By Brian Marsh
May 12, 1979. Arsenal 3 Manchester United 2.
The FA Cup Final is by far the biggest annual sporting event in England. Steeped in history and tradition, it is believed to be the World’s oldest knockout sporting competition. Often, it used to draw the largest TV audience of the year. Entire families would gather round the set to watch, entranced by the occasion. My earliest clear memory of the event is watching the 1966 Final between Everton and Sheffield Wednesday, in black and white, I was seven years old. It didn’t matter which teams were competing – it seemed that everybody in the country watched the Final.
As a kid, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be fortunate enough to be there, at the Final, watching it live. The dream really did come true for me on May 12, 1979.
Arsenal’s cup run had begun in the coldest January for some 17 years, with five matches needed to get past Sheffield Wednesday in round three (no penalty shoot-outs in those days). I managed to attend all five, thanks to having a very tolerant boss (he supported Tottenham, so I guess it was in his nature) and four friends who made up my first Gooner family – Colin, Pat, Malcolm and Grant. We travelled everywhere together to see Arsenal play, usually in my car. We attended every game in the cup run that season.
Getting tickets for the Final was straightforward enough. Each Arsenal home match day programme had printed within it, a numbered voucher. The last home match programme before the final included a ticket application form, with a space to glue in the vouchers. If you had a full set of 24, you were more or less guaranteed a ticket. The next step was to go to Highbury, usually early on a Sunday morning, and queue up with thousands of other hopefuls, until at last you reached the box office window. Hand over your vouchers and cash in exchange for the priceless ticket.
In the days leading up to the semi-final, I had wagered with my sister-in-law, that if Arsenal reached the Final, I would have my hair ‘permed’ to look like Alan Sunderland. I lost the bet. Naturally, for the full ‘Alan Alan’ effect, I grew a moustache like his. Well, I didn’t want to risk looking ridiculous without one.
May 12, 1979 was a hot and sunny day, perfect Cup Final weather. I dressed up like a complete prat, replica shirt, scarves tied to my wrists and through my belt loops, stupid hat balanced atop my perm, white jeans (why?), Wembley flag. And I headed off to London on the train.
I had been to Wembley only once before, to see a schoolboy international match, England played West Germany. I must have been about ten years old and too young to appreciate the majesty of the old place. But now, on Cup Final day, walking out of Wembley Park tube station, pausing and gazing over the colourful thronging crowd moving along the Empire Way to the stadium, it was a magnificent sight to behold, dominated of course, by the famous twin towers.
Four of us had tickets, but Pat didn’t. With brass neck, he stuffed a tenner in the turnstile operator’s hand and was let in. We stood in the upper tier, behind the goal, opposite the tunnel end. A capacity crowd of 100,001 (well, Pat did get in for free) and it was absolutely packed in there. Very hot. The view of the pitch was average at best. The traditional Cup Final hymn ‘Abide With Me’ and the national anthem were bellowed out. The game began.
By half time, Arsenal were two-nil up and cruising, goals by Brian Talbot, and a cracking Frank Stapleton header from a pinpoint cross by Liam Brady. Although United probably had the best of the play after the break, Arsenal kept them out. The second half whizzed by and at 86 minutes, we were already celebrating. But then…
Gordon McQueen poked in a loose ball sent across the six yard box. On 88 minutes, Sammy McIlroy’s weak shot trundled into the goal off the post. Soft goals. It was two-two.
The sudden silence at the Arsenal end of the ground was truly stunning. We just stood there and stared in bewilderment. Some of our players were on their knees, exhausted. The game kicked off again, and I don’t think the ball was touched by any of United’s players before Arsenal scored. Rabid determination in the run and pass by the magnificent Brady, an excellent long cross to the far post by Graham Rix, and Sunderland poked it into their goal. Official goal time, 89 minutes. Cue delirium.
As the third goal was going in, I threw my arms above my head in celebration, caught Colin square between the eyes with my right fist, and down he went. He didn’t see Sunderland score.
It’s now known as the ‘Five Minute Final’ but there was a lot more to the game than just the closing minutes. It was a close match, although the best team on the day won it in exhilarating fashion.
Sunday 13 May, we five met again opposite the Islington Town Hall as Arsenal paraded the Cup to the crowds. Brilliant sunshine. Tens of thousands of deliriously happy people lining the streets, in colours, flags waving, perms bouncing. And the noise was incredible! As a kid, I never imagined I could be part of something as good as this – as a supporter, as a fan. As a Gooner.
I had been to the FA Cup Final. I was happy for it to remain a once in a lifetime, never to be repeated experience. Little did I know.
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