The FA Cup motors on to the Fourth Round this weekend, with thirty-one teams still dreaming of playing at Wembley, while Spurs continue to claim squatters rights. To celebrate this season’s competition we’re looking back on some of the great cup ties from years gone by. Not necessarily the biggest shocks (however remarkable Shrewsbury’s win against Everton was), nor even the most entertaining games (Chelsea coming back from two down to beat Liverpool 4-2? It’s good but its not quite right), but matches that offer a reminder of why the FA Cup remains one of the most storied competitions in the world. Moving away from the typical underdog stories of yore, we’ve decided to look back on a Fourth Round clash between Division One Wolverhampton Wanderers and Premier League Sheffield Wednesday, and the ultimate shootout.
The magic of the FA Cup is about more than just David v Goliath, cup final heroes, and remarkable chest hair. It’s floodlights at half-time on a Saturday afternoon in January. It’s mud and thunder, imperfect playing conditions, and unlikely heroes. It’s the competition that can take an entirely bog-standard looking fixture and produce moments that are talked about decades later. Because if the infernal atmosphere of a lower league ground on a freezing winter’s evening isn’t enough to see your team through against greater opposition, the cup will find a way to deliver. Take Guiseley last season. Rooted to the bottom of the National League, they secured a replay against League Two Accrington Stanley thanks to a goalless draw at Nethermoor Park. In the return leg, Sean McConville’s goal looked to be enough to settle the tie in favour of the league side, but John Rooney’s equaliser from the spot set up a penalty shootout, which the underdogs won to book their place in the second round.
Now cast your minds back to the 1994/95 season. Disco-and-Western was the fusion genre taking the nation’s clubs by storm, Oasis and Blur were gearing up for the biggest chart battle ever seen, and Manchester City and Chelsea were scrapping it out towards the wrong end of the Premier League. Fellow top flight side Sheffield Wednesday, meanwhile, were sitting comfortably in the top half and looking to emulate the cup run that had seen them reach the final two years previous. Under Trevor Francis they’d become regular challengers for a UEFA Cup place in the league, and the strike partnership of David Hirst and Mark Bright was giving the SAS pairing of Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton at Blackburn Rovers a run for their money as one of the most prolific in the league. Behind them, Chris Waddle was still giving full-backs nightmares, and Andy Pearce and Des Walker had struck up a decent understanding at the centre of defence. In goal was Kevin Pressman, an impressive shotstopper with reflexes that belied his bulky physique. Having already dislodged former England number one Chris Woods from the sticks, Pressman was developing a reputation as one of the best ‘keepers in the Premier League, particularly when it came to saving penalties. After sidestepping Gillingham in the third round, a home draw against Wolves gave Wednesday the perfect opportunity to go deep into the competition.
Given that they’re now the undisputed Best Promoted Team Ever, it’s hard to believe that Wolves were once considered sleeping giants. Regular winners of the old first division during the 1950s, the boys from the Black Country had been up and down the leagues from the early 80s, and were now in the midst of a period of stasis in the second tier of English football, despite the odd flirtation with the playoffs. Graham Taylor had been installed as manager at the end of the previous season following his England nightmare, and took no time at all to give the squad a facelift. Ahead of his first full season in charge, £5m was spent on bringing the familiar faces of Tony Daley and Steve Froggat to Molineux, while nominative determinism dictated that Dutch defender John De Wolf was signed in December.
The first game between the two sides was the archetypal damp squib. Ironically it was Paul Jones in the Wolves goal, rather than his opposite number, that provided the penalty heroics at Hillsborough, saving Chris Bart-Williams’ spot-kick. The replay, though, was a firecracker of a match. Played at the kind of intensity rarely seen in modern-day cup-ties, Wolves went for the throat of the visiting Owls from the off, and were rewarded in front of the watching Sky cameras after just thirteen minutes. David Kelly, cast-off by Newcastle following their promotion two years previous, had lifted some of the goalscoring burden from Wolves golden boy Steve Bull, and in the absence of the local hero it was he that connected with an early corner to give the hosts the lead. In the second half, Premier League class began to tell, as Trevor Francis’ side pushed against a wall of noise to threaten Paul Jones’ goal. In the end, it was a scrappy toe-poke from Bright that brought Wednesday level. Ninety minutes and extra-time couldn’t separate the teams, and so it fell to a penalty competition.
A quick consultation of the penalty algorithm will tell you that the higher-ranked side goes into a shootout with a slight advantage. The best players, in theory, have the greater skill and nerve when it comes to scoring from twelve yards, while pressure tends to affect the underdogs to a larger degree. The early knockings of this shootout demurred to received wisdom. Mark Bright, cool as you like, sent Jones the wrong way. Wolves full-back Andy Thompson, Taylor’s regular penalty-taker, rattled his effort off the crossbar. Advantage Wednesday. Guy Whittingham stepped up next for the visitors, and blasted his effort into the top corner, before Robbie Dennison fired his effort too close to Pressman, and the Owls’ keeper palmed away to preserve a two-goal advantage. The cameras panned to Waddle, pacing nervously on the half-way line, offering an unspoken reminder of his notable experience in penalty shootouts.
The next kick provided the most enduring memory of the game. A clip that has been watched and rewatched on a loop since those who first witnessed it agog. A moment that, out of context, provokes a visceral reaction of joy. The dictionary definition of the word ‘Ooft’. Because, for a split second, confusion reigned in the Molineux stands, as no Wednesday player stepped forward from the half-way line to take their turn from twelve yards, until the realisation dawned that, yes, Kevin Pressman, the goalkeeper, was going to take the next penalty. A hush descended over the stadium, as if a new born calf had emerged from the tunnel and clumsily made its way to the penalty spot.
Take it? He fucking leathered it. It was as if, in that moment, twenty-five years of frustration was being channeled into one kick of a football. If the twin powers of the stanchion and net hadn’t stopped it in its path, we might still be talking about the night Kevin Pressman decapitated a thirteen year old boy at a football match. In the words of Martin Tyler: “Get. In.”
Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 up then, and Wolves now a missed kick away from tumbling out of the cup. And this is where the context of Pressman’s penalty resurfaces, because it marked a miraculous turning of the tide. The experienced Gordan Cowans slid his kick into the bottom corner, and Wolves were finally on the scoresheet. Pearce, though, would surely settle it with his kick. But like Thompson, he thundered against the bar. The camera’s focus returned to Waddle, whose face wore the expression of a man that had already seen the next few minutes unfold. “Pearce has missed and I’ve got to take one you say?”
Kelly was up next to keep the tie alive, and he’d clearly been watching Pressman closely, battering his effort high into the net and well out of the ‘keeper’s reach. Bart-Williams stepped up next for Wednesday. The opportunity to put his miss in the previous meeting to bed, and finish this ludicrous shootout once and for all. Instead, he delivered perhaps the worst kick of the night, a tame shot straight at Jones. Wolves were back from the dead, and John de Wolf was hardly going to sully his good name by not taking the chance to level. A little less brutal than those before him, de Wolf dinked his kick into the top corner. The tie now level at 3-3. Sudden death. Up stepped Waddle. Pilloried throughout the game by the home crowd, but now with the opportunity to silence them. Just don’t put it over, Chris. He didn’t. He put it straight down the throat of Jones instead. Don Goodman stepped up to win it, and thrashed it straight down the middle, too hard for Pressman to react. From 3-0 down, Wolves had won 4-3 in one of the most extraordinary penalty shootouts ever seen. And Pressman’s perfect penalty had been for nothing.
A victory over Leicester City in the next round saw Wolves into the quarter-final for the second successive season, and another absorbing encounter with Crystal Palace was played out in the replay at Molineux. This time, though, Premier League class shone through. But that cup run for Wolves will forever be remembered for a daft night in February when Sheffield Wednesday came to town.