Welcome back to the final part of our look at one of Southampton’s best seasons, possibly their best ever. 1983-84.
We were into March. They’re fifth in the league and about to embark on the quarter-final stage of the FA Cup. Unusually for them, they were the highest ranked side still in the competition.
FA Cup sixth round
Three of the quarter-finals were played on the Saturday with Watford and Everton securing their Semi-Final status. Third Division Plymouth held Derby County to a goalless draw.
The following day, Southampton took to the field against Sheffield Wednesday. Hillsborough was packed with the home fans confident of getting a result. Wednesday were level on points with leaders Chelsea in the Second Division. They were on a run of one defeat in their last nine matches and had already put First Division sides to the sword in the cup (Oxford United and Coventry City). The game contained few chances with the visitors having the better of them. Inexplicably Frank Worthington skewing his shot wide from six yards out with the keeper wrong-footed. The game ended goalless so it was back to the Dell for the replay.
Before they could try again against Wednesday they had the small matter of a league match against the reigning Champions and league leaders, Liverpool at the Dell. It was a game many Saints fans remember as their favourite from down the years.
Southampton were buoyed by having beaten Liverpool when they last visited the previous April. They had come from behind to win 3-2. Liverpool were coming into the game in good form. Unbeaten in their last eight matches, conceding in just four. But the Saints produced a masterclass on a cold Friday evening. Liverpool had to do without their captain, Graeme Souness who flew back to Scotland following the death of his mother. At the time, he was probably one of the best midfielders in Europe if not anywhere in the world. His absence was telling.
By now, McMenemy was employing Reuben Agboola as a sweeper, something rarely seen in English football, and he gave them stability at the back as well as options going forward. As Southampton gained a grip on the midfield they were able to knock the ball about with growing confidence. As the game headed towards half-time one flowing move begun by Wright found Dennis wide on the left. His first attempted cross was blocked by Neal but his second go reached the far post where Wright had taken up position. He headed it back behind Danny Wallace, and the exciting young striker took his chance brilliantly with an overhead kick. It was a stunning strike and gave the home side the lead at the break. It was later to be voted Goal of the Season and certainly announced Wallace to the world.
In the second half, Liverpool lost Steve Nicol to an injury and had to re-shuffle their pack. They rarely troubled the home side and Wallace completed a famous win with a fine header five minutes from time. 2-0 was nothing more than Southampton deserved and they were now up to fourth.
FA Cup sixth round replay
Another healthy crowd filled the Dell for the visit of Sheffield Wednesday. And it was the visitors who took the lead through their experienced captain, Mick Lyons. But the Saints were in front at the break as Steve Williams and then an own goal from Gavin Oliver, gave them a 2-1 lead. In the second half, the threat from the Second Division side was snuffed out when Mark Wright extended the lead. Further goals from David Armstrong and Steve Moran completed the rout and a 5-1 win saw them storm into the semis. The victory was mixed with disappointment as Steve Williams goal was his last contribution to the season.
With Plymouth, Watford and Everton joining them, the draw was a little unkind to the Saints as they were drawn against First Division opposition whereas Watford got Plymouth. But Southampton were still the highest ranked side (fourth) with Watford (twelfth) and Everton (fifteenth) a long way behind them in the league. There were another three weeks before they’d see FA Cup action again but as fate would have it they were due to meet Everton before the semi-final.
Back in league action, they travelled to Loftus Road to take on Queen’s Park Rangers. QPR’s form had been scratchy with them losing every other game of their last seven. But they turned things around by giving Southampton a right going over. The Saints defence had only conceded more than two in a game twice throughout the season, yet the previously-secure defence was breached four times. Goals from Steve Wicks, Gary Micklewhite, Clive Allen and Gary Waddock gave the home side a 4-0 win.
This ended a run of four straight wins in the league for Southampton, although they would remain fourth.
Next up was the hors-d’oeuvres for the cup semi-final. Everton at Goodison Park. Despite lying in fourteenth, the Toffees had been beaten just once in their previous eleven. A peculiarity of the fixture schedule meant this was the first of three meetings between the two clubs over eighteen days. Whether McMenemy was trying to fool Howard Kendall into what his lineup would be for the cup game, is uncertain but there were three changes to the Saints’ starting eleven. It showed. Disjointed Southampton lost again. Andy Gray’s first-half strike was the only goal of the game. Was the season becoming too long for Southampton?
The penultimate month of the season began with a home match against Leicester, who’d beaten them back in November. Goals from Moran and Wallace were wiped out by a brace from Gary Lineker. Three games without a win now and QPR leap-frogged them into fourth. But all that had to be forgotten as they headed to Highbury for the FA Cup semi-final. These were the days when Wembley was left sacred for the Final only. Highbury and Villa Park hosted the Semis and Everton v Southampton was the big draw.
Everton really were having a season of two halves. By New Year’s Eve, they were sixteenth with just six wins and nine defeats. Since then they’d been beaten just once in thirteen. They’d knocked out Stoke, Gillingham, Shrewsbury and Notts County to get this far. They were hoping to reverse a record of four defeats at this stage since they lifted the trophy back in 1966. They were hoping to earn their second visit to Wembley that season, having reached the Milk Cup final (League Cup) where they were beaten by Liverpool. For Southampton, this was the furthest they’d gone since they winning the trophy in 1976. They’d been away in every round of the competition.
Nick Holmes was the only survivor from 1976 and they were up against Terry Curran, who’d played for Southampton against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup final in 1979.
Southampton had the better of the chances in the first half and really should’ve gone into the break in front. Wallace, Worthington and Moran all went close. In the second half, both sides had chances to open the scoring. Worthington again went close and Danny Wallace hit the bar. At the other end, Adrian Heath had a shot cleared off the line by Mick Mills. As the game wore on, Everton were much the more dominant side but the game was goalless after ninety minutes. So, extra-time was required and with still no goals and just three minutes to go, Everton had a free-kick wide on the right. Reid took it, Mountfield nodded it on and Heath headed it past Shilton. It was a killer blow for Southampton who had no time to get back into it and they earned the infamous title of being a losing semi-finalist. No one remembers those.
Of little consolation for Southampton, the two would meet again in the league just three days later. Two David Armstrong goals helped them win 3-1. They were two points off third place with two games in hand. Southampton were clearly disappointed with their semi-final exit and they used this as a catalyst as they wouldn’t taste defeat again that season.
They then took on West Ham at home, with the Hammers just a point behind them. Goals from Holmes and Moran gave the home side a 2-0 win. Next was a 1-1 draw at Watford. They were still fifth and still with games in hand on those above them.
April ended with a bang. Coventry City arrived at The Dell off the back of a 1-4 defeat at Old Trafford. Southampton were unbeaten in their last seven home matches, winning six. Goals from David Armstrong and Danny Wallace gave the Saints a 2-0 lead at the break. Armstrong was in rich form with his fourth goal in as many matches. Few realised what carnage lay ahead in the second half. Eight goals were scored. Danny Wallace added a brace to his first-half strike to complete his hat-trick. Steve Moran grabbed himself a hat-trick in the second half and Frank Worthington scored his first for ten weeks. Southampton ran out 8-2 winners and moved above Nottingham Forest into fourth.
May was going to be a busy month for the Saints with five games in seventeen days. A draw at Stoke City set them up nicely for the visit of Tottenham to the Dell. Spurs had won just one of their last eleven away games, ironically against Coventry, who the Saints had recently thumped. Fortunately for Southampton, Tottenham were two days away from the UEFA Cup final first leg.
It was controversial as Keith Burkinshaw made nine changes from the side which had played Norwich on the Saturday, yet this Monday night fixture just seemed to potentially jeopardise Spurs’ European hopes. David Puckett, now starting in place of Worthington, opened the scoring and then David Armstrong and Danny Wallace both scored twice. A 5-0 win was a great boost to their goal difference. Manchester United and QPR were both on 73 points with Southampton three points behind but with games in hand. Perhaps more significantly, Arsenal’s 3-3 draw at home to West Ham meant the Saints were guaranteed a top-five finish and therefore UEFA Cup qualification.
They now had three matches in six days to complete their schedule. The final Saturday of the season saw Manchester United drop points at Tottenham and QPR lose at Everton. Southampton were at Birmingham. The Blues were deep in a relegation battle. Wolves and Notts County were already down, but Birmingham were one of three clubs locked on the same points just above them. Birmingham had won just one in twelve and none in their last seven. The game was tense and ended 0-0. Southampton were now seven unbeaten since the cup defeat. Elsewhere, Stoke and Coventry won and Birmingham were down. Nottingham Forest won at West Ham and leap-frogged The Saints into fourth but Southampton still had a game in hand.
There were four places up for grabs in the UEFA Cup so a top-five finish would be enough. Two days later, Southampton remained in the Midlands for the visit to The Hawthorns. West Brom had just beaten Luton to secure their First Division status. Southampton were in good form and goals from David Pucket and Steve Moran gave them a 2-0 win and now moved them into third for the first time since just after Christmas.
Wednesday 16 May saw four of the top five complete their fixtures. Liverpool, already crowned Champions, drew at Norwich. Nottingham Forest (fifth) were at home to Manchester United (second). Three weeks earlier United were still challenging for the title, just two points behind Liverpool. But they failed to win any of their next five matches and were now struggling to hang onto second place. Garry Birtles and Viv Anderson, former and future United players, scored for Forest and they won 2-0. Forest were now second, United third and Southampton fourth. All of them on seventy-four points. But Southampton had still to play.
Two days before the FA Cup final, Southampton played their final fixture of the season. This would already be their highest finish in their history, but they one more match to finish even higher.
It was another away game. A trip to Meadow Lane to take on Notts County, who were already confirmed relegated. Trevor Christie scored his nineteenth of the season to give County the lead, but Steve Moran equalised with his twentieth of the season. In the second half, Moran scored again, with his twenty-fifth in all competitions. Then David Armstrong capped his finest season in football with Southampton’s third goal. Armstrong had scored fifteen in the league and nineteen in all competitions.
Southampton had been confirmed runners-up in the league to Liverpool. It had been a historic season, which still remains their best ever league season. Although they had been in second at the end of September, they’d mainly stayed in fifth or sixth throughout the season. Yet defeat in the FA Cup Semi-Final seemed to galvanise them. They were nine unbeaten after that, winning six and this propelled them above more illustrious rivals.
They finished fifth the following season and have yet to reach those heights since. Their UEFA Cup journey didn’t last long as they went out in the First Round to Hamburg.
They would be considered alongside the Ipswich Town side of the late 1970s and early 1980s as one of the most attractive sides to watch. There was another synergy with Ipswich, in that Lawrie McMenemy was an admired manager in a way Bobby Robson was. He had moulded capable of taking on the best. His use of experienced professionals to show his kids the way to go worked wonders. Does it matter they couldn’t sustain it? Perhaps not, as you can never take away what they achieved in 1983-84.