History, it has been said many times, is written by the victors. It’s a thought that may pass through the heads of some older Manchester City supporters during their League Cup semi-final against Manchester United at The City of Manchester Stadium this evening. It is a scarcely believable twenty-nine years since the blue half of Manchester made so much as the semi-final of a major competition. Much has happened to City since then, but what is often forgotten in the fog of history is just how close they came to winning the 1981 FA Cup and what sort of a difference to the club such a win may have made. There would certainly have been few that would have confidently predicted in 1981 that the club would not get as close again to winning a trophy in the next three decades.
It may or may not surprise people to know that Manchester City’s reputation for drama was just as well established in 1980 as it is now. The club had reappointed Malcolm Allison – assistant to Joe Mercer when they won the title in 1968 – in 1979, but his second spell at Maine Road was disastrous, with big money signings that failed and performances in the league that left them looking over their shoulders at relegation by the time that he was replaced by John Bond in 1980. Still, though, City remained an enigma – always liable to sign the wrong players and spend too much money in doing so, at a time that football was starting to feel a significant financial pinch there was an element of instability about the club that held them back from greater success.
Under Bond during the second half of the 1980/81 season, however, they found their feet. In the FA Cup, convincing wins against Crystal Palace and Norwich City set them up well, and further wins against Peterborough United and Everton put them in the semi-finals of the competition. Eventual champions Aston Villa lost to Ipswich Town in the Third Round of the competition, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United all fell in the Fourth Round, while the European champions Nottingham Forest fell in the Fifth Round to Everton. While Spurs played Wolverhampton Wanderers at Hillsborough in one semi-final, Manchester City would play Ipswich Town at Villa Park in the other.
It was simultaneously a good and bad time to be playing Ipswich Town. Ipswich were exhausting themselves in pursuit of a treble of the FA Cup, the league championship and the UEFA Cup. Still, however, they were a strong side, managed by Bobby Robson and with outstanding players like Eric Gates, John Wark, Paul Mariner, Frans Thijssen and Arnold Muhren. City started their semi-final as the underdog, but they shut Ipswich out of the game and it ran into extra-time with the scores still goalless. The deadlock was broken by a goal from a most unlikely source. Goals direct from free-kicks seemed much scarcer in 1981 than they are today but, in front of the Holte End at Villa Park, defender Paul Power crashed a twenty-five yard shot into the top corner and send City to Wembley.
For four days, the 1981 FA Cup final would be between Manchester City and A.N. Other. Spurs drew their first semi-final with Wolverhampton Wanderers before brushing them aside at Highbury in a replay. Spurs themselves had undergone a rebirth after a trough in the mid-1970s that led to their relegation in 1977. Keith Burkinshaw, however, had rebuilt to team and there was optimism that they might even be able to challenge Liverpool at the top of the table. For now, though, there seemed to be little between the two sides, with City having finished just four points and two places below them in the table.
It was the one-hundredth FA Cup Final, and was accompanied by MFI pageantry from the Football Association. At three decades remove, what do we recall of the one hundredth FA Cup final? In truth, not a lot. Most of the excitement was held back for the replay. Tommy Hutchinson gave City the lead after half an hour, though and it was only a massive slice of luck that brought Spurs back into the game when, with eleven minutes to play, a Glen Hoddle free kick took a massive deflection that completely wrong-footed the City goalkeeper Joe Corrigan and bounced into the net. The deflection was off Tommy Hutchinson – the first player to score for both teams in an FA Cup final. A replay would be required for the first time in the twentieth century.
The importance of Ricardo Villa’s wining goal in the final has become overstated with time, but this overstatement in itself is a mark of how tight the game was. Villa, who had cut a disconsolate figure when trudging from the pitch in the first match, gave Spurs an early lead, only for it to be cancelled out three minute later by a sensational volley from outside the penalty area by Steve McKenzie. Five minutes into the second half, a Kevin Reeves penalty gave City the lead five minutes into the second half. Again, it looked as if City only had to hang on to win the cup but with twenty minutes to play Garth Crooks levelled and then six minutes later Villa scored that goal.
It’s a goal that has been analysed over and over again. The defending was tired. Was Joe Corrigan a little slow off his line? Even Garth Crooks’ air kick as Villa finally poked the ball under the goalkeeper to score. It has entered the lexicon of the game as we know. What, though, of City? Defeated by the narrowest of margins, they never fully recovered from the defeat. John Bond went midway through the 1982/83 season and a disastrous run under John Benson ended with a 1-0 home defeat by Luton Town that relegated them to the Second Division. Twenty-six years later, though, Wembley is back on the agenda for the club. Peter Swayles, their eccentric owner throughout this period, is long dead. Maine Road was left to the bulldozers several years ago. Against Manchester United this evening, though, a chance to revisit old glories. It seems unlikely that they will have to wait another twenty-nine years for such a match again but, with Manchester City, anything is possible.