Thursday, 19 September 2013

1980s: League Cup Third round memories

The League Cup Third round produced some dramatic moments in the 1980s, during a prosperous period for the competition. No squad rotation or penalty shoot-outs back then, even allowing for teams having European commitments before the Heysel-related ban (admittedly there were less European matches in comparison to the bloated affairs we witness today, but the smaller squads counteracted this).

This week, I am taking a look back at ten Third round ties from the League Cup in the 1980s, including some ding dong derbies, a shock, a replay marathon, the end of an era and the start of a new one at Old Trafford, Alex Ferguson angst, and some record breaking exploits. The following will probably not be made into a Channel 4 'Top Ten Moments of the League Cup Third round in the 1980s' style programme (Channel 5 maybe?), yet hopefully they will highlight just how important the competition was in the distant past, especially as the majority of matches below involve the old-school big five.

1983: Big Time Charlie (Tottenham v Arsenal)

Despite scoring two goals in his second Arsenal match against Wolves, the first few months of Charlie Nicholas' time at Arsenal were not as glorious as us Arsenal fans had hoped for. Come November, Arsenal were sat in a disappointing 12th place, and with a North London derby to come at White Hart Lane in the League Cup - a ground where Arsenal had lost 5-0 the previous season - time was fast running out for Terry Neill.

Nicholas would make a telling remark whilst defending himself before the derby: "The big-match atmosphere may be a help. In the last two Glasgow derby matches for Celtic at Rangers, I scored three goals". Indeed, his love of the big occasion was clear for all to see in his derby debut, as he scored his first goal in twelve matches to give Arsenal the lead - although he was given a massive helping hand by Ray Clemence - and when Tony Woodcock made it 2-0, things were looking good.

Hoddle's penalty shortly after reduced the gap and brought some late scares, but Arsenal held firm, marshalled expertly by Pat Jennings, who was in for a surprise of his own come the final whistle, when Eamonn Andrews arrived on the pitch to inform him that tonight "This is your life".

The feel good factor didn't last too long though; just 20 days later Arsenal lost to Walsall and Neill was gone not long afterwards. Twenty days which neatly summed up the problem with that Arsenal team. Good enough to go to Tottenham and win, yet just as likely to lose to a Walsall, Oxford or York. Frustrating doesn't come close to describing it.

1984: The Milk Cup run is over (Tottenham v Liverpool)

And now to a happier evening for Tottenham supporters. When Liverpool arrived in North London on Halloween evening in 1984, they were unbeaten in 25 League Cup rounds (they had lost the odd match in two-legged ties but always progressed to the next round), and had made the competition their own since 1981. Their dominance also meant that since the Milk Marketing Board had begun sponsoring the event in the 1981/82 season, no one else had got their hands on the new trophy.

Of course, all things must come to an end. A Clive Allen strike on six minutes, after a Bruce Grobbelaar fumble, gave Tottenham a lead that they never relinquished, causing more concern for a Liverpool side sitting in 13th place in the league and seemingly suffering from post-Souness disorder. They would recover to finish second in the league, and also reach a European Cup final and FA Cup semi (gaining revenge on Tottenham along the way), but for a team so used to winning, 1984/85 was a most unusual experience for Liverpool.

Tottenham in turn blew their chance of Milk Cup glory by losing at home to Sunderland in the next round, and although they would win in the league at Anfield for the first time since 1912, and mount a serious bid at the title under Peter Shreeves, they would ultimately come up short.

1984: Oxford blues (Oxford United v Arsenal)

When Graham Rix gave Arsenal the lead after 16 minutes at Oxford's Manor Ground, I sat at home wondering what all the pre-match fuss had been about. Yes, Oxford had taken the scalp of Manchester United the year before, run Everton close in a match that turned Howard Kendall's fortunes around, and were currently leading the Second Division, but as First Division leaders Arsenal swarmed all over their lower league opponents, it did appear as if those hoping for a cup shock would have to look elsewhere.

And then it all began to unravel. John Aldridge bravely equalised after 36 minutes, getting a severe clumping from Pat Jennings in the process and leaving the field for 8 minutes, but even in his absence, the ten men of Oxford managed to take a half-time lead through a Billy Hamilton header. Ian Allinson looked to have got Arsenal out of jail with a fine goal, until a rare moment of ineptitude from Pat Jennings put Oxford through.

David Langan's shot from 35-yards somehow got through Jennings' grasp, although there were mitigating circumstances. The Irishman was suffering from a thumb injury, something the Oxford boss Jim Smith openly admitted to knowing pre-match, and a late withdrawal by John Lukic put Jennings in the firing line. "It's the worst goal I have ever let in," declared the keeper afterwards. He would only ever play once more for Arsenal.

Another famous night of giant-killing at the Manor Ground. That was what all the fuss was about then.

1984: No stopping Everton (Manchester United v Everton)

50,918 packed in to watch this tie between Milk Cup favourites Manchester United, and the form team in Everton, who had lost just one match in 15. United were out to avenge a 5-0 shellacking at Everton on the previous Saturday, but honours were even at half-time, after a Graeme Sharp penalty had levelled Alan Brazil's earlier effort.

Not for the first or last time in the season, the visitors were heavily indebted to the agility and reflexes of Neville Southall, as he prevented Stapleton, Moses, Strachan and Gidman, in a frenetic second half. And then came the cruel twist of fate for United; a freak own goal from ex-Everton player Gidman looped over Gary Bailey in the 86th minute to book Everton a place in the next round. Astonishingly they would lose at home to Grimsby, but in a season where Everton had bigger fish to fry, it may have been a blessing in disguise.

"He (Ron Atkinson) may not be able to bear the burden much longer if the heavy Mancunian expectations are not fulfilled". So wrote the Times' Stuart Jones in his match report. Atkinson bought himself a little time with the 1985 FA Cup win, and when United started the 85/86 season with ten straight league wins, it looked as if Big Ron would be the man to deliver that elusive title to Old Trafford. It didn't quite work out as planned though.

1986: Big Ron's last stand (Southampton v Manchester United)

After 15 games of the 85/86 season, United sat ten points clear of Liverpool by way of winning thirteen and drawing two of their opening fixtures. But then the wheels fell off dramatically; just nine wins from the remaining 27 matches saw United drop to fourth, and when this poor run of form continued into the 86/87 season, the vultures were circling Big Ron.

It is questionable as to whether a good League Cup run would have saved Atkinson anyway - a look at the league table prior to their replay against Southampton stresses just how low United had slumped under his tenure - and without Robson and Strachan for the trip to The Dell, along with Whiteside limping off before half-time, United were woeful.

After the 0-0 bore draw at Old Trafford, Southampton tore into United in the replay, goals from George Lawrence, Danny Wallace, and a brace from substitute Matthew Le Tissier saw United crushed. "An unknown, who cost nothing, humiliated the multi-million pound miseries of Manchester United last night," commented Martin Hardy in the Daily Express, as United's season lurched from one problem to the next. Something had to be done.

Atkinson was sacked two days later, replaced by Aberdeen's Alex Ferguson. Now we all know how that worked out, but even Fergie back in his early days experienced League Cup embarrassment, more of which later.

1987: Stevens shocks the red machine (Liverpool v Everton)

The battle for the position of top dog on Merseyside was one of the most gripping aspects of English football in the mid-1980s, but by the start of the 1987/88 season, Liverpool appeared to be very much in the ascendancy. Although Ian Rush had departed for Juventus, the summer signings of Ray Houghton and John Barnes, along with that of John Aldridge in the previous January, had given Liverpool a fresh edge.

By the time the two Merseyside rivals met in the Littlewoods Cup Third round at Anfield on October 28 1987, Liverpool were sitting proudly at the top of the table with nine wins and one draw from their ten matches. Everton on the other hand were struggling to cope with the departure of Howard Kendall to Bilbao, the defending champions already suffering three league losses under new boss Colin Harvey. Surely there could only be one winner? Cue form book going right out of the window.

A crowd of 44,071 witnessed a passionate and thrilling derby match - plus an estimated 30,000 watching on a big screen at Goodison Park - as Everton successfully hassled and harried their way to a 1-0 win, although if Graeme Sharp had been more clinical in front of goal, then the scoreline may have been even more convincing.

Everton's winner came in the 84th minute, via the unusual source of Gary Stevens, temporarily silencing the boos that he had been receiving all evening for his part in the tackle that broke Jim Beglin's leg in the quarter final of the same competition the season before.

Everton's days at the top may have been slowly drifting away, though through this win, along with a 1-0 victory at Goodison to halt Liverpool's 29 match unbeaten run at the start of the season, they gave their supporters something to cling on to. Liverpool would as ever have the final word though, eventually winning their 17th league title, and only losing two matches in the process.

1988: Men against boys (Liverpool v Arsenal)

The 1980s were full of crucial Liverpool-Arsenal clashes; the epic 1980 FA Cup semi-final saga, the 1987 Littlewoods Cup, and that match at Anfield in 1989. Prior to Michael Thomas charging through the midfield came a Third round Littlewoods Cup encounter, spanning 300 minutes of football, three grounds and over 100,000 spectators, as Liverpool attempted to maintain their supremacy over English football.

The first match at Anfield was notable for a fine display by Liverpool's keeper Mike Hooper, and two wonderful goals. The first came after a mazy dribble by John Barnes, with David Rocastle's equaliser the very definition of a net buster. The replay saw 54,029 turn up to Highbury (with a reported 6000 locked out), as the two evenly-matched sides played out a 0-0 draw after 120 minutes of tight and tense football. A second replay was now required, to be played at a neutral venue (Villa Park), and although the idea of a penalty shoot-out was mentioned to separate the teams, this proposal was thankfully rejected.

Paul Merson gave Arsenal a first half lead, before the class of Liverpool shone through. Wave upon wave of attacks hit the Arsenal goal, as first Steve McMahon brought the sides level with a superb strike from outside the box, and John Aldridge put Liverpool through to the next round with a looping header on 87 minutes. The Cockney Pretenders had finally been put in their place by the Scouse Champions.

"It was a case of men against boys and my old Anfield team were the gaffers for the whole 90 minutes," stated Graham Souness in an article published in The Sun on the day of the title decider at Anfield, May 26 1989. "The November night I watched Liverpool beat Arsenal in the Littlewoods Cup at Villa Park also told me who would be champions." Souness had a point - Liverpool were the dominant team on the night - but the simple fact that Graham's Arsenal team ran Liverpool so close should have served as a warning to anyone who underestimated the eventual champions.

1989: Revenge (Arsenal v Liverpool)

Maybe not in the classic mould of past clashes, Arsenal's 1-0 win in October 1989 maintained their canny knack of gradually eroding away at Liverpool's dominance. The visitors would wrap up their 18th and currently last league title come the end of the season, but lacking Hansen, Gillespie and Hysen for this tie, Dalglish set his team up to get a draw and take Arsenal back to Anfield. It almost worked.

With only nine minutes to go though, substitute Alan Smith ended a barren run in front of goal, giving Arsenal their fourth win over Liverpool in the last nine matches (against Liverpool's two). As with the previous year, the loser would go on to secure the bigger prize in May, although there could be no doubting that Liverpool were nearing the end of their time at the top.

1989: Time running out for Fergie (Manchester United v Tottenham)

Understatement alert: The start of the Alex Ferguson reign was not going particularly well. Three years into the job, there had been a lot of money spent with no discernible improvement, a 5-1 derby defeat at Maine Road, and by the time Tottenham arrived for the League Cup Third round clash at Old Trafford, United were struggling down the wrong end of the table.

Things were about to get a lot worse though. Tottenham, undeterred by losing Terry Fenwick with a broken leg early on, picked United apart, dismantling a team fragile on confidence and increasing the spotlight on Fergie. Goals from Gary Lineker, Vinny Samways and Nayim, gave Tottenham a comfortable 3-0 victory, and as the final whistle blew, United were booed from the pitch by supporters fast running out of patience.

There was still time before the year was out for more Fergie woe, the "Three years of excuses and we’re still crap – Ta-ra Fergie" banner, and newspaper speculation over his job from game to game. A while back, I took the time to ponder the implications of Ferguson getting the bullet, which you can read here. Mark Robins, and the composure of Martin Edwards, have a lot to answer for.

1989: Frankie Bunn (Oldham v Scarborough)

Oldham 7 Scarborough 0. Hardly a closely fought, edge of your seat thriller, I hear you say. But this tie was notable for two reasons: the scoring feats of Frankie Bunn, and the warning given out by Oldham that on their artificial pitch, they may well be a match for slightly mightier opponents than Fourth Division Scarborough.

Bunn's six goals in one match, including five in the first half, was unsurprisingly a new record for the League Cup. The striker was fairly modest about his achievement, pointing out that "It was just my lucky night. It doesn't happen too often that you get seven chances and take six of them". Sadly, Bunn's career at the professional level would be over by 1990, but not before he had helped Second Division Oldham reach the Littlewoods Cup final against Nottingham Forest.

Oldham would defeat higher league opposition in the two rounds succeeding Bunn's night to remember. Firstly, defending league champions Arsenal were defeated 3-1 at Boundary Park and after a 2-2 draw against Southampton at The Dell, home advantage once more told, a 2-0 win setting up a semi-final with West Ham. When the first leg was won 6-0, Oldham's dream run would go all the way to Wembley. The final may have been one step too far, but coupled with their run to the FA Cup semi-final, Oldham had indicated that they were going places, although I'm starting to drift into a decade that is out of my remit.

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