With the hopes and dreams of 734 football teams dashed into smithereens, the stage is now set for the FA Cup Final, as the Goliath of Manchester City prepares to go toe-to-toe with the Large David of Watford in the showdown of the Spanish managers. Will City find themselves stung by the Hornets? Can Will Hughes follow in the footsteps of fellow ginger-in-denial Ben Watson? Or will Old Big Ears be heading back to the Etihad for the second time this decade, leaving Elton in tears again. I guess that’s why Sir Ben Kinglsey calls them the Blues. Only time will tell, but in the meantime we’ve got our Flashbacks feature to finish, and for such a grand occasion it would be remiss not to remind ourselves of one of the humdingiest cup finals of the last thirty years. It involves one team from Manchester arriving at Wembley as strong favourites, and an underdog from south of the Watford gap looking to spring a surprise. It also cemented the remarkable rise of one of England’s most clinical marksman. On the cusp of English football’s rebirth, Manchester United and Crystal Palace played out a classic. If this season’s cup final is half as dramatic, we’ll be in for a treat.
These days its rare that an FA Cup final doesn’t feature at least one of the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’ teams. In fact, besides Portsmouth’s victory over Cardiff City in 2008, you’d have to go back to 1984 and Everton’s win over Elton John and Watford to find a cup final that didn’t feature any of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool or Tottenham Hotspur. Of course the so-called ‘Big Six’ is a relatively recent construct, and Chelsea’s win over Middlesbrough in 1997 was only the beginning of their steady rise to English football’s top table, but it would certainly raise a few eyebrows to see the teams that finished 13th and 15th in the top flight meet in the showpiece of the world’s oldest cup competition.
That Manchester United and Crystal Palace had reached the final was remarkable in itself. United, struggling badly since the sacking of Ron Atkinson, had only got as far as the quarter-finals of the FA Cup in four seasons under new manager Alex Ferguson, while their league form had largely been underwhelming. A second-placed finish in 1988 was the outlier in half a decade of underachievement and, as the story goes, the Scot was under mounting pressure to turn the tide at Old Trafford. A miserable Christmas period had seen United fail to win in eight games, including a home loss to newly promoted Palace, as the Red Devils plummeted down the league table. Their next match, the FA Cup Third Round tie at Nottingham Forest, was make or break, with whispers in the corridors of power suggesting a defeat would see Ferguson sacked. Mark Robins struck the only goal of the game to secure victory for the visitors at the City Ground, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Except that doesn’t quite tell the whole story of how desperate Manchester United remained for the rest of the season. The winless run continued into Februray, until a late Mark Hughes goal secured a 2-1 win at Millwall and dragged Ferguson’s side away from the relegation zone. They would continue to hover there until a four game winning streak in April secured top flight safety. Finishing 13th flattered them. The FA Cup proved a welcome distraction however, with consecutive draws away from home shielding the team from the fury of Old Trafford. After Forest had been sidestepped, United were rewarded with trips to Hereford United, Newcastle United, and Sheffield United, before an epic semi-final against Oldham Athletic was decided in a replay at Maine Road, Mark Robins again proving the hero. Despite their wretched league form, they were tipped to lift the cup.
Crystal Palace, on the other hand, were riding high, in spite of finishing two places below the Reds. Having spend most of the 1980s perpetually plodding in Division Two, Steve Coppell had chanced upon the potent strike force of Mark Bright and Ian Wright, whose goals fired the Eagles into the top flight via the playoffs in 1989. What started out as a dream return quickly turned into a nightmare by the fourth game of the season, as Palace were humbled at Anfield. On a balmy Tuesday night by the Mersey, Perry Suckling watched helplessly as Liverpool scored nine past him without reply. It marked Palace’s biggest ever league defeat, and led to a serious inquest in the dressing room. Shortly afterwards, Steve Coppell made Bristol Rovers’Nigel Martyn the first £1m goalkeeper in English football.
Palace’s form would soon improve, and a kind run in the FA Cup saw them head deep into the competition without breaking too much sweat. Portsmouth, Huddersfield Town and Rochdale were all dispatched at Selhurst Park, before Cambridge United – the lowest ranked team left in the competition – had their cup run ended by Geoff Thomas at the Abbey Stadium. The semi-final draw would not prove so benevolent, and Liverpool would stand in the way of the Eagles’ first appearance in an FA Cup Final.
Revenge is a dish best served with a side of heart palpitations. On a sun-kissed afternoon in Birmingham, Crystal Palace and Liverpool served up one of the greatest FA Cup ties in the competition’s history. Pulsating from start to finish and packed with more drama that an Eastenders Christmas Special, even Kenny Dalglish kept his coat on in the blistering heat lest he miss a second of the action. Ian Rush’s goal after fourteen minutes had the travelling Palace fans wary of a repeat of that Anfield nightmare, but Bright’s equaliser just after the break set the tie up nicely for the remainder of the second half. Gary O’Reilley’s goal twenty minutes from time gave brief hope that the underdogs could clinch a famous victory, before those hopes were extinguished quickly by Steve McMahon and a John Barnes penalty. At 3-2 with seven minutes to go, Coppell could at least console himself with the effort his players had put into the match. But two minutes from time a melee in the Liverpool penalty area saw Andy Gray outjump four defenders on the line to nod home a dramatic equaliser. In extra time, at the Holte End of Villa Park, it was Alan Pardew that rose highest to power Gray’s corner beyond Bruce Grobbelaar and finally floor Liverpool for good.
FA Cup Final