This weekend, Sheffield United will take to the pitch at Wembley for their FA Cup semi-final against Hull City as representatives of the third tier of English football. It’s uncommon but not completely unheard of for clubs from this level to get this far in the competition, although none has ever made the final itself, with the last club to get this far being Wycombe Wanderers, in 2001. This weekend, however, marks the thirtieth anniversary of a run to the semi-finals of the FA Cup by Plymouth Argyle, a run that the club hadn’t enjoyed before and hasn’t repeated since.
Manager John Hore’s team was built around a core made of a combination of experienced professionals and younger players. Striker Tommy Tynan was the talisman. Tynan had signed for Plymouth in 1983 after six successful years with Newport County, for whom he had scored sixty-six goals in one hundred and eighty-three matches over the course of the previous five years, and who he had taken as far as a narrow defeat against the East German club Carl Jeiss Zena in the quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1981. But this wasn’t all that this team had to offer. In Geoff Crudgington, a former England schoolboys international, Hore had a dependable goalkeeper who would go on to play more than three hundred matches for the club, whilst Dave Phillips was an elegant midfielder who would go on to win the FA Cup three years later with Coventry City.
The first two rounds of that year’s competition brought two relatively low-key matches for the Pilgrims. In the First Round of the competition, they mad the long trip east to Roots Hall to play Southend United, another team which was struggling at the wrong end of the Third Division. After a goalless draw in the first match, the reutrn match at Home Park saw Plymouth win by two goals to nil, with their goals coming through an own goal defender from the Southend defender Mickey Stead and another from Tynan. Argyle’s reward was an eminently winnable home match against Barking, then of the Isthmian League Premier Division. Barking made Plymouth work hard for their place in the Third Round draw, however, with an eventual win by two goals to one being enough to see them through to the Third Round of the competition for the second year in a row.
The Third Round draw saw Tommy Tynan face off against his former club, as Newport County, another Third Division club, travelled to Home Park on the first Saturday in January in 1984. It didn’t look, at first this was going to be Plymouth’s day when Andy Rogers gave away possession to the on loan Newport winger Neville Chamberlain, whose cross-cum-shot deceived goalkeeper Crudgington and was tapped in at the far post from close range. Plymouth had a convincing appeal for a penalty kick waved away when Kevin Hodges appeared to be tripped inside the penalty area, but the referee played on. Hodges did get his revenge in the second half, with a tidy lob to bring the teams level before a disastrous defensive mistake allow John Aldridge to put Newport back in front, and then by going down in the penalty area again, this time for Tynan, against his former club, to bring Plymouth level again from the penalty spot in stoppage time at the end of the match. A two-all draw, two poor defensive mistakes and perhaps a wasted opportunity? Well, perhaps not. Plymouth won the replay at Somerton Park sodden pitch by a goal to nil.
Manchester United and Arsenal had been amongst the clubs eliminated in the Third Round of that year’s FA Cup, but Plymouth hopes of drawing a big name to Home Park in the next round of the competition were dashed by the luck of the draw, and Fourth Division Darlington proved again that lower division opposition hardly provided a bye into the next round. Plymouth took an early lead when a free-kick from the right hand side was flicked on at the near post for John Uzzell to score with a flying header, and a low shot into the corner from the edge of the penalty area by Gordon Staniforth proved to be enough for Plymouth to win the match by two goals to one.
As if by stealth, Plymouth Argyle were in the last sixteen of the 1983/84 FA Cup, and this time around they did get the opportunity to test themselves against stronger opposition with a trip to The Hawthorns to play First Division West Bromwich Albion. Their hosts were at the beginning of a decline that would see the club in the third tier itself, but in 1984 the memory of the team of the late 1970s and early 1980s which seemed to always be on the brink of winning major trophies without ever being quite able to get over the finishing line was still fresh in the mind. Five thousand Plymouth supporters made the trip to the Black Country, and they were rewarded when a solitary goal in the second half to win the match, when Gordon Staniforth nicked the ball around the West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper and pulled it back for Tynan to roll the ball into the corner of the goal and send the club through the quarter-finals of the FA Cup for the first time.
Notts County, Everton, Southampton, Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County, Birmingham City or Watford were the potential quarter-final opponents for Argyle, and it was Second Division strugglers Derby County, who’d survived relegation to the Third Division only on the last day of the season the year before (and wouldn’t be as lucky this time around), who would visit Home Park for a place in the semi-finals of the competition. It was a tense afternoon at a packed Home Park, with the best chace of the match falling to Gordon Staniforth after an hour had been played. Staniforth carried the ball from the halfway line, only to see the Derby goalkeeper Steve Cherry push the ball onto one post, only for it to roll agonisingly across the goal-line, off the other post and out to safety.
Those expecting this run to have come to an end with Staniforth’s nearest of misses were to prove to be wrong. Derby County may have been on the decline, but a full crowd could still be ensured at The Baseball Ground for the replay, with the draw having already ensured a semi-final match against Watford. On misty spring evening and a threadbare pitch, Dery started the stronger of the two teams, with striker Bobby Davison having two presentable chances in the first fifteen minutes, but Plymouth settled, found their rhythm and took the lead after eighteen minutes had been played with a goal that had more than an element of luck about it. Andy Rogers swung a corner over from the Plymouth left, and the curl and dip on the cross was enough to deceive Cherry and drop in the the far post. Smith hit the top of the crossbar shortly afterwards and, although there was a predictable fightback from Derby in the second half the Pilgrims clung on to win by a goal to nil and take their place in the last four of the competition, the sixth club from the Third Division ever to do so.
The venue for the match was the ornate Victorian splendour of Villa Park, where a sunny Birmingham afternoon coupled with the yellow and red of Watford and the green and black of Plymouth Argyle meant a riot of colour for a place at Wembley. Watford had finished the previous season, their first in the top division of English football, as runners-up behind the all-conquering Liverpool team of the era and started as hot favourites to win the match. In spite of this, however, Plymouth started well and dominated possession in the early stages of the match, but the game’s first moment of serious quality would go on to prove to be its deciding moment. John Barnes, one of the hottest properties in English football at the time, collected the ball just inside the Plymouth half of the pitch and charged towards the corner of the pitch, and his cross was met by George Reilly, whose flying header gave Watford the lead.
Although Nigel Callaghan had a goal disallowed for offside for Watford, Plymouth didn’t lose their nerve. Hodges had a flicked header at the near post fly over the crossbar from eight yards out. The danger never fully cleared for Watford, though their experienced defence coped much more effectively than their previous opponents had done. At the full-time whilstle, it was Watford who celebrated a first appearance in the FA Cup final, which they would go on to lose by two goals to nil against Everton. Plymouth Argyle, however could be rightfully proud of their run in the competition, one which was perhaps only ended by the genius of one of the greatest English players of his generation. It took the skill and pace of John Barnes somewhere near his prime to cut Plymouth Argyle back down to size.
Plymouth ended their league season in a disappointing nineteenth place in the Third Division table, and manager John Hore would lose his job as the manager of the club in November 1984, having been appointed into the job only just over a year earlier. The team broke up, over time, and although this year’s Plymouth vintage might yet reach the League Two play-offs this season the possibility remains that this particular run might have been a high point that the club might never be able to repeat. And thirty years on from that match a Villa Park, still no team from outside the top two divisions has reached the final of the oldest football competition in the world. Over to you, Sheffield United.
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