It seems almost difficult to believe in this day and age, but there was a time that FA Cup semi-finals mattered. Getting to Wembley was an end to itself. The big day out and the traditions involved with that Saturday in May were so important that getting to the final and being a part of it was almost as good as winning it. Now, of course, it’s an inconvenience. Three of this year’s FA Cup semi-finalists are also in the semi-finals of the Champions League and, as such, this is the part of the end of season bum rush that they can arguably all afford to lose. Also, the mystique of the visit to Wembley is gone. In their desperation to cover the cost of building it in the first place, they’re holding the semi-finals there as well. So, it’s time to have a look back at six FA Cup semi-finals from the dim and distant past.
1. 1987 – Tottenham Hotspur vs Watford: The media loves an underdog, and underdogs didn’t come much bigger that Watford’s Gary Plumley. After Watford’s two goalkeepers, Tony Coton and Steve Sherwood, both injured themselves in advance of their 1987 FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park, rather carelessly got themselves injured in the fortnight before their biggest match of the season, it looked briefly as if they might have to play with an outfield player in goal. Plumley, the son of Watford chief executive Eddie Plumley, was signed at short notice and put straight into the team for the match. On this occasion, though, there was no fairy tale ending and Spurs won comfortably.
2. 1966 – Sheffield Wednesday vs Chelsea: It’s a month until the World Cup Finals, and the pitch at one of the host venues, Villa Park, is suffering at the end of a long, hard season. What better way to prepare could there be than hosting an FA Cup semi-final on a pitch that looks like it had been used for grazing cattle until just before the kick-off? Also, note the stand in the background, which looks like it has a completion date of around the summer of 1969. How they managed to get it ready in time in anybody’s guess.
3. 1959 – Luton Town vs Norwich City: A sobering reminder for Luton Town supporters, whose team fell out of the Football League earlier this week after a ninety year stay. Half a century ago, Luton were booking their first ever FA Cup Final appearance at this match, which was played at St Andrews, in Birmingham. The only goal of the match was scored by Billy Bingham, who went on to manage Northern Ireland to the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals.
4. 1990 – Manchester United vs Oldham Athletic: The FA Cup semi-final weekend of 1990 might have been the greatest of all time. Crystal Palace beat Liverpool 4-3 at Villa Park, and then Manchester United and Oldham Athletic drew 3-3 in the second match. This is the replay of that match. United went on to win the FA Cup that season – the trophy that probably saved Alex Ferguson’s hide at Old Trafford and built the platform upon which their spectacular success over the last sixteen years or so has been built.
5. 1978 – Ipswich Town vs West Bromwich Albion: How football has changed beyond recognition over the last thirty years or so. Between about 1978 and 1981, Ipswich and West Bromwich Albion were probably the third and fourth best teams in England after Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The FA chose to send the supporters of these two clubs to London for the 1978 semi-final, which was played at Highbury – all of which seems a little unnecessary until one remembers that Manchester United and Everton supporters have to make an even longer trek this weekend.
6. 1983 – Brighton & Hove Albion vs Sheffield Wednesday: Back to Highbury, finally, for Brighton’s momentous 1983 semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday. Brighton were on their way to becoming the first team to make an FA Cup final and getting relegated in the same season, whilst Sheffield Wednesday were in the Second Division. This match is probably best known for Jimmy Case’s thunderous free kick to give Brighton a first half lead, though Steve Foster’s extraordinary perm/headband/beard combination is also worth a special mention.