Once upon a time, many moons ago, in a land that seems so far, far away, there lived a big-eared silver trophy with a beautiful, curvey waistline.
The Football Association Challenge Cup (known as the FA Cup to her friends) was a pretty big deal, so big in fact, some considered securing her company for a year as equal to, if not better than, finishing top of the league. The annual showdown for her affections was the greatest football event of the year. A TV spectacle without equal. In the days of just three channels, the FA Cup final gobbled up two of them for the whole of Saturday. Empty swings swung in the breeze, lonely footballs blew across parks and every street in the land fell silent.
Ah, yes, the FA Cup, the mother of all knock-out sports competitions. An English institution revered around the globe, and, in 1981, the 100th final beckoned two World Cup winning Argentinians to come do battle for her honour.
One of them, Osvaldo Ardiles, happily declared to anyone who’d listen that lifting the Cup would be the culmination of all his footballing dreams; the other, Ricardo Villa, was less starry-eyed. However, Ricky’s abject disappointment at being substituted when 1-0 down to Manchester City, betrayed his true emotions. That first stab at the final, a 1-1 draw, was notable only for ageing Scotsman, Tommy Hutchison, who opened the scoring for City and then equalised for Spurs when Glenn Hoddle’s freekick ricocheted off his head. The replay, however… Well, that was something else.
7.30PM, Thursday 14 May 1981, straight after Top of the Pops, despite having slogged out 90 minutes and extra time the Saturday before, the two unchanged teams kicked off again. Fate and a score-draw had given the Argentinians a second chance to win, as Ossie famously sang, “da cup for Totting-ham.” (Chas and Dave, kids. Ask your parents.)
This time, sky blue City and Lilywhite Spurs were transformed from cagey teams trying not to lose, to old adversaries knowing they had to kill or be killed. In the opening moments, Chris Hughton, Tottenham’s Irish international fullback, cleared off the line from City’s black-haired wonderkid, Steve McKenzie. Then, with just 8 minutes on the clock, Ossie and Ricky’s fantasies exploded to ignite a Wembley classic.
Out wide on the left, Ossie Ardiles made himself available for the short throw and injected a little South American flair by flicking the ball up and over Ray Ranson, effortlessly controlling it on the other side and skipping around two sky blue defenders before unleashing a drive from outside the box. Although on target, it never had enough to beat goalkeeper Joe Corrigan, but it struck Spurs forward, Steve Archibald. The Scot swivelled and was immediately smothered by big Joe, the ball breaking free, straight into the path of a gleeful Ricky Villa. The bearded Argentine smashed it home and set off on an adrenaline-fuelled sprint back towards his own half, roaring at the north London skies, all of Saturday afternoon’s resentment and frustration dropping from him like casings from a shotgun.
His unbridled joy lasted only three minutes.
City’s Ray Ranson launched a long free-kick into the Tottenham penalty area, the ball eventually breaking to the main man from first game, Tommy Hutchison. The fair-haired number 10 used all the years of his footballing nous to calmly nod back across the 18-yard box to Steve McKenzie, who, from the edge of the D, slapped an unstoppable, first time, ballistic missile of a volley straight into the top corner of the Spurs net. He was 19, just belted home a screamer and about to become perhaps the unluckiest player in the long history of FA Cup finals. But we’ll come to that later. For now let’s give him his moment: fist aloft and leaping into the jubilant arms of Tommy Caton. Instead, we’ll talk about the football of 40 years ago versus the present day.
At one apiece, the 100th final was beautifully poised and went on to produce a match so memorable, here I am writing about it all these years on. Yet it could have been so very different.
Both teams had struggled for dominance before Manchester City’s Dave Bennett chased down a long ball. His sheer pace eased him free of the Tottenham defence, one on one with Milija Aleksic in the Tottenham goal, or he would have been if he wasn’t mercilessly clattered by the keeper, who, just for good measure, also handled outside his area. A blatant red card you say? Apparently, in 1981, not even a yellow. And do you know what? Not a single player hounded referee, Keith Hackett. Nobody made card waving gestures, Aleksic didn’t pretend to be hurt, and Bennett wasn’t winning Commonwealth gold for his floor routine. Hackett was allowed to exercise his own judgement – judgement that would be called upon again in the second half.
That man Bennett again, now with the bit between his teeth, was producing high velocity, breakneck charge after charge to rip holes in the Spurs backline. One such run could only be stopped somewhere between a Paul Miller shoulder charge and a clumsy Chris Hughton nudge. A clear cut penalty kick, thank you Mr. Hackett, and City’s Kevin Reeves stepped up to break the ’81 final’s perennial one-all stalemate.
Already with a theoretical 10 man disadvantage, Tottenham could have easily seen a further red when City’s midfield snarler, Gerry Gow, whacked Ardiles so hard, he all but had to pay to get back into the stadium. Both players leapt to their feet and grabbed one another’s face. Oh, oh! 9 plays 10, you’re thinking, but no – booking for Gow and that’ll do.
Then came the big controversy. Today, the video assistant referee would have been spitting out his tea and fumbling his clipboard in the rush to call a penalty, but, in the blinking of an eye, Keith Hackett could only go on what he could see or his linesman saw for him; so the game played on and Spurs protested.
It was Glenn Hoddle’s floated corner for the head of Graham Roberts that eluded the big Tottenham defender and his curly haired marker, Tommy Caton, only to drop down onto the forearm of the City man. Did everyone but the officials see it? Yes. Was it intentional? No. Was his arm extended? Yes. Today, 9 vs.10, a turgid three minutes of standing about for unheard, earpiece conversations before a Hoddle penalty for 2-2. Back then, still 2-1 and the TV didn’t mention the incident again, let alone encourage a feeding frenzy of a half-dozen pundits all tearing at the carcass.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not turning into my Grandad here. Honest. I’m not one for the good old days when centre forwards thumped their foreheads onto sogging wet balls with laces in. I don’t believe that football is a man’s game in which Gerry Gow should be allowed to grunt around the Wembley turf like an enraged bull to the Ardiles matador. And I’m certainly not claiming that referees were ever anything more than the visually challenged, boo-hiss pantomime villains of the piece. But I am saying that today’s sterile VAR version of the game is denying us some blood and thunder confrontations like the ’81 replay, and, complain as they do, forensic TV coverage and media hysteria is part of the problem.
You see, back in our historical game Spurs were enraged, they were hard done by, and they came at City thirsting for what they believed was rightfully theirs. Contrast that to our hypothetical 2-2, 9 players against 10 on a big, energy sapping pitch just a few days after the extra time of the first game. The match would have begged to be put out of its misery by a quick penalty shootout to the back of the head.
Instead, Spurs battled and battered, and, in the 70th minute were rewarded with their overdue equaliser. Steve Archibald comfortably sprung the offside trap to latch onto Hoddle’s superb dink pass over the top, but again he couldn’t get a shot away. This time it was Garth Crooks, whose pinpoint sliding tackle stole the ball from his strike partner and poked it into the gaping net. A genuine 2-2, a full quota of players on the pitch, and the goal voted the best ever witnessed by the old Wembley was still to come.
It all began with a fast paced City counter attack. Steve McKenzie’s forward burst was thwarted by a textbook perfect tackle from Graham Roberts who laid off to wide man, Tony Galvin. The Spurs number 9 carried the ball deep into the City half before running out of space and knocking a simple inside pass to Ricky Villa, some 35 yards from goal. Villa, long black hair billowing, drove forward. Surely he was drawing in the opposition before feeding the hapless Steve Archibald who, standing in the penalty area with the complete freedom of Brent, would have taken off if he’d been able to flap his arms any harder. But no. Instead, Ricky charged on.
“Vill-ya,” screamed John Motson. Past one defender, past two defenders. The tall Argentine, now just outside the six yard box, broke an abrupt right which took him by a third defender. “And still Ricky Villa!” One touch, two touch, “what a fantastic run!” And then he slipped a shot between Corrigan and Caton, dumping them both to their backsides. “He’s scored! What an amazing goal by Ricky Villa!” Good job too because we’d reached maximum Mottie, the excitement fairly busting out through his sheepskin coat.
The man with the black beard raced away towards the team bench. Tottenham manager, Keith Burkinshaw, remained seated and applauded politely as if Villa had played a splendid cover drive for the village 11. John Bond, for City, rocked back and cursed up into the evening air. All around them was utter bedlam.
It was a stupendous goal, an immortal goal, a goal without equal in an FA Cup final before or since. It was a goal that instantly dwarfed poor old Steve McKenzie’s first half humdinger and condemned it to live as a simple statistic among other statistics. Moreover, it doomed McKenzie, the older cousin of Arsenal’s Tony Adams, to a runners-up medal for what remained the biggest game of his life.
And still Ricky Villa! The phrase repeated up and down the land as kids dribbled peeling, flat footballs over concrete playgrounds. Echoes of a goal that truly deserved to win the Cup for Totting-ham.