Monday, 8 January 2018

1988/89: Bristol City's Littlewoods Cup run

Bristol City will have their work cut out to beat Manchester City in the Carabao Cup semi-finals. But in 1989 they came within a whisker of making it to Wembley.

After 180 minutes of their gripping Littlewoods Cup semi-finals, it looked as if extra time would be needed to separate Bristol City and Nottingham Forest. But there would be one final chance for Joe Jordan's Division Three team. As the black and white cue mark flickered on the screens of ITV viewers, a corner dropped on the left foot of City's Alan Walsh, a little over twelve yards out from goal. Opportunity knocked.

After the turmoil at Bristol City during the early part of the eighties - three relegations, bankruptcy, and the Ashton Gate Eight - the club had managed to get back on its feet. Under the management of Terry Cooper, City climbed out of Division Four at the end of the 1983/84 season, and after Joe Jordan took over the reins in March 1988, the club found themselves 90 minutes away from promotion to Division Two.

Alas there would be play-off heartbreak for City, with Walsall winning a replayed final 4-0, and although hopes were high going into the 1988/89 campaign, Jordan's team just couldn't get anything going in the league. Constantly hovering in mid-table and tantalisingly close to the play-off spots, the main excitement would come in the shape of a Littlewoods Cup run that almost led to Wembley.

The draw was relatively kind throughout the cup run. Cooper's Exeter were beaten 2-0 on aggregate in the first round, but Bristol City would see off Second Division opponents in the next two rounds. A 4-2 win away at Oxford United set up a 6-2 aggregate win, and just as in October 2017, Crystal Palace were swept aside 4-1. Ralph Milne scored two goals on a memorable night, but a little over a week later the winger would be on his way to Manchester United for £170,000.

A goal from Carl Shutt edged City into the last eight at the expense of Fourth Division Tranmere, the scorer maintaining his fantastic Cup form that saw him notch eight goals in both major knockout tournaments. Second Division Bradford City may have knocked Everton out in the previous round, but a first minute strike from Walsh would put Bristol City into the last four of the League Cup for the first time since 1971.

Understandably, the run was expected to end against Nottingham Forest in the two-legged semi-final. After all, Brian Clough was in the process of building a team that probably does not receive enough credit for how good it was. Containing players such as Stuart Pearce, Des Walker, and Nigel Clough, Forest would achieve two third-place finishes in Division One, reach two FA Cup semi-finals, win two League Cups, and a Simod Cup, in an exciting two-year period for Forest fans.

The focus was not on Clough's players before the semi-final, however. The actions of Forest's boss were dominating the front and back pages of the newspapers, as well as featuring in a number of news reports. Fined and given a touchline ban for striking his own supporters after some had invaded the pitch after their quarter final win over QPR, Clough was hoping for some positive press, aiming to lead Forest to their first major Wembley final since 1980.

With the first leg at the City Ground, there was a real threat that Forest could be out of sight before the two teams met again at Ashton Gate in front of a live ITV audience. Clough's team were flying - ten wins and a draw in their last eleven matches - and it was little wonder that the visitors were priced at 9/1 to win. Walker, recently awarded his first England cap, couldn't force his way back into Forest's eleven, as Clough stuck with his centre back pairing of Steve Chettle and Terry Wilson.

Soaking up wave after wave of attack, City's defence stood firm. Keeper Keith Waugh had a fine match, with Rob Newman excellent in defence, as 37-year-old player manager Joe Jordan ploughed a lone furrow up front. Forest probed constantly, but couldn't find a way through. A Lee Chapman goal was ruled out due to an offside, although strangely City had one of the best chances to break the deadlock, when Steve Sutton denied Walsh.

As the second half progressed, Waugh would thwart Forest once again, smothering Pearce's volley after he had played a lovely one-two with Clough. Just 60 seconds later, came the first goal in the tie, but from an unexpected source. Defender Paul Mardon, a 19-year-old Bristolian playing in midfield to deal with Steve Hodge, chose a fine time to score his first and only goal for the club. Driving in from the edge of the box after a Mark Gavin lay-off, City were now in dreamland.

"It was the best strike in my life," Mardon admitted. "One in a million, you don't hit many like that. I don't remember it going in. I was swamped by so many players." As the City fans celebrated wildly, Nigel Clough apprehended a jubilant supporter, with City's John Bailey also escorting a fan off the pitch. "He was on cloud nine," Bailey said later. "He kept saying 'I can't believe we have scored'."

For a long time, it looked as if Mardon's strike would give City the advantage going into the second leg. But in the 84th minute, Forest were given a lifeline in heartbreaking circumstances for the visitors, and John Pender in particular. Looking to guide the ball back to Waugh as Chapman threatened, Pender could only look on in horror as the ball rolled into the corner of the net. Agony.

However, Bristol City would have taken the draw beforehand, and for long periods of the first half of the second leg played on Sunday February 26, it looked as if the draw gained in Nottingham would prove decisive. Walsh was a thorn in the side of Forest, often requiring two men to deal with him, and Sutton had to be at his best to thwart a Steve Galliers shot that deflected off Jordan.

Hodge and Neil Webb were overrun in midfield by Galliers, Mardon, and Steve McClaren, but come half-time, a few stern words from Clough seemed to do the trick. Waugh kept out efforts from Garry Parker and Chapman, and he also saved well from a Pearce free kick. But as extra-time loomed, Walsh would get the chance to take Bristol City to Wembley.

"Bristol City so very nearly succeeded where Frank Bruno failed yesterday in overturning impossible odds to reach the Littlewoods Cup final," wrote Clive White in the Times, referring to Iron Mike Tyson's latest heavyweight title win. Walsh's effort struck the foot of the post, and Forest had survived by the skin of their teeth. "In the moment that Forest scrambled the ball away, one felt that the best part of 30,000 hearts had been broken," White added.

With no away goals rule in place, the tie appeared to be drifting towards a replay at Villa Park, until Parker delivered the hammer blow with just six minutes remaining in extra-time. "City made it very hard for us," Parker admitted. "I thought it was going to a replay, but luckily I got a chance to get the winner." Sweeping the ball past Waugh after the ball had evaded Clough, Parker had landed the knockout blow.

Clough senior would again make the headlines, dragging Pearce away from the cameras before he could conduct a post-match interview on ITV. Yet the main focus remained on Third Division Bristol City, their battling efforts that had spanned 210 minutes, and the fright that they had given Forest. Waugh may have earned the man of the match for his display, but Walsh had been inches away from placing the final full stop at the end of the fairytale.

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