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The Magnificent Seven: FA Cup Finals

Man City and Stoke have a lot to live up in tomorrow’s FA Cup Final. We take a look at seven of the best.

1. Blackpool 4-3 Bolton Wanderers (1953)

TO THIS DAY, Blackpool’s Stan Mortensen remains the only player to have scored a hat-trick in the FA Cup Final in Wembley, popping up twice in the second half of the 1953 renewal to seal The Seasiders’ 4-3 victory over Bolton.

Yet it is his team-mate, “The Wizard of the Dribble” Sir Stanley Matthews, who has since received all the plaudits, so much so that football lovers now commonly refer to the game by its nickname – The Matthews Final.

From a distance of many years this may seem unusual, but at the time, the whole narrative of the 1953 Final was written around Matthews, a much loved gentleman of the English game.

Twice before, he and his Blackpool team-mates had made it to the big dance. On both occasions, in 1948 and again in 1951, they had come up short.

So when Matthews and company saw off Tottenham in the 1953 semi-finals to seal their third Wembley date in six years, most of the British footballing population rowed in behind them. Much as they are in the 21st century, 1950s football fans were suckers for romance.

But with a little over 20 minutes remaining, it seemed that there would be no fairytale ending. After Mortensen had cancelled out Nat Lofthouse’s second-minute opener, Bobby Langton and a limping Eric Bell struck to give The Trotters a 3-1 lead which they held as the game entered the final quarter.

Then “The Wizard” went to work, marauding up and down the right wing, floating in a cross which somehow eluded Stan Hanson and dropped into Mortensen’s grateful path.

Even when the striker had rifled in an 89th minute free-kick to seal his historic hat-trick and rob a draw for Blackpool, Matthews wasn’t to be outdone.

As the ball broke to him just outside the penalty box, he did what he had been doing all day long – beat his man, stuck the ball into the danger area, and sat back and waited for Bill Perry to seal a remarkable comeback.

2. Arsenal 3-2 Manchester United (1979)

Although lacking in all-out aggression and 22 man brawls, the 1979 FA Cup Final was no less passionate an encounter than the less-disciplined reprises which have since come to dominate the modern history of Arsenal versus Manchester United.

After lacklustre league campaigns which had seen the Gunners finish seventh and United ninth, both sides had much to play for.

Arsenal shouldered an additional burden having been beaten in the previous year’s final at the hands of Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town. With first-half goals from Brian Talbot and Frank Stapleton providing a two-goal cushion, it appeared that redemption would be theirs. Until the 86th minute.

When Scottish centre-half Gordon McQueen pulled one back for United with four minutes on the clock, commentator Brian Moore dared to ask “who knows what might be produced in those four minutes?”

Yet not even he could have predicted what was about to unfold just two minutes later, as Sammy McIlroy went on a seemingly interminable run, evading the lunging David O’Leary and slipping the ball neatly through substitute Steve Walford’s legs before rolling it ever so slowly into the corner of Pat Jennings’ net. United, it seemed, had stolen a replay.

With the jubilant United fans still bouncing on the terraces, the game was turned on its head again 22 seconds later. Liam Brady led the Arsenal march downfield, feeding Graham Rix on the left-wing who in turn picked out Alan Sunderland at the back post, sliding in to secure the cup that Arsenal had almost conspired to lose and thus bringing to an end the most dramatic five minutes in FA Cup Final history.

3. Tottenham 3-2 Manchester City (1981, Replay)

Ahead of tomorrow’s game, Manchester City fans will need no reminder that 42 years have passed since the blue half of the city last celebrated FA Cup success.

Since then, they have only had one opportunity to end the drought – that came in 1981 when they met a Tottenham Hotspur side driven by the Argentinian midfield pairing of Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa.

In front of 100,000 fans at Wembley, Ardiles and Villa had to play second fiddle to City’s Scottish winger Tommy Hutchinson who scored the only goals at both ends of the pitch, the game finishing 1-1 after extra time.

The Scot’s team-mates and City supporters probably won’t thank him for singlehandedly making and breaking their only chance at FA Cup glory in 22 years, but the rest of the footballing world should. Without Hutchinson, the thrilling replay which followed five days later would never have happened.

More specifically, Ricky Villa’s magnificent 76th-minute winner would never have happened.

With the game tied at two apiece, the Argentinian drifted onto Tony Galvin’s pass thirty yards out and headed for Joe Corrigan’s goal. Aware that a turn of pace or sleight of foot from Villa could leaving him looking rather embarrassed, Tommy Caton, the big centre-half who marshalled the City defence all afternoon, backed off and invited the midfielder to take him on.

Villa didn’t need to be asked twice. Without breaking stride, he jinked to then left, dragging Caton away from the very area which he was supposed to be protecting. Then, just as quickly, he cut back in the direction of the goal, leaving the defender chasing the shadow of his own tail as he vainly tried to keep up.

As Villa feinted to strike the ball, Corrigan came and Caton lunged, both desperate to get even the faintest of touches, enough to allow any of their retreating team-mates to intervene.

The Argentinian was not to be denied, keeping a cool head to simply roll the ball through the ever-narrowing gap which his pursuers had left before haring away in direction of the jubilant Spurs fans.

4. Coventry 3-2 Tottenham (1987)

By the time the FA Cup reaches its final stage, the well-worn stock phrases about the romance and magic of the cup are usually shelved, filed away for use again the following year.

After all, where’s the “romance” in watching one of the traditional Big Four add another trophy to an already burgeoning cabinet?

The 1987 final between Coventry City and Tottenham Hotspur was somewhat unusual. Despite both teams coming from the league’s top tier, one were clear underdogs as they headed to Wembley.

For Spurs, it was an eighth appearance in the FA Cup Final – they had won on each of the seven previous occasions. Despite becoming a semi-permanent fixture in Division One, Coventry, however, had never won a single trophy of any description in the club’s 104 years of existence.

It took just two minutes for Clive Allen, bagging the 49th goal of a season in which he was scoring for fun, to shatter any hopes which the Sky Blues might have harboured.

To their credit, the early goal changed very little about Coventry’s approach to the game. John Sillett’s men had reached this stage by playing football – using their wingers to great effect, creatively manufacturing chances for the goal-hungry Cyril Regis and Keith Houchen up front.

It was one of those wide men, Dave Bennett, who kept the underdogs’ dreams alive, scoring to make it 1-1 after just nine minutes and then providing the irresistible cross which encouraged Houchen to soar through the air and connect with a diving header, thus cancelling out Gary Mabbutt’s go-ahead goal midway through the second half.

With the sides inseparable at the end of 90 minutes, the game headed to extra time and, as is so often the case in painfully tight contests, was decided there by the cruel hand of Lady Luck.

Had Mabbutt’s unfortunately-placed knee been an inch further forwards or a similar distance in the opposite direction, who knows where Lloyd McGrath’s cross would have ended up?

5. Crystal Palace 3-3 Manchester United (1990)

If the rumours are to be believed, the 1990 FA Cup may have been the tournament which saved Alex Ferguson’s career as Manchester United manager.

In the middle of what looked like becoming his fourth successive trophyless year at the helm, the Scot saw his side embark on a seven-game winless streak over the Christmas break. Hardly ideal preparation for what increasingly became a make-or-break FA Cup Third Round tie against high-flying Nottingham Forest.

Mark Robbins (remember him?) grabbed the only goal of that game and Ferguson survived, leading his charges all the way to a Wembley date against Crystal Palace.

Coming off the back of two of the more exciting semi-finals in FA Cup history, the final itself was widely expected to be a rather more sedate, anti-climactic affair by comparison. Thankfully, both sides completely disregarded the court of popular opinion.

The results were eminently entertaining, Palace taking the lead through Gary O’Reilly before goals by Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes either side of the break gave United a 2-1 advantage.

Sensing the need to make a change as the game entered its final 20 minutes, Steve Coppell looked to the bench and decided that Ian Wright was the man for the job.

Three minutes later, the 27-year-old striker had wound his way past two United defenders and curled his shot around the outstretched arm of Jim Leighton, scoring the goal which would take the game to extra time.

As if Coppell’s decision needed any further vindication, Wright popped up again, stalking in at Leighton’s back post in the second minute of the additional period to put Palace 3-2 up. The Londoners had one-and-a-half hands on the trophy. The organising committee were just about ready to affix the red and blue ribbons.

Then Mark Hughes intervened.

6. Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Nottingham Forest (1991)

If Matthews and Gerrard have FA Cup finals associated with their names for all of the right reasons, Paul Gascoigne would probably rather forget the 1991 game.

At the time, the 22-year-old was probably the most exciting player in the English game. His tears in Italy the previous year had made him a national icon. His stunning free-kick against Arsenal in the Wembley semi-final had made him the talk of the town.

By the time the final rolled around, the hype and the expectation had reached stratospheric levels. It was all just a little bit too much for Gazza to take.

Call it over-exuberance. Call it naivety. Call it stupidity, if you will.

Whatever term you choose to put on it, the story remains the same. The youngster was blessed not to be sent off in the opening minutes when he swung through the ball and planted the studs of his boot firmly in the chest of an onrushing Garry Parker.

On any other day, he would have seen red. But this was the FA Cup final, the showpiece of British football, and referee Roger Milford wasn’t about to send off the one player whom everyone had come to see.

Gazza didn’t need Milford’s assistance to bring his afternoon to a painfully premature end. He was more than capable of doing that all by himself.

7. Liverpool 3-3 West Ham United (2006)

It might not have always been the most beautiful football but, in terms of sheer drama and excitement, few FA Cup finals can compete with the spectacle which Liverpool and West Ham provided in 2006.

From a Liverpool perspective, the game was a catalogue of unpredictable errors and misfortune, each as galling and as frustrating as the last – Carragher’s own goal; Reina’s fumble; Konchesky’s imprecise cross which somehow drifted over the keeper’s head and into the back of the net.

That is to take nothing away from a gutsy and adventurous West Ham performance. Had the Londoners not kept driving forward with a sense of  purpose, they would never have created the situations in which the obliging Liverpool defence could gift them a goal. Or two. Or three.

If the previous year’s Miracle of Istanbul had left one legacy with Rafael Benitez’s men, it was the belief that, no matter how badly they were playing, scoring goals was never out of the question. That is how, despite having been second best for most of the preceding 54 minutes, Steven Gerrard was able to level the game a 2-2 with a thunderous close-range finish past Shaka Hislop.

Still, as the fourth official stood on the Millennium Stadium touchline and raised the board to indicate the amount of stoppage time to be played, even the most ardent of believers must have felt that this was not to be Liverpool’s day.

3-2 down, players cramping up all over the pitch, their captain seemingly exhausted by the gargantuan personal effort which it had taken to drag the team to this point.

As the ball bounced out to Gerrard 30 yards from the West Ham goal, there was only ever one thought on his mind – he was going to strike it. Whether the outrageously ambitious decision was influenced more by fatigue or faith in his own abilities, only he could tell you.

Does it really matter?

Read more of Niall Kelly’s Magnificent Seven series here >