In the second of our series ahead of this weekend’s FA Cup First Round matches, we take a look at two of the bigger names in the draw, who are playing each other on Friday night. Please, if you wish to reproduce this article elsewhere, link to it rather than copying and pasting it. Thanks.
In the FA Cup First Round on Friday night, two clubs with something of a pedigree in this competition will meet when Wimbledon play Coventry City at Kingsmeadow. In the late 1980s, these two clubs provided a little light relief from what would go on to become a little over a quarter of a century’s tedium for the supporters of all but a gilded few. In the years between 1981 and 2007, only a thoroughly predictable six clubs – Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Everton, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea – would otherwise be fortunate enough to see their teams lift the trophy at Wembley or Cardiff, and these are two clubs which now also have something else in common which has become increasingly common in recent years, the loss of a ground and an exile away from home forced upon them by their owners.
During the 1986/87 FA Cup, Coventry City crept to the FA Cup Final as if by stealth. The stand out result of their run to Wembley, when viewed from the twenty-first century and all that has come in the intervening years, was a one-nil win against Manchester United at Old Trafford in the Fourth Round of the competition, but the truth of the matter is that this was a match that merely went with form. After all, at the time that it was played, Coventry were five points and five league places above Alex Ferguson’s team. Meanwhile, most of the favourites fell by the wayside. Liverpool were beaten by Luton Town after a replay in the Third Round of the competition. Everton were well beaten by Wimbledon in the Fifth Round. Arsenal were beaten at home by Watford in the quarter-finals. But Coventry City kept on winning, and after making extremely hard working of beating a Second Division Leeds United side in the semi-finals, they won their way to their first ever major trophy final.
It says something about the extent to which the “Big Five” of the era – Everton, Liverpool, Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester United – already had a grip on the English game that Coventry City’s win in the final was considered to be a shock of seismic proportions. Clive Allen’s forty-ninth goal of the season gave Spurs the lead in the second minute, but an equaliser six minutes later from Dave Bennett brought the two sides level and Coventry might have taken the lead soon afterwards had Cyrille Regis not had a headed goal mysteriously disallowed. Insteadm it was Spurs that took the lead again shortly before half-time with a header from Gary Mabbutt after the Coventry goalkeeper Steve Ogrizovic got stuck in no man’s land from a free-kick from the Spurs right.
With both defences looking shaky, however, it was seldom likely that this would be the end of things, and as the two teams approached the midway point in the second half, a flying header from Keith Houchen brought the two teams level and provided the match’s truly iconic moment. Five minutes into extra-time, Coventry found the slice of luck that won them the cup when a cross from Lloyd McGrath bounced up off Mabbutt’s knee, looping over goalkeeper Ray Clemence and in. Even if the winning goal was a little fortuitous, though, it would take a stony heart to deny Coventry City, at that time one hundred and five years old, their victory.
The following season, it was Wimbledon who upset the applecart in the same competition. The draw was a little kind to them, with wins against West Bromwich Albion – who were then strugling to avoid relegation to the Third Division – and Mansfield Town before they had to face First Division opposition in the form of Newcastle United, who were beaten by three goals to one at St James Park, and Watford, who were struggling to avoid relegation to the Second Division and were beaten by the odd goal in three at Plough Lane, to set up a semi-final against Luton Town at White Hart Lane, which Wimbledon won thanks to goals from John Fashanu and Dennis Wise after Mick Harford had given Luton the lead early in the second half. Meanwhile, most of the other biggest names had fallen by the wayside again, having laregly been drawn against each other. Liverpool beat Everton by a goal to nil at Goodison Park in the Fifth Round, whilst Arsenal beat Manchester United in the same round and were then beaten at home by Nottingham Forest in the quarter-finals. The previous year’s finalists, meanwhile, were both out by the time the Fourth Round had been played – Coventry, the holders, beaten at home by Watford and Spurs by Port Vale.
Whilst the speed of Wimbledon’s rise to the First Division – they arrived there just eight years after being voted into the Football League in the first place – was a sensation, there was perhaps less of a shock about the club reaching the final of a major cup. After all, by the time the 1988 FA Cup final came around, the club had spent two seasons in the First Division and finished in sixth and seventh place in the table. The scale f the task ahead, however, remained immense. Their opponents, Liverpool, had cantered to the First Division championship by a nine point margin, scoring eighty-seven goals and conceding just twenty-four into the bargain. Moreover, with the likes of Peter Beardsley, John Barnes and John Aldridge at the peak of their game, this was a Liverpool team which played with an easy fluidity which often seemed impossible to play against. To say that Liverpool were the favourites to complete a second domestic league and cup double in three years would be something of an understatement.
All it takes for an upset to occur, however, is for the favourites to have an offday and the underdogs to play above themselves. If John Aldridge hadn’t scuffed a clear chance just enough to allow the Wimbledon goalkeeper Dave Beasant to – eventually – palm the ball to safety, it might have all been very different. Yet Wimbledon played a full part in the match, and took the lead eight minutes from half-time a Dennis Wise free-kick from the left saw the Liverpool defence momentarily doze off just enough to let Lawrie Sanchez head Wimbldeon into the lead. Fortune, however, favours the brave. Peter Beardsley had a goal ruled out because the referee had already awarded a free-kick to Liverpool and Dave Beasant saved with his legs when Alan Hansen, surely to the the bewilderment of the Wimbledon defence, broke through and fund himself one on one with the goalkeeper.
But the moment for which this match will always be remembered came after sixty minutes, when Liverpool won a penalty kick – “win” being the appropriate phrase, as defender Clive Goodyear’s challenge on John Aldridge looked, at least by the standards of the time, perfectly fair – and a golden chance to haul themselves back into the match. Beasant, had been watching Aldridge’s penalties a lot, though (to the point that the BBC’s commentator that day, John Motson, talked the watching television audience through it as if he was reporting through a time machine), leaped to his left and palmed the shot away. It was the first time that a penalty kick had been saved in an FA Cup final, and Liverpool, for all the pressure that they exerted, could barely manage a couple of half-chances as Wimbledon clung on to take the FA Cup back to south-west London.
To say that both clubs have been on a journey since then is a phrase that can be used both literally and metaphorically, and in each case it’s a heavy understatement. Wimbledon left Plough Lane for Selhurst Park in 1991, with the promise of a new stadium in the future that, when it did come, was a scandal that shamed the whole of English football. We’ve covered the club’s move to Milton Keynes, its death and rebirth as AFC Wimbledon and its rise back to the Football League from near the very bottom, on these pages before. Ahead of Friday night’s match, Neal Ardley’s team is in fifteenth place in the League Two table, a position that may sound lowly on the surface but is in fact just three points from a play-off place and five points from second place in the table.
Whether the club wins its biggest match of the season, however, will not be known until March. The club has recently issued outline plans for a new community-focused football stadium to be developed which will house 11,000 and have the capacity to increase to 20,000. should the nedd arise on the site of the former Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium, adjacent to the site of the old Plough Lane stadium site. The club estimates that construction costs for the first phase of the stadium to be in the region of £16m, with funds being raised through a combination of the sale of naming rights, a community share issue (as happened with great success recently at FC United of Manchester) and from enabling development of land on the sprawling site. Under the proposal, six hundred homes would also be built on the site in partnership with Gaillard Homes.
The club, however, has obstacles to overcome. It has to win the support of Merton Council for the proposal that the site should be developed as a football stadium and the designation will then have to be reviewed and approved by an independent inspector. At that stage, it could apply for planning permission. And the club isn’t the only organisation looking to redevelop, either. The club’s main opposition is understood to come from an Irish businessman with plans to build a new greyhound track on the site. Should the club overcome all of these hurdles, it will be at least four years – and possibly longer – before it can be used. It’s the start of a laborious and long-winded process, but twenty-two and a half years after it left Plough Lane, AFC Wimbledon might just be taking its first, tentative steps towards going home.
The supporters of Coventry City must also wish that they could return home as well. The club left Highfield Road in 2005, and its time at The Ricoh Arena was unhappy – not, however, as unhappy as the circumstances which involved its owners choosing to leave the stadium earlier this year and decamp, with the backing of the Football League, to Northampton, where the club remains to this day. Crowds have hovered at around the 2,000 mark thanks to a combination of those protesting against the club being taking away from its home city and the sheer impracticality of a seventy mle round trip for home matches and, with the club’s owners now claiming that a council loan to ACL, which is co-owned by the local authority and a charity, was “unlawful state aid” designed to “drive them out of Coventry” and seeking a judicial review of it all, it seems unlikely that Coventry City will be returning at any time in the near future. It’s a subject that we have covered here before, and it is one that we will return to again. It should suffice to say that an exciting team – its most exciting in years, in all honesty – is not even being seen live by the majority of the club’s supporters at the moment, and those supporters are still divided amongst themselves over whose fault it all is. The truth will out over time.
On Friday night, the two clubs will meet in the First Round of the FA Cup. For Wimbledon, there is a little uncertainty hanging over the future, but this uncertainty only concerns whether it can get back to the London Borough of Merton. Should its bid fail, it will continue to have Kingsmeadow. Not ideal, but not a calamity. At least, it’s not a calamity of the scale that Coventry City supporters are undergoing at the moment. Perhaps Wimbledon is an example of what happens when the supporters are placed at the heart of the well-being of the club. Everybody at the club knows that chairman Erik Samuelson will do his best by the club, because he is, ultimately, one of them. It is a contrast that Coventry supporters travelling south on Friday night may do well to note. Whether noting the togetherness of their opposition would make any difference, as the voices of those who would gift The Ricoh Arena to a hedge fund continue grow louder, is a different matter altogether, though.
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