Classic final? More like a classic five minutes
By Henry Winter
Last Updated: 11:15pm BST 19/04/2005
A recent poll of English fans, the 1979 FA Cup final between Arsenal and Manchester United was voted the 15th greatest game of all time (the winner was England 4, West Germany 2 followed by Real Madrid 7, Eintracht Frankfurt 3 and Brazil 4, Italy 1).
Terry Neill's yellow-shirted side's 3-2 defeat of Dave Sexton's United does not deserve to be so highly ranked, certainly not so close to the far more exciting England 2 Argentina 2 at France 98 (which ranked 14th), and definitely not ahead of Liverpool 4, Everton 4 (the 1991 FA Cup fifth-round replay rated 16th) or Gazza's Turin tears of England 1 West Germany 1 (17th).
The Wembley showdown of '79, memories of which have been stirred by the progress of Arsenal and United to this year's climax in Cardiff, was not a classic final. But it was a classic final five minutes. The build-up to the big day contained the usual stories, although no hint of the switchback dramas that were to unfold late on.
Arsenal, who had required five attempts and most of January to bypass Jack Charlton's Third Division Sheffield Wednesday in the third round, were troubled that their full-back, Sammy Nelson, might miss Wembley.
For a joke, Nelson "mooned" at Arsenal fans after scoring against Coventry. The FA were indignant at such bare-faced cheek, although their two-match ban left Nelson available for Wembley. Sexton, meanwhile, was out shopping, buying a watch for each of his United players (with his own money), which he presented on the eve of the final.
Sexton's XI were considered by many the more attractive side, and neutrals prayed for an early goal from Joe Jordan, Jimmy Greenhoff (prolific in earlier rounds), Sammy McIlroy or Lou Macari to make Arsenal open up. Yet Neill's men had that Irish artist, Liam Brady, and were still fuelled by the anger of losing out to Ipswich Town the previous season. Brady had given his loser's medal away and told team-mates "we will be back next year".
Assisted by the recruitment of Brian Talbot from Portman Road, Arsenal seized control on a sweltering day. Talbot even finished off a move begun by Brady (although it was part-claimed by Alan Sunderland): 1-0. Then, just before half-time, Brady ghosted away from Arthur Albiston and Martin Buchan, and crossed - right-footed - for Frank Stapleton to head past Gary Bailey, the keeper enduring a wretched afternoon: 2-0.
Late on in the second half, with Arsenal fans chanting "Ee-ay-addio, we've won the Cup", Neill sent on the inexperienced Steve Walford for David Price as if the game were won. In the ITV studio, Jack Charlton informed the nation this was the "wrong" move, that "the whole balance is upset". He added: "Arsenal might even be in trouble now."
How true. With five minutes remaining, Steve Coppell worked a free-kick to Jordan who set up Gordon McQueen: 2-1. Then Coppell found the tireless McIlroy, who brilliantly eluded David O'Leary and Walford before guiding the ball under Pat Jennings: 2-2. United celebrated. Arsenal looked drained, ready for defeat.
Brady was shattered, fearful of extra time, so he dug deep. Socks rolled down, he dribbled 40 yards, beating Macari and Mickey Thomas, before releasing Graham Rix down the left. The cross came over, Bailey faltered, and there was the bubble-permed figure of Sunderland scoring at the far post. United were stunned. "It was like winning the pools only to find you hadn't posted the coupon," lamented McIlroy. Over in the BBC studio, Lawrie McMenemy summed up United's rollercoaster afternoon: "It was like being sentenced to death, being reprieved at the last minute - then walking from the court-room and being run over by a bus."
Those present in the Arsenal dressing room talk reverentially of the huge quantities of Champagne downed. The famous trophy was rarely dry that weekend.
When Neill returned home, his daughter glanced at the Cup and enquired: "What's that grubby old thing?" It was soon in the neighbours' swimming pool.
Fast forward 26 years. After obliterating Newcastle United in this season's semi-finals, Manchester United now have a chance to erase the painful memory of Sunderland.