Monday, 13 February 2017

1985 FA Cup Fifth round: Blackburn v Manchester United

As Manchester United prepare to visit Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup fifth round, I'm taking a look back at the same fixture from the 1985 competition. Many thanks to Mick Rathbone for his time in helping me write this piece.

Back in the winter of 1985, there wasn't much of a fuss kicked up when it was announced that Manchester United's FA Cup fifth round match away at Blackburn would be screened live on BBC One. Firstly, it wasn't the 817th time in a row that television executives had made the decision to screen a Manchester United FA Cup tie; and secondly, the match between Bobby Saxton's Division Two leaders, and the club managed by the under-pressure Ron Atkinson, looked to have all the ingredients of a potential FA Cup giant killing.

For one man, though, the night would not turn out as he would have hoped. Blackburn's Mick Rathbone had experienced a few highs and lows in his career before roughly 7.21pm on Friday February 15, 1985, yet at that precise moment, he probably wanted the frozen Ewood Park pitch to swallow him up. For his very public mistake would prove costly, allowing Manchester United to clear a tricky obstacle, on their ultimately glorious Cup run.

Life in the professional game had been tough at first for Rathbone. "I joined Birmingham City from school. My home town club. They were in the top division at time. I made my league debut at 17 but struggled being a fan and a player." The dream for Rathbone was fast turning into a nightmare. "I fell out of love with game and had crippling performance anxiety. I wanted to pack it in but Jim Smith persuaded me to go on a month's loan to Rovers."

The move was crucial for Rathbone. "It all changed there and I felt wanted and important. I begged Brum to let me stay there full-time. They weren't keen at first but relented and sold me for £40,000." Despite this new security, Rathbone very nearly threw away his opportunity at Ewood Park, clashing with manager Howard Kendall over his lack of discipline off the pitch.

"At the start of my first full season, me and Russell Coughlin were in digs together," Rathbone explains. "We were both young and away from home, and just enjoyed ourselves a bit too much." Rathbone's physical condition led to Kendall suspending him for three months, but in this time he met his future wife Julie, who put Rathbone on the straight and narrow path to fulfilment.

By 1985, Rathbone was part of a Blackburn team under the management of Bobby Saxton that were seemingly going places. Top of Division Two, the club had lost just one match at home, had scored in every League match, and combining organisation with the flair of wingers Noel Brotherston and Ian Miller, the future looked bright. With club legend Derek Fazackerley at the back, and seven other members in the squad with over 100 appearances for the club, Blackburn certainly didn't lack experience.

Rathbone reveals the reasons for Blackburn's success during 1984/85. "We had a great team spirit. Big hearts and desire, and to be fair some decent players. We all loved that club." Saxton's methods were also well appreciated. "We loved Bob Saxton. He was a terrific manager. Tough but fair, and a great man manager."

Blackburn had to take on fellow Division Two high-flyers Oxford before the winners could claim the grand prize of Friday night live coverage against Manchester United in the fifth round. For the cash-strapped Lancastrians, the income from the BBC would be extremely welcome. Therefore, Jimmy Quinn's winner against Oxford, and Terry Gennoe's penalty save from Bobby McDonald, left the board, management, and players delighted.

Were the Blackburn squad excited at the prospect of appearing live on BBC One? "Very much so," Rathbone says. "It was the start of the TV era." With a sell-out crowd of 22,692 joined by fans outside the ground trying to catch a glimpse of the action, hopes were high for a shock. "We knew we could at least give them a scare," Rathbone admits. "We had the home advantage and a good team."

What Blackburn needed was a solid start. Sadly for Rathbone, his slip after just six minutes gave United a precious early lead. Attempting to pass the ball back to Gennoe, Rathbone trod on the ball, allowing Gordon Strachan the opportunity to chip United in front. "The rubber-coated ball got stuck under my foot," Rathbone explains. "Every time I saw Strachan over next the 30 years he would hug me and thank me for helping his Man Utd career take off."

Strachan's 18th goal of his debut season in England eased United nerves, and although Blackburn threatened through Quinn, Chris Thompson, and substitute Simon Garner, Gary Bailey stood firm. Strachan missed an ideal chance to put the game to bed, blazing over an 81st minute penalty, but with just a couple of minutes remaining, Paul McGrath surged through the midfield - aptly wearing the number seven shirt of the absent Bryan Robson (recovering from a dislocated shoulder) - and the newly capped Irish international bundled the ball past Gennoe to clinch United's place in the last eight.   

"I was mighty relieved when McGrath scored their second," Rathbone says. "Everybody was great. There were no recriminations. I was a good player for Rovers and popular with the fans." United would go on to win their quarter final with West Ham, take part in an epic double-header with Liverpool, and pull off a ten-man victory over champions Everton in the final. But for the defeated Blackburn there would only be pain.

Perhaps suffering from a hangover after the United match, Blackburn lost their next three games, and ended the season an agonising one point short of automatic promotion, Rathbone pointing to the tiny squad Saxton had at his disposal as a possible reason for this. What is indisputable is that Blackburn would never reach such heights again under Saxton. Finishing 19th in 1985/86, by December 1986, Saxton was gone.

Under Don Mackay, Blackburn won the Full Members Cup final at Wembley in 1987, but for the recently injured Rathbone there was only disappointment at missing out on the experience, as Chris Sulley retained his place in the team. "It was the best of days and the worst of days to quote that bloke in A Tale of Two Cities," Rathbone comments. "It made me decide to leave and go to Preston, which I loved too."

Rathbone's career would subsequently finish aged just 32, but his early retirement gave him an opportunity to move into a new field. "I wanted to be doctor when I was at school, but left at 16 to join Birmingham. When I finished at 32 it was too late too train to be doctor, so I went to Salford Uni to be physio and I have been lucky to have been very successful." Stints at Halifax, Preston, and Everton followed, and Rathbone is now Head of the Medical department at Wigan.

I must admit I felt a little anxious about approaching an ex-footballer to reminisce about something they may wish to forget. But Mick Rathbone could not have been more obliging. In fact, Blackburn's former left-back seems extremely relaxed about discussing his unfortunate mistake on that cold night in February 1985.

"I felt ok you know. It's just part of game," Rathbone says. "As Bob Saxton famously said after the game: the name of Mick Rathbone is now known all around the world."

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