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May 29, 2009

Five great FA Cup finals

In placing the FA Cup final on the Saturday after the Champions League's conclusion, the Football Association look to have scored another own-goal in the continued devaluing of the jewel in their crown. Though try telling that to fans of both Everton and Chelsea and especially those Toffees followers who have been starved of a Wembley showpiece occasion for 14 years. Despite their understandable excitement, this will not quite be the occasion it once was.

Once upon a time in England this was the game that stopped a nation, with the TV build-up beginning at 9am, when to do so was a rarity and not a requirement. This was a time when the FA Cup was as important, if not more so, than league football and European excursions. In the last two decades, with the tournament dominated by the "big four", it has been a rare final that has lifted the hackles, with the exception of 2006, when West Ham were defeated on penalties by Liverpool after a pulsating 3-3 draw.

Let us remember a time when the FA Cup was anything but a sideshow.

1953: Blackpool 4-3 Bolton Wanderers

The post-war years served up many an FA Cup classic with 1948, 1954, 1956 and 1957 all ding-dong battles swamped in incident and intrigue. This battle between two Lancastrian clubs, both leading lights of the time, was the best of the lot. It has gone into history as the "Matthews Final", in tribute to Stanley Matthews' winning of his first, and only, winner's medal at 38. Matthews' contribution to his team's victory was considerable, with his wing wizardry being the key to Blackpool's comeback from 3-1 down, yet many would see this as the "Mortensen Final" as Blackpool's centre-forward, also forenamed Stan, grabbed the first and only hat-trick ever scored in an FA Cup Final.

Bolton, powered by Nat Lofthouse, nicknamed the "Lion of Vienna" after exploits the previous year for his country in Austria, made their own contribution to this, the first final under the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Their third goal was scored by left-half Eric Bell, forced to play on the wing after succumbing to a "Wembley hoodoo" that every year saw a player having to soldier on with serious injury. This was an era that predated substitutions and Bell heroically headed in Bolton's third having suffered a torn hamstring. From there, Matthews and Mortensen began the Seasiders' surge that ended with Bill Perry converting a Matthews cross in the 92nd minute. They don't make them like they used to.

1966: Everton 3-2 Sheffield Wednesday

English football's annus mirabilis also featured a cracking FA Cup final. Paul McCartney and John Lennon were in attendance as Harry Catterick's Everton took on Wednesday, bossed by Alan Brown, Brian Clough's mentor no less. Apart from Everton becoming the only team to ever come back from 2-0 down to win the trophy in normal time, this was a game of many stories.

Toffees fan Eddie Kavanagh mounted a notorious one-man pitch invasion to stage a dress rehearsal for those people on the pitch thinking it was all over in the World Cup Final later that year. He evaded a number of stewards, coppers and even players and at one point his jacket was removed in slapstick fashion before he was finally brought to ground as massed cheering rang out.

On the field, Wednesday went two up via goals from Jim McCalliog and David Young before Everton struck back through Mike Trebilcock, a rarely used forward who became the first black player to ever score in a Wembley final. Trebilcock grabbed the equaliser before Owls' Gerry Young committed the error that sends shivers down the spine of Wednesdayites of a certain age. In attempting to control a long ball, Young slipped and let in Toffees winger Derek Temple, who beat keeper Ron Springett to take the cup to Merseyside for the second year in a row. Wednesday captain Don Megson, father of Bolton boss Gary, took his side on a lap of honour, the first time a losing side had ever done so. It had been a final of firsts.

1973: Sunderland 1-0 Leeds United

Leeds United were the Chelsea of their day. Arriving from an undistinguished history to challenge for honours and often missing out on them, Don Revie's team usually faced the derision of the nation when they fell at the final hurdle. This was the most famous occasion on which they fluffed their lines. Sunderland were a Second Division club, and became the first to win the Cup since 1931 - an achievement not matched 1980, by West Ham.

Rokerite boss Bob Stokoe was a confirmed member of the anti-Leeds society and was part of a very public feud with Leeds godfather Don Revie, who he accused of offering him a bribe when the Sunderland boss was manager of Bury. Stokoe sent out his men with the aim of stopping Leeds' silky passing game, an approach augmented by heavy weather conditions. They harried Leeds all the way and, from a corner, Ian Porterfield scored from 12 yards out to give them a first-half lead. "Porterfield, one-nil" as BBC commentator David Coleman put it.

Leeds had nearly an hour to get an equaliser but Jim Montgomery put in a truly wondrous goalkeeping display to deny wave after wave of attacks. Midway through the second half, the Scottish keeper produced a double save that will forever grace highlights reels of great goalkeeping. First, a full-length dive to palm away a Trevor Cherry header, then an instant reaction save to divert a trademark Peter Lorimer rocket-shot on to the bar. Leeds heads dropped and it was Stokoe and not an ashen-faced Revie who celebrated, and did so in style. Swapping his trademark pork-pie hat for a red-and-white bowler, he frenziedly congratulated his players.

1987: Coventry City 3-2 Tottenham Hotspur

The idea of a provincial club winning the FA Cup seemed to have disappeared forever until Portsmouth's 2007-08 victory. However, this was a world away from Pompey's drab win over Cardiff. And though Coventry were an established First Division club of 20 years standing, this was a shock result delivered in thrilling style.

David Pleat's Spurs had been the season's entertainers, playing a five-man midfield that boasted the talents of Chris Waddle, Glenn Hoddle and Ossie Ardiles. Lone striker Clive Allen had been the benefactor of such service and he opened the scoring with his 49th goal of the season, a surely unbeatable club record. That came in the 2nd minute but seven minutes later City winger Dave Bennett equalised. Centre-back Gary Mabbutt put Spurs back into the lead five minutes before half-time before Keith Houchen scored one of Wembley's great goals with a glorious diving header from a Bennett cross.

Extra-time was welcomed across the nation, so superb had been the 90 minutes. It was a shame that it was on own-goal that settled it. Mabbutt became the second player in the 80s to score for both sides, after Manchester City's Tommy Hutchison in 1981, when his knee deflected a speculative Lloyd McGrath effort over goalkeeper Ray Clemence. Coventry co-bosses John Sillett and George Curtis danced like drunken uncles at a wedding as City celebrated the only honour in their history.

1991: Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Nottingham Forest

Until the "big four" era dawned, Spurs were FA Cup kings. This was their eighth win, then a record, though this day it is remembered for something other than Gary Mabbutt being able to forget the pain of 1987. It was the day when Paul "Gazza" Gascoigne recklessly snapped his career into two. Before that Wembley day in May, he had been the greatest living Englishman, perhaps the best talent produced in the British Isles since George Best. But after he damaged his cruciate knee ligaments, placing that part of the anatomy into the national consciousness for the first time, he was never quite the same player and his taste for self-destruction was made plain on the biggest stage.

Gascoigne had inspired Spurs to Wembley as his club was unravelling. They were on the brink of extinction amid a financial crisis, though a proposed £8.5m sale of Gazza to Lazio had just about secured their future. Gascoigne warmed up in a clown's wig, brimming with an over-excitement which was brought to an ugly fore by an early chest-high kick on Garry Parker. He was lucky not to be sent off. Or so it seemed. A dismissal would have prevented him being able to mount the idiotic slashing hack on Gary Charles that wrenched his ligaments apart. Not only that, Stuart Pearce scored the opening goal from the resulting free-kick.

With Gascoigne headed for hospital, Nayim, his replacement, helped set up a Paul Stewart equaliser. On the touchline sat Brian Clough, seeking the first FA Cup of his managerial career. Yet Clough, who had made his entrance when holding the hand of Spurs boss Terry Venables, was not confident, telling his assistant "we're going to get done here" after a matter of minutes. He was eventually proved right in extra-time when Des Walker headed through his own net as Mabbutt seemed certain to head in a Stewart flick. As he lay in his hospital bed contemplating an uncertain future, if he ever did such a thing, Gascoigne collected his winner's medal hours after his team-mates.

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