May 1985 was not a particularly pleasant period for English football. On Saturday May 11, what had originally been a day of celebration turned into tragedy at Bradford, as 56 people lost their lives in the horrific fire that swept through the Main Stand at Valley Parade.
As the nation heard of the horror at Bradford, news also started to drift through of crowd violence at St Andrews, with Birmingham City and Leeds fans involved in running battles. Sadly, during the trouble inside the ground, a wall collapsed, killing a 15-year-old boy, and dragging the name of the sport through the mud once more. It was within this climate of angst that the build-up to the 1985 FA Cup final played out, a nation of football fans hoping that the showpiece event could maybe paper over the gaping chasms within the structure of the game at the time.
Despite all the turmoil, the FA Cup final was still an eagerly anticipated event as Saturday May 18 approached, perhaps a temporary escape from the troubles surrounding the sport. The Express had been running a number of articles on Wembley first-timers in the week before the final, including an article on Howard Kendall’s 1964 Cup final appearance for Preston, making him, at the time, the youngest player to have played in the final.
Both the Express and the Mirror had bumper pull-outs on the day of the match and of course there were the obligatory Cup final songs.Manchester United’s We All Follow Man United peaked at number 10 in the charts, just beating Everton’s Here We Go, which reached number 14. Cheesy they may have been, but this was just one of the many pieces of the jigsaw that made the FA Cup final so exciting. And we haven’t even started on the television coverage on Cup final day yet.
Cup final day in my childhood was basically Christmas Day for football supporters. A mere glimpse of the Saturday schedule back in 1985 reveals why; the BBC started their coverage at 11am, with the usual variety of delights, such as the traditional visit to the team hotels, the Road to Wembley, and the interviews on the team coach on the way to the ground.
ITV’s World of Sport started an hour later, with guests including Dennis Taylor, Billy Connolly, Jimmy Tarbuck, and a helicopter-based Anneka Rice flying above Wembley stadium. I was a BBC boy myself – no adverts getting in the way – and for roughly seven hours I hardly left my seat. Alas, the FA Cup is now just another game in the season, and part of me feels sorry for anyone not fortunate enough to have experienced just how it felt to wake up as a child on cup final day and be as delighted as I used to be.
For Everton, the weeks after their semi-final win over Luton had seen them get positively high on silver polish, as they clinched two parts of a potential treble; their first league title since 1970 after an 18-match unbeaten run, and on the Wednesday before the final they travelled to Rotterdam and won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup by beating Rapid Vienna 3-1.
Howard Kendall’s stock had risen so much that the press were now linking him with the Real Madrid job – although Ron Atkinson was mentioned in some reports too – and Everton went to Wembley in an understandably confident mood, especially after two wins over their opponents already during the season (one a 5-0 league win at Goodison, the other a 2-1 Milk Cup victory at Old Trafford).
United’s league form unsurprisingly dipped immediately after their high of beating Liverpool, two points from the next nine ultimately costing them the runners-up spot in Division One. However, their 5-1 defeat at Watford prior to the final could be taken with a pinch of salt. Bryan Robson was rested to give his dodgy hamstring time to recover – he would later prove his fitness by scoring a hat-trick in a practice match on the Thursday – and Jesper Olsen was given a much needed rest after playing four games in eight days for club and country. Kevin Moran would eventually get the nod over Graeme Hogg at the heart of United’s defence, a selection decision that would take on extra significance as events would unfold.
The quality of both teams was unquestionable, with all three major award winners featuring in the final: Peter Reid (PFA Player of the Year), Mark Hughes (Young Player of the Year), and the Football Writers’ Player of the Year in Neville Southall.
A number of mouthwatering battles and intriguing tussles hung in the air. How would the relatively inexperienced Paul McGrath deal with the experienced Andy Gray? Who would win the midfield contest between Reid and Robson? Could Hughes ruffle the feathers of his international team-mate Kevin Ratcliffe? Could John Gidman and Arthur Albiston prevent Everton’s wide duo of Kevin Sheedy and Trevor Steven from supplying the ammo for Gray and Graeme Sharp?
In all, 21 of the starting 22 would end their careers with a full international cap (Everton’s Derek Mountfield the exception, though he did play at B and U21 level), and United would make history by becoming the first side to win the FA Cup final with 11 full internationals. Unsurprisingly, with so much talent on both sides, opinion was split on the possible destination of the famous old trophy.
Derek Potter of the Express took United to win by a couple of goals, whereas his colleague Steve Curry, although a lifelong United supporter, predicted that Everton would complete the treble. Phil Neal felt Everton’s wide men would be the main difference, with the Mirror’s Frank McGhee sounding the general opinion that Everton seemed to have the better team, and United the greater individual talent: “United will, I believe, take the trophy because they have more of the many individual talents on display – Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, Jesper Olsen, Gordon Strachan to name the main four.”
Derek Wallis of the Mirror also favoured Manchester United, highlighting that “…the match represents such a challenge to United that a frustrating season will become a heartwarming occasion at the last throb.” Somewhat surprisingly, the bookies appeared to agree with the narrow majority that it would be United’s day; both Coral and William Hill had United at 4-5 to win the trophy outright, with Everton at evens. The bookies are not often wrong – I know this from personal experience – and so it would prove, after an historical 120 minutes at Wembley.
Before the match there was the usual chance for the press to indulge in a touch of scaremongering. According to reports, touts were flogging tickets at roughly ten times the market value (a £25 ticket would cost £250), fans travelling by road were having to contend with over 50 miles of lane closures on the M6 and M1, the AA expecting approximately 80,000 cars (not all supporters I’m guessing) on the road that day, and any fans not travelling by car could take advantage of the 27 special trains laid on by British Rail, which were estimated to be transporting roughly 25,000 supporters. This of course gave the police the extra headache of making sure rival fans were kept apart, although it was at least refreshing to hear that trains had been laid on for the day (take note Virgin), and that the game would kick off at the wacky time of 3pm (take note FA). Football wasn’t all bad in the 1980s.
As with many over-hyped Cup finals, the match didn’t really live up to expectations, hardly surprising really when you consider that both clubs were playing their 60th match of a gruelling season (plus the numerous international fixtures on top of that).
The first half was particularly average, the only real talking point was Peter Reid’s effort, which was deflected on to the post by Gidman, after a poor punch by Bailey. Frank Stapleton did test Southall from long range, the keeper easily saving the attempt that wasn’t even going in, which neatly summed up the general poor showing from both teams in the first 45 minutes.
The second half began more encouragingly, Andy Gray spurning a decent chance after fine work by Reid down Everton’s right. Then came the clearest chance of the match, Norman Whiteside surging through after good work by Mark Hughes and bearing down on goal. Luckily for Everton, Southall showed just why he was regarded as the best keeper in the world at the time, as he raced off his line to smother Whiteside’s effort. With the game drifting inevitably towards extra time, it looked as if United were beginning to benefit from Everton’s midweek exertions, until in the 77th minute came a moment that made football history.
A mistake from the otherwise impeccable McGrath was seized upon by the tireless Reid, and as the midfielder drove forward, all of a sudden there was just Kevin Moran between him and United’s goal. Moran mistimed his tackle, sending a flying Reid sailing through the air, and although Everton’s fans began chanting for Moran to be dismissed, no one expected what was to follow.
Indeed Brian Moore, commentating on ITV, indicated that Moran was about to go into the book, before he and the whole watching world realised that referee Peter Willis had other ideas. “Oh! He’s sent him off. He’s sent Moran off,” spluttered a stunned Moore, with co-commentator Ian St. John equally as surprised: “I really do find that incredible Brian. I think the referee is 100 percent out of order.”
A bit of context: looking at the challenge in today’s footballing world, you would probably expect Moran to be dismissed, but back in the 1980s, the decision made by Willis was truly jaw-dropping. After the match, journalists and pundits rounded on Willis. Mick Channon did not hold back, declaring that “the game was nearly ruined by an imposter calling himself a referee”. Jimmy Greaves hinted that, as this was Willis’ last ever match as a referee, “he wanted to get his name in history before he retired.”
Frank McGhee called the decision “a savage injustice”, Steve Curry called it “an impetuous decision”, and, writing in the Times, Stuart Jones expressed his displeasure on the incident: “The one figure who should have remained anonymous in the background had unwittingly taken a leading and seemingly decisive role in the play.” Only former referee, Clive “The Book” Thomas backed Willis post-match, and that was hardly a ringing endorsement.
Willis, who received £43 for officiating the final, was adamant that he had made the right call, informing the press on the day after the match: “I have no second thoughts about sending off Kevin Moran. I believe I was right at the time and I still believe I was right. But that doesn’t stop me feeling terrible about it.”
This one moment was talked and written about for days after the final, so you can only imagine the kind of fuss an equivalent decision would cause if it were to happen in the 24/7 world of sport we live in today. Whether the decision was right or wrong – I happen to think that in the context of the sport at the time, Moran should have been booked – the fact was that United would face an uphill struggle to contain the champions with just ten men on the pitch.
Atkinson initially resisted the temptation to bring on Mike Duxbury, dropping Stapleton back into defence to partner McGrath. United ended the 90 minutes strongly, Whiteside and Gidman combining well before Pat Van Den Hauwe nipped in to quash any danger (and dashing my remote hopes of a surprise win in my football team’s sweepstake).
Duxbury was introduced at the start of extra time, in place of Arthur Albiston, United hoping desperately that they could somehow get the match to a replay on Thursday night. One man hoping for a positive result, however, was England manager Bobby Robson, who would be robbed of the services of Gary Stevens, Trevor Steven, Paul Bracewell, Peter Reid, Gary Bailey, and most importantly Bryan Robson, for England’s World Cup qualifier on the Wednesday night in Finland. Club vresus country issues existed even back in 1985, which is almost reassuring to know.
As the cliché goes, it is often a lot harder to play against 10 men, and Everton were struggling to take advantage of their numerical superiority. Although Peter Reid would test Gary Bailey from 20 yards, and they would later graze the bar via an unintentional flick from Robson, it was evident to many that Everton’s tired display was an indication that their season was finally catching up on them. With just 10 minutes to go, all seemed set for a replay and an unwanted headache for Robson, until a moment of genius settled the issue.
When Hughes received the ball in his own half with his back to goal, there seemed to be little danger for Everton, even after the Welshman turned well and played a lovely pass with the outside of his right foot to Whiteside on United’s right. Whiteside backed Van Den Hauwe towards goal, using the defender as a shield, before spotting a gap and curling a superb left-footed shot off the inside of the post and past Southall.
Curry would later remark: “You need astonishing expertise these days to curl a ball beyond the reach of Neville Southall, yet Whiteside managed it with a low shot that was as lethal as an Exocet missile.” Put simply, it was a goal worthy of winning a Cup final, and even with the handicap of playing with a man down for 40 minutes-plus, few could dispute that United had deserved their victory. Not for the first time, the determination of Manchester United had deprived Merseyside of a treble.
There would be more controversy as United’s weary players climbed the famous Wembley steps to collect the trophy. Under FA laws, Moran was not allowed to collect his winner’s medal, meaning that he would have to wait for an FA committee to meet in the week to decide on the matter.
Again, every man and his dog had a say on the issue, the Mirror even inviting readers to send in postcards with either YES or NO written on them to indicate whether they felt Moran should receive his medal (for the record, of the 1,140 votes received, 93.5% said yes). Eventually the FA voted in Moran’s favour, the defender naturally delighted as United were enjoying a holiday in Trinidad: “I’m going to treat the lads to a drink. It’s been a traumatic week, but I’m delighted it’s turned out this way.”
Although Everton’s season had ended in disappointment, they could be cheered by the fact that, during their lap of honour (do Wembley losers still do this?), their fans reminded them that they were champions. After the dust had settled, the club could reflect on a fine season and start to look towards the following campaign, and the ultimate challenge of the European Cup.
But just 11 days later came the Heysel Stadium disaster, 39 deaths and a sad conclusion to an already tragic English football season, the inevitable expulsion of English clubs from Europe preventing Everton from ever having the chance to pit themselves against the cream of the continent.
During the course of my blogs covering the first round to the final, there have been many interesting and controversial moments along the way: Ian Branfoot taking his Reading players to visit the “Big Pit” in Blaeavon prior to their first round match with Barry Town; pitch invasions at Dagenham in the second round and at the North East derby between Darlington and Middlesbrough in the third round; Burton v Leicester replayed behind closed doors after Burton keeper Paul Evans had been concussed by a block of wood thrown from the terraces; the endless cold snap that swept the country during the fourth round; York embarrassing Arsenal; the romantic tale of Telford reaching the fifth round; that infamous evening in Luton during the quarter-finals; two classic semi-finals that still bring goosebumps just thinking about them. And to conclude, an against the odds victory for 10-man Manchester United against the finest team in the land during the 1984-85 season.