a hat-trick of successes came to nought in 1980 though, when a disastrous mix-up between Forest defender Dave Needham and Peter Shilton in goal, enabled Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Andy Gray to poach the only goal of the game on 67 minutes.
Having not taken the competition seriously (or at all) in its formative years, Liverpool now started doing so with a vengeance. Having fallen to the wiles of Cloughie and John Robertson in the 1978 final, Liverpool found history repeating itself two years later in the 1980 semi-final as two further John Robertson penalties (one in each leg) saw Forest defeat their old foes by a 2-1 aggregate.
Four in a row and transistor embarrassment
In 1980-81 Liverpool started to make amends for this disparity in the list of honours won with the first of four successive victories with a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Second Division West Ham after an initial 1-1 draw.
This Wembley clash was the first time I had seen my team play live in a cup final at the home of English football, and the fact that I did so shoulder-to-shoulder with my West Ham supporting younger brother just added to the sense of occasion.
There is nothing quite like a cup final clash between two sides supported by members of the same family to get the nerves jangling and to crank up the tension. Putting it bluntly, it was a horrible feeling knowing that the bragging rights in the face of a victory would be nothing compared to the abject misery and ribbing to be endured in the event of a defeat. That the game ended all-square was probably best for all concerned in Chez Nesbit.
Onto 1982 and Liverpool were back in the final and once more facing London opposition, this time in the form of Tottenham Hotspur. This time no ticket could be procured and so I was forced to listen to proceedings by way of BBC Radio 2. Surely there is no worse torture designed than listening to your side fall behind in a cup final and then play the next hour or more camped out in your opponents’ half unable to achieve parity.
This thirteen-year-old spent that damp March afternoon walking around Braintree town centre with his transistor radio firmly and miserably clamped to his ear hoping for the best but fearing the worst.
Four minutes from time Ronnie Whelan finally drew parity in London, and while fifty thousand Liverpool fans duly celebrated in North London, shoppers in the Braintree branch of Tesco were no doubt alarmed by the scream of delight coming from aisle four.
Two extra-time goals clinched a 3-1 victory and the cup had been retained.
1983 saw the last Saturday League Cup Final, and for me, it was once again a case of history repeating itself in as much as it was an all-family affair with Liverpool meeting my father’s Manchester United side.
That was not where the similarities with previous finals ended. Once again I had no ticket, once again Liverpool fell behind early on, and once again I embarrassed myself through listening to the match on the radio.
Norman Whiteside scored an early goal and thus Liverpool trailed until the 70-minute mark. Alan Kennedy then hit a speculative shot from out on the left wing somewhere in the vicinity of where managers Bob Paisley and Ron Atkinson were sitting that Gary Bailey completely misjudged and saw bounce over him for the equalizer.
If noisily acclaiming a cup final goal in Tesco the year before had been mildly embarrassing, it was nothing compared to doing so in front of 500 or so supporters at a football match.
Unwilling to repeat the previous year’s trudge around the shops while the game was being played, in 1983 I decided to take myself off to watch nearby Chelmsford City play in a Southern League game at their old New Writtle Street ground (much missed, by the way).
That I did so accompanied by my trusty transistor radio will come as no surprise, and so the two matches progressed simultaneously with me having perhaps half an eye at most on the action unfolding in front of me while the rest of my attention lay some 40 miles or so away in North London.
When good old Gary Bailey somehow contrived to let Barney’s Bouncer in, once more I momentarily let my emotions get the better of me and again screamed for joy.
It seemed the entire attendance at NWS turned to glare at the teenage loon jumping about behind the goal at the railway end of the stadium. The looks of bemusement, confusion, and even a little fear and anger that were written on the faces of these non-league die-hards have lived with me over the ensuing decades. Needless to say, I promptly took myself off to another part of the ground to listen to the rest of the match.
In fact, the winning goal was scored in extra time by Ronnie Whelan just as I was standing on Platform 1 at Chelmsford railway station waiting for the train back to Braintree. This time I managed to restrain myself.
And that was it.
The following year, Liverpool were back at Wembley for the fourth successive season for an all-Merseyside clash with Everton. However, by this time a deal had been done that the final would be played on Sunday and screened live, and although I was once again lucky enough to be amongst the Wembley throng that day, I have always felt that a little bit of the competition died with the move to Sunday finals.