Monday, 13 January 2020

1980 FA Cup final: Willie Young

We’ve all seen that tackle. As Atletico Madrid’s Alvaro Morata raced through on goal with five minutes of extra-time remaining in the Spanish Super Cup final, Real Madrid midfielder Federico Valverde knew what he had to do. Football constantly changes. But there is always room for classic shithousery.

“It was something that I should not have done,” Valverde said after Real’s penalty shootout triumph. “I apologised to Morata, but it was the only thing I could do because he's a very fast player.” Although some frowned upon Valverde’s actions, Atletico coach Diego Simeone excused the defender. “I told him that he did what he had to do at that moment.”

In discussing the incident, many have mentioned a similar tackle that took place 40 years ago. A tackle that saw a big, bad villain ruin the potential of a fairy tale ending and had a significant impact on the future laws of the sport.

The 1980 FA Cup final wasn’t going to script. Second Division West Ham had taken the lead in the first half through a rare Trevor Brooking header, and an Arsenal team, that had seen off the might of Liverpool in four gruelling matches in the semi-final, simply ran out of ideas. And then came the chance for one last dollop of feelgood factor to be added to the plot.

As an exhausted Arsenal side – playing their 67th match of the season – pushed for an unlikely equaliser, West Ham’s 17-year-old midfielder Paul Allen found himself through on goal with just Pat Jennings to beat. The youngest player to have played in the FA Cup final (at the time), was about to complete his boy’s own story. Yet Willie Young had other ideas.

Uncompromising would be one way to describe the hulking Scot who had formed a fine centre back partnership with David O’Leary. And as the millions on television viewers watched on, Young chose the opportune momentto demonstrate his approach to the game.

Young revealed all to Jon Spurling in his fine Rebels for the Cause book. “Paul was put through, about 20 yards outside the box. I had a split second to make up my mind. Either he would have most probably scored, or I had the chance to at least keep us in with a shout. So I thought ‘Son, you've gotta go.’ I was a defender and I defended. It wasn’t a brutal foul – I just tapped his foot and he went down. Paul was very good about it and said ‘I’d have done the same, big man.’ I never lost any sleep over it.”

Whereas Valverde had to be dismissed by the letter of the law, no such punishment existed in 1980. Referee George Courtney booked Young, adding fuel to the fire of those proposing the introduction of the professional foul law. It would be a topic that would not go away in the early part of the decade.

For a club labelled as lucky and/or boring by opposing fans and the press, functional old Arsenal would often attract a lot of criticism. Therefore, you can imagine the feeling of hatred projected towards Young when he took the decision to upend Allen. Had Arsenal found an equaliser, thousands may have spontaneously combusted.

Although Nick Hornby admits in Fever Pitch that he felt embarrassed at the time as he stood on the Wembley terraces, he also commented that “part of me actually enjoyed the foul,” going on to explain why. “It was so comically, parodically Arsenalesque. Who else but an Arsenal defender would have clattered a tiny seventeen-year-old member of the Academy?” 

Although most newspaper reports concentrated on West Ham’s win and the lesser spotted Brooking header, all referenced the incident in the 87th minute. Some backed Young, indicating that it was the law not the defender who was to blame. Others called the foul blatant, callous, cynical, with the Daily Mail’s Jeff Powell feeling it had created a “sour memory” for the watching world.

“As long as professional fouls pay off, they will be committed,” noted the Daily Mail comment section. David Lacey, writing in the Guardian, stated that “the Football Association may consider it worthwhile informing referees of their full support should they decide next season to dismiss those who commit such cynical, squalid fouls, for which yellow cards and free kicks are inadequate punishments.”

Naturally, things didn’t change immediately. By 1982/83, the English Football League announced that any such foul should now result in a dismissal, with Everton’s Glenn Keeley one of the first to suffer the consequences. Come 1985, we would all be talking about professional fouls inthe FA Cup final once again.

The law was obviously introduced as a deterrent. But as Valverde highlighted, there is still room in the sport for pure cynicism. At least Valverde ended up on the winning team. Willie Young didn’t even have that consolation, and four days later there was more pain to come.

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