After suffering relegation to Division Two at the end of the 1980/81 season, Leicester City initially struggled for consistency at the start of the next campaign. But come the start of a very wintry 1982, the team turned the corner. The combination of a memorable FA Cup run, and an upturn in league form, made for exciting times.
On the back of this, four league wins in February propelled Leicester to the fringes of the promotion race, and there was a boost when the draw for the Sixth round paired them with Shrewsbury Town. Graham Turner’s team were hovering near the foot of Division Two, and had only won once away in the league all season, with Leicester’s form making them clear favourites to reach their first FA Cup semi-final in eight years. Yet manager Jock Wallace urged caution.
“One thing is certain,” Wallace said. “We won’t make the mistake of underestimating the opposition like Southampton did. Shrewsbury beat Ipswich, which clearly says they are not a bad side either.” Leicester certainly did come flying out of the traps, Larry May heading them in front after just six minutes. Everything seemed to be going to plan in front of a crowd of 29,117, Leicester’s biggest gate of the season.
But throughout the day, the home team looked vulnerable whenever the ball was knocked into their box, with a prime example of this leading to the key incident of the match. Contesting a 50/50 with Chic Bates, Leicester keeper Mark Wallington came off second best in the 21st minute. Writhing in agony in his six-yard box, it was immediately apparent that Wallington’s future participation in the match was under threat.
“I’ve had stitches in a deep gash at the top of my thigh,” Wallington later revealed. “The wound was evidently caused by a stud which ripped into me. After the match, Chic Bates apologised – and anyway, it was a complete accident.” Bravely getting to his feet, Wallington tried his best to carry on, the skipper leading by example. But as half-time approached, he was forced to admit defeat.
Shrewsbury equalised after another long ball into Leicester’s area caused confusion. Both May and John O’Neill attempted to head clear, only for the ball to land at the feet of Bates. His fine finish levelled matters, and just two minutes later, it looked as if Leicester’s dream was now developing into a horrific nightmare.
Wallington had managed to punch clear after a Shrewsbury corner, but his lack of mobility was clear for all to see when Jack Keay lofted the ball back into the box, and the keeper was helpless to prevent Shrewsbury taking the lead. Removing his left glove in an instant, Wallington glanced across to the bench, before putting it back on and trying to give his team the gee-up. But his face, and the frustrated look of Eddie Kelly, said it all. After 42 minutes, Wallington was forced to leave the field.
You could understand his reluctance. In the days of no substitute keepers, Leicester were now exposed, trailing 2-1 and in danger of a devastating defeat. But Wallington, and Leicester, had no option. Centre forward Alan Young donned the keeper’s jersey, with substitute Jim Melrose partnering Lineker up front. Getting to half-time with no further damage was imperative.
However, there was still time for a major turning point in the match. Shrewsbury’s Colin Griffin, attempting to pass back to keeper Bob Wardle, could only look on in horror as the ball trickled into his own net. Coming on the stroke of half-time, Griffin’s unfortunate moment proved costly. The spirits of Leicester’s players and supporters were lifted.
Nevertheless, the hits just kept on coming for Wallace’s men as the second half begun. Coming out to collect an O’Neill header, Young fell awkwardly after a challenge from Bernard McNally. For a second time in the match, a Leicester keeper laid prostrate, with Young clearly knocked out after his heavy landing. “I don’t think he knows too much about where he is at the moment,” the incomparable Barry Davies stated. Young’s headache, had added to Wallace’s.
Winger Steve Lynex was the next man to try his hand between the posts, but he would later be relieved of his duties when Young recovered just before the hour mark. Lynex made his mark in a more conventional manner, though. Crossing from the right, the winger/keeper/winger watched on as Melrose took the ball down brilliantly on his chest and fired past Wardle. It appeared as if Leicester had ridden the storm.
A Lineker goal in the 69th minute and another Melrose strike in injury time sealed Leicester’s win, on an afternoon that took the breath away. “All the drama of 100 years of FA Cup history unfolded in a furious and unforgettable tie,” Richard Bott wrote in the Sunday Express. The Daily Express’ Derek Potter called it a “pulsating cup tie that took on the guise of a Roy of the Rovers story.”
Melrose, who had lost his place in the team due to injury, indicated that his happiness on the day was tinged with a feeling of frustration. “Our manager, Jock Wallace, knows how desperate I am for the chance of 90 minutes football in one go. Perhaps these Cup goals will help me.” The arrival of Alan Smith in the summer, did little to help Melrose’s cause; by September he had left for Coventry.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Leicester went to Chelsea just three days later and were hammered 4-1, the 19-year-old Nicky Walker becoming Leicester’s fourth keeper in a little over a match. Wallington, who missed his first match since December 1974, would miss six league fixtures in total. He returned to action just three days before the FA Cup semi-final, coincidentally against Shrewsbury in a 1-1 draw.
Having beaten Tottenham twice the previous season, Wallace was bullish regarding his team’s chances of causing an upset in the semi-final. But it wasn’t to be. Beaten 2-0 at Villa Park, the team bounced back well, and by the start of May, promotion hopes were high. Yet six games in eighteen days proved too much, and the club would have to wait a year to regain their Division One status, under the new management of Gordon Milne.
There were some memorable moments for Leicester supporters during the 1981/82 season, though. None more so than the Shrewsbury FA Cup match. An old-fashioned cup tie, played on a dodgy playing surface, with two outfield players having a go in goal, seven goals scored, Barry Davies commentating, a passionate and frenzied atmosphere, and all this for the right to play in a semi-final on a neutral ground that wasn’t the same venue as the final.
Sorry, I’ll stop now. It’s almost as if I enjoy reminiscing about the old days, like some middle-aged man who probably needs to accept that the glory days of the FA Cup are never going to return.