This piece follows on from my previous blogs on the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth rounds of the 1984/85 FA Cup, which you can view here, here, here, here, here and here.
If you've ever made it through any of my past blogs, you may well have guessed by now that when it comes to the 1980s I can perhaps get a little too nostalgic about a decade of sport that was far from perfect. Although my judgement on most issues may be clouded by childhood memories of events, in an era when I didn't seem to have a worry in the world, I will argue with anyone that the FA Cup in this period was far better than anything we can offer today. And at this time of year, when the weather picks up (usually) and the clocks go forward, I often find myself dreamily recalling the semi-final stage of the competition in years gone by.
The 1985 FA Cup semi-finals are a relevant example of this; over five hours of sporting drama played out in front of thousands of passionate fans, in neutral venues that were actually reasonably near to each of the clubs playing. The twin forces of snow and violence had so far blighted the competition during this season, so from a pure footballing perspective, the matches between Luton and Everton, and Liverpool and Manchester United, were just what the doctor ordered.
Once the draw had been made there was no doubting the glamour tie of the round: Manchester United v Liverpool. Before the mouth watering clash, both sets of players were certainly made to earn their money though, contesting league, European and international matches, before their April 13 date at Goodison Park. United lost on penalties in the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup to Hungarian side Videoton, and were still just about in the race for the title, although a defeat against Sheffield Wednesday the Tuesday before the Liverpool game pretty much ended their hopes of a first league crown since 1967. Liverpool had almost guaranteed their place in the European Cup final by demolishing Panathinaikos 4-0 in the first leg of the semi-final at Anfield. However, they were out of contention in the league, their recent 1-0 loss at home to United ending any remaining chance of a fourth successive title.
Just to add to the fixture congestion and pressure on the players, two international derbies took place featuring a number of United and Liverpool regulars; the England-Republic of Ireland friendly at Wembley saw Gary Bailey earn his first international cap, and Bryan Robson, Jim Beglin, Mark Lawrenson, Paul McGrath and Frank Stapleton added to the Scouse-Manc presence; and it was even more intense at Hampden Park, as Wales beat Scotland 1-0 in a World Cup qualifier, Ian Rush scoring the only goal, with Mark Hughes, Steve Nicol, Arthur Albiston, Alan Hansen and Kenny Dalglish also featuring. A mere warm-up for what was to follow.
Despite Liverpool's dominance in the 1980s, two problems just wouldn't go away: both the FA Cup and their record against Manchester United. Their run to the 1985 semi was their best since 1980, and they had not won the competition for eleven years, an abnormality for a team so dominant and ruthless. Even stranger was their inability to beat their Manchester rivals in the league during the decade (although Liverpool fans can quite rightly point to a League Cup final win in 1983 for some solace). In the twenty league games contested between the two, Liverpool would only win two during the eighties. If there was one team that the red machine would have wanted to avoid then it would have been Ron Atkinson's United, and so it would prove. But not before two bona fide classic cup ties that are still talked about to this day.
United really should have won the first match, twice clawing their way to the top of the cliff before having their fingers stamped on in agonising fashion. With Bailey and Whiteside returning to their starting XI, and Hughes passing a late fitness test, United were a different side to the one that had seen their league hopes end at Hillsborough in the week, raising their game once more at the very appearance of their Liverpudlian rivals. Inevitably it would be Bryan Robson who would give them the lead in the 69th minute, arriving just at the right time after a near post flick-on from a corner. With Hughes and Stapleton constantly bothering Hansen and Lawrenson, and Paul McGrath expertly keeping 22-goal Ian Rush quiet, United looked to be heading to Wembley. But with just three minutes left, Ronnie Whelan curled a superb shot past Bailey - very reminiscent of his strike in the 1983 Milk Cup final - and not for the first time, United would need to pick themselves up off the floor and start all over again.
As the match progressed, it would again be United making the running in the first period of extra-time. Stapleton's deflected shot past Bruce Grobbelaar, again after good work from Hughes, put United back in front, before Paul Walsh equalised in the last minute of the match, albeit in slightly controversial circumstances. As Kevin MacDonald launched a long ball forward through a crescendo of whistles from the United fans, the excellent Brian Moore commented that the linesman had his flag raised for an offside decision, although referee George Courtney did not spot this. Play continued, with Dalglish robbing Gordon Strachan of possession and swinging in a cross, and after Bailey saved Rush's header - the Welshman's only real contribution of the day - Walsh was left with the simple task of bundling the ball over the line. Atkinson immediately pointed towards the official in question, more in hope than expectation, but the goal stood.
As the swaying mass of Liverpool fans celebrated in the Gwladys Street end, it felt as if United had lost their best chance at reaching Wembley, having come so close on two separate occasions. Liverpool on the other hand, knew that they had been lucky, manager Joe Fagan admitting as much: "We didn't really deserve what we got. When they went 2-1 ahead in the first half of extra-time I felt we could all go home, so I am very thankful we have got another crack at it." Last minute equalisers in FA Cup semi-finals examine every inch of a player's mental resolve - just ask Stoke in 1971 and Oldham in 1994 - and popular opinion stated that momentum was now playing as Liverpool's extra man. Surely there could only be one winner in the replay at Maine Road four days later?
Fortunately football isn’t always predictable. A hamstring injury would rule Rush out of the replay (not that his scoring record against United was in keeping with his overall strike-rate), but as McGrath put through his own goal in the first half, anyone associated with United must have feared the worst. Steve Nicol then missed a gilt-edged chance to really hammer home Liverpool’s advantage, and as the teams left the field at half-time, United needed inspiration. In the 1980s that could mean only one thing.
Bryan Robson had certainly earned the tag ‘Captain Marvel’ for both club and country, so it should have been no surprise that it would be United’s skipper that would drag his team back into the match. Picking up a Stapleton pass just inside Liverpool’s half, Robson surged past Lawrenson and unleashed an unstoppable 25-yard drive past Grobbelaar, the sort of strike that would nowadays see the scorer immediately called world-class and probably linked with a move to Barcelona. Robson had yet again taken the team upon his shoulders and given United the belief they needed. Hughes may well have scored the winner in the 59th minute – a goal hotly disputed by Liverpool, who felt the Welshman was yards offside – but there was no doubting who was the real man of the hour. Robson was chaired off the pitch as United fans streamed on to the pitch in celebration at the end of the match. It made a change for Robson to be carried for once.
If the atmosphere at Goodison Park had been electric, then Maine Road on that infamous Wednesday night was simply nuclear. At the time we must have taken this for granted, but it was only on watching the replay a few years ago on ESPN Classic (please don’t go) that I truly realised what a fantastic theatre of noise had been created in Manchester. Do yourself a favour: watch the match on YouTube and drink in the occasion. Goodness knows what it must have been like to play within the four walls of noise surrounding the players that night, but I was intimidated just sitting at home. The whole occasion was a marvel to behold, “a raw embodiment of the best British football has to offer”, as the Daily Express’ Steve Curry wrote at the time. Rob Smyth once opined in this Joy of Six piece: “This was football as nature intended, a relentlessly attacking slugfest played by proper men in front of proper men, in an atmosphere that, 26 years on, effortlessly shivers the spine.” Quite.
Apologies to any supporters of Luton and Everton; of course there was another semi-final, and it too was equally as dramatic. Treble chasing Everton were red hot favourites to see off relegation-threatened Luton Town - who were priced at 9/2 with some bookies - and it was easy to see why. Unbeaten in all competitions in a run of twenty games stretching back to December 22, Everton had just gone to Munich and drawn 0-0 in the first leg of the Cup Winners Cup semi-final, even with Trevor Steven playing as an emergency centre forward in place of the injured Andy Gray, though the Scot would be back for the Villa Park clash, raring to go in the words of his manager Howard Kendall.
Luton's main concern centred on the cup-tied midfield pairing of Peter Nicholas and David Preece, Wayne Turner and Garry Parker stepping in due to this, placing a big burden on the experienced Ricky Hill who, like Brian Stein, was out of contract in the summer. Hill had been encouraged by some of the new signings made by David Pleat, including Steve Foster, Nicholas, and Mick Harford, but was still undecided on his future. The press felt sure that a shock win for Luton could keep Hill at the club, and the noises coming out of Luton in relation to the Everton match were reasonably positive. "We all fancy our chances. We know Everton are favourites, but we have been playing well lately," stated Hill who, as it would transpire, almost proved to be the match winner.
The cautious optimism emanating from the Luton camp prior to the match appeared to be well founded, as immediately they tore into the champions elect. In a frantic opening, Emeka Nwajiobi had three chances to give the Hatters the lead, the striker on one occasion only being denied via a desperate goal-line clearance from Gary Stevens. Everton looked half asleep, as Luton continued to swarm forward, but for all their domination they were lacking a deserved goal for their display so far. The goal finally arrived in the 38th minute through Hill's fine strike from the edge of the area. The 18,000 Luton fans, some waving straw boaters in delight in the Holte End, were in raptures. At half-time, Everton's treble vision was becoming blurred.
Everton couldn't play as badly as they had in the first half, and gradually they began to work their way back into the game. Paul Bracewell hit the outside of the post as the tide began to turn, although Hill did make Neville Southall stretch to keep out another long range effort as the half progressed. The clock began to tick down though, too quickly for Everton's fans and too slowly for Luton. With just five minutes left it looked as if Luton were about to pull off a shock which could have had serious repercussions for the rest of Everton's season, but a slightly dubious free-kick given against Foster and Harford on the edge of Luton's box presented the favourites with one more chance. As Kevin Sheedy stood over the ball, his left foot poised, those inside Villa Park held their breath.
Sheedy's curler wasn't the cleanest strike of his career, but it may well have been the sweetest. The ball curled past Sealey's despairing dive and just inside the keeper's post, deflating Luton's players immediately and conversely lifting the weight from Everton's shoulders. "Luton, who must have thought they were at the gates of Wembley have suddenly been dragged back," cried John Motson, as the distraught expressions on the faces of Sealey, Foster and Stein, showed just how painful a moment had just occurred. There was even time for Stevens to almost win the match before extra-time, his volley narrowly going past the post. In hindsight it may have put Luton out of their misery sooner.
As soon as extra-time commenced it was becoming apparent that a relieved Everton were now in the ascendancy. Mal Donaghy cleared an Andy Gray effort off the line after fine work down the left by Pat Van Den Hauwe, and Sealey was forced to pull off a fine save from Peter Reid as the first half closed. Luton were struggling to repel the waves of blue flowing towards their goal, and eventually their resilience cracked. The final knockout blow was again landed in front of the Holte End via a Sheedy free-kick; centre-back Derek Mountfield's header, his tenth of the season, breaking Luton hearts once more with just five minutes left. Stein missed a half chance with a few minutes left, but Luton's brave race was run. Everton had made it back to Wembley once more, and Luton were now left with just the grim prospect of a relegation battle.
"It went through my mind that we were out of the FA Cup," declared Kendall after the match, before adding "We have a will to win - a determination not to be beaten. Even when we are not playing well we have the quality needed to get us out of trouble." Certainly Everton displayed the kind of attributes required in any top team, yet Luton came out of the match with a great amount of credit, and despite the heartbreak of their semi-final experience, they would take 19 out of the remaining 30 points available to stay up and build for the future. A future that would include Hill and Stein, and a League Cup triumph in 1988, although as an Arsenal fan I'd rather forget about that.
After the trials and tribulations of the 1985 FA Cup, the famous old competition finally got the matches it deserved in the semi-finals. Two memorable tussles - one a titanic battle between great rivals, the other a near triumph for the underdog - played out in pulsating atmospheres, at neutral venues, at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, and not a penalty shootout or a rotated squad in sight. Apologies for sounding like an old man, endlessly harking on about the good old days and conveniently forgetting any negatives, but there was a great deal to like about the FA Cup back then. And just wait until I get started on the 1985 FA Cup final and all that day entailed.