One of the peculiarities of the history of Wembley Stadium is how few derby matches have been played there. Before we go on to look at the derby matches that have been played there, however, it is important to distinguish how we are going to define that phrase in itself. Like many phrases that have entered the terminology of football, the phrase “local derby” has come to have something of a fluid meaning, but we are clamping down on that sort of thing for the purposes of this article. For that reason, Liverpool vs Manchester United don’t count, and neither does Arsenal vs Chelsea. Regardless of the toxicity of the rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United’s supporters, it can’t count as a true derby match for as long as Everton and Manchester City exist.
Wembley, of course, opened for the 1923 FA Cup final and it didn’t have to wait for too long before an interncine struggle from elsewhere in the country landed on its doorstep, in the form of the 1926 FA Cup Final between Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City. Bolton were a mid-table team at the time, but had won the tournament in 1923, whilst Manchester City had finished the season by getting themselves relegated into Division Two. Considering this, it was no great surprise that Bolton won the match, thanks to a single goal from David Jack. Five years later, it was the attention of another city, Birmingham, that was focussed on Wembley for the FA Cup final. West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City had reached the final, and it was West Bromwich Albion that won the match by two goals to won. The winners had received 80,000 applications for their allocation of 7,500 tickets for the match, which offers us a glimpse of the importance of it.
There were to be no more local derby FA Cup Finals until the 1980s, but other competitions did manage to bring their local anxieties to Wembley in the mean-time. The FA Amateur Cup provided a local derby three times in five years in the early 1950s, with Bishop Auckland playing nearby Willington and Crook Town in 1950 and 1954 whilst Walthamstow Avenue played Leyton in the 1952 final. In same competition, Wimbledon beat Sutton United in 1963, and Hendon beat Enfield in 1972. Such matches, however, were never likely to grab the attention of the entire nation, though, and it wouldn’t be until the middle of the following decade that a local rivalry would come to properly dominate the national game.
Without any doubt, the defining rivalry of English football during the middle of the 1980s was between Everton and Liverpool. Liverpool had been the dominant team in the country for most of the previous ten years, but Everton had been largely dormant since their league championship win of 1970. In 1984, though, they managed to play each other at Wembley twice, in the League Cup final and the Charity Shield. The first of these matches ended in a goalless draw (Liverpool won the replay at Maine Road), whilst Everton then won the Charity Shield, thanks to a characteristic moment of skittishness from the Liverpool goalkeeper, Bruce Grobbelaar.
These two matches, however, were a mere aperitif for what was to come, and Liverpool and Everton would go on to play two further matches at Wembley against each other, both FA Cup Finals, but each played un very different atmospheres. The 1985/86 season had been played out very much in the shadow of the twin tragedies of Heysel and Bradford, but the end of the season had been an exciting one in the First Division, with Liverpool nicking the title from Everton and West Ham United at Stamford Bridge. Against this backdrop, the 1986 FA Cup Final felt like a celebration of Merseyside’s dominance of the game at the time, and Liverpool came from a goal behind to win the match 3-1, securing the first domestic double in fifteen years. The 1989 final, on the other hand, featured a sombre build-up on account of the Hillsborough disaster. Fittingly, Liverpool won the trophy, beating Everton this time by three goals to two. Meanwhile, two of Liverpool’s arguable satellite towns, St Helens Town and Warrington Town, played out the 1987 FA Vase final.
In recent years, the amount of end of season matches played at Wembley has increased dramatically with end 0f season play-offs and FA Cup semi-finals being moved there. Spurs and Arsenal played a trio of matches there between 1991, with the results getting progressively worse for Spurs as time went on. The 1991 FA Cup semi-final is probably best remembered for Paul Gascoigne’s divine opening goal for Spurs. The two then played out a goalless draw in that year’s Charity Shield and, when drawn against each other again in the 1993 FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, Arsenal won by a single goal. The same year, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United also played an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, with Wednesday winning by two goals to one.
We may have expected the play-offs to bring a dramatic increase in the number of local derby matches to be played at Wembley, but these proved to be very thin on the ground indeed. Leicester City and Derby County played out the 1994 Division One (now Championship) play-off final and Rochdale played Stockport County in the 2008 League Two final, but other than those two the only genuine derby match (we’re not counting Arsenal vs Chelsea, who have met there in various competitions) was the 1996 FA Trophy final between Macclesfield Town and Northwich Victoria, and even that doesn’t take into account the fact that Northwich’s genuine local rivals are really Witton Albion.
So, this weekend’s Manchester derby is to be savoured, if on account of nothing else then on account of its rarity value. Most of this country’s fiercest local rivalries – Portsmouth vs Southampton, Cardiff vs Swansea, Newcastle vs Sunderland, to name just three from many permutations - have never been played out at Wembley, and the biggest single contributing factor behind that is, of course, that most clubs still don’t get to play there that often. We can be reasonably certain that City vs United will still be quite an occasion, even if it is not the final itself, and will serve as a reminder to all watching that, no matter what we are all told with wearying regularity, the FA Cup still matters very much indeed.
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