Tuesday, January 7, 2014

THE DRAMA, THE PASSION AND THE GATHERING FREQUENCY OF THE CUP SEMI FINAL



As 1980 drifted enigmatically into 1981 Manchester City fans could have been forgiven for thinking the good times had finally arrived. It had been ten years since the club’s golden age had disappeared over the horizon with the speed of bathwater exiting down the plug hole and the years in between had produced what could reasonably have been called scarce pickings. 

Admittedly, City had reached two League Cup finals in the 70s, one a sloppy, unnecessary defeat to a Wolves side playing a jittery reserve goalkeeper (the totally unheralded and soon to be headline-making Gary Pierce), the other a vibrant, noise-filled defeat of flu-ridden Newcastle United.
    
It is January 1981. City are, just for a change, in a state of flux. Malcolm Allison has come and gone for a second time, leaving many disgruntled with what he failed to achieve, his majestic reputation scorched and singed by a growing penchant for expensive booze and women grown ideolgically wide at the hips.

The stars of Tony Book's 1977 side have been sent packing, replaced with roosters and cobblers. Where once Dave Watson and Peter Barnes trod the magic turf, we now gaze down upon Dave Wiffill and Paul Sugrue with unblinking eyes. Big Mal, sure of his midas touch had swapped Asa Hartford for Barry Silkman, a sleight of hand akin to turning out your Rolls Royce engine and refitting with the dubious innards of a Fiat Uno.

Mal has been replaced by the less flamboyant but equally self-confidente John Bond, a hair-do on legs with a West country accent to boot. City have started a long run from the bottom of the table and, after thrilling December wins over Everton and Wolves, plus a last gasp defeat of a Leeds side who come to Maine Road and spend eighty minutes passing back to keeper John Lukic, Bond's side are finally showing tangible signs of heading away from danger.

At the same time a League Cup run has been taking shape after wins over Stoke and Luton under Allison are trumped by a 5-1 beating of Notts County (Dennis Tueart nabbing four) and an unforgettable quarter final win over West Brom at Maine Road which take City to the last four. 

A semi-final at last. That stage in the harsh limelight, the smell of Wembley'slush turf fixed in the nostrils and a quivering in the loins that can only mean your club is in totally alien territory.

Lining up in the League Cup semi finals are the distinctly beatable pair of West Ham and Coventry, who of course promptly draw each other. City's two leg barrier to the final comes instead in the invigorating shape of all conquering European champions Liverpool, a threshing machine that has been devouring everything in its way for years. The feeling is nevertheless of high hopes for advancement, given the upsurge of form under the new manager. The weeks running up to the game are spent in high anticipation. At last that gut wrenching dread that accompanies a match that really means something grips us all.

***

Those hopes would be dashed, partly because the referee for the first leg at a thunderous, expectante and thoroughly anxious Maine Road was a fellow called Alf Grey, an upright sort of man who had developed a strong liking for the sound of his own whistle. He had already blown it a couple of times when, in the 2nd minute of the match Kevin Reeves leapt like a salmon to put City ahead. The whole ground, unused to this kind of edgy one-upmanship, was in tumult, the heaving bulk of the Kippax a swaying livid morasse of cavorting bodies.

Then Mr Grey took another good long blow on his whistle, proclaimed that Reeves must have fouled hapless Liverpool keeper Ray Clemence to have been so much higher in the air than the man in green, and promptly extinguished all those dreams. Liverpool steadied their early nerves and won the game with a late strike from Ray Kennedy.

The Merseysiders would scrape through to the final on aggregate thanks to the slimmest of margins, that one goal scored by Kennedy. After a brave second leg performance at Anfield, the width of the crossbar prevented Dave Bennett’s header from putting the Blues through 2-1.

That City again stood at the gates of Wembley a matter of three short months later was scarcely believable. What a season of passion and vivacity new man Bond had conjured from the darkened ashes of Big Mal’s second coming.

Thousands descended on Villa Park, in those days a fine and traditional venue for such a match, for the much awaited FA Cup semi final against favourites Ipswich Town, still going strong on three fronts under Bobby Robson, who had the Suffolk side punching well above its weight. Ipswich were fighting Liverpool for the title and would end up in the UEFA Cup final with AZ Alkmaar and were thus seen as a step too far for Bond’s patched up City.

But in a bitty affair City prevailed with a dramatic extra time free kick struck by the trusty left foot of captain Paul Power. They would then be the sacrificial lambs on Ricky Villa’s FA Cup final barbecue, a terrible swerving slalom goal to be imprinted on every City fan's memory for the next 35 years.

And then a curious thing happened.

Manchester City and cup semi finals ceased to be an item. They ceased to be a topic of even te most distracted conversations. They went off the radar completely. FA Cup semi finals were for teams like Wycombe and Watford, Plymouth and Wimbledon. they were for Coventry and Leeds both Sheffields United and Wednesday and even, bless them, good old Newcastle. League Cup semi finals became the territory of Tranmere and Oxford, Oldham and QPR. City meanwhile went into well deserved hibernation.

In those barren intervening years City would even find themselves playing the likes of Halifax and Darlington in the Cup’s preliminary rounds, as a member of the third tier of English professional football.

The game with Halifax, won 3-0 before a sparse crowd thanks to the less than obvious talents of Craig Russell, would even bring
memories of one of City’s most embarrassing outings in the competition, when Malcolm Allison’s expensively reconstructed side went down in a quagmire in West Yorkshire to a goal from Paul Hendrie.If ever a semi final had appeared a long way away it was that mud-caked nightmare in West Yorkshire.

Legendary defeats to Shrewsbury, Oldham, Forest, Brentford, Blackpool, Chesterfield, Brighton and even to a loose balloon at Sheffield United seemed to tell City fans that the romance of the cups had become the sole property of others.

Between the 1981 semi final win over Ipswich and City’s appearance in the 2009-10 League Cup semi final with arch rivals United, nearly 30 years had passed. Now, never let it be said that Manchester City fans of a certain vintage are impatient, but some may have been pretty sure that they were unlikely to ever again need the cardboard FA Cup covered in tinfoil. The mouldy old 1969 rosette could be safely binned too.

In those two cataclysmic matches with the arch foes in 2010, City lost out narrowly on the chance to get to Wembley. Five games into Roberto Mancini's reign as boss, Cty fielded a side from which only Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany survive today, neither of whom are likely to start against Everton.  

City were growing fast in 2009-10. Since that semi-final disappointment, the growth spurt has become more of an avalanche prompting a serious taste for these occasions. And how they have flowed...




           
16th April 2011 FA Cup semi final 
City 1 Manchester United 0

11th January 2012 League Cup semi final 
City 0 Liverpool 1

25th January 2012 League Cup semi final
Liverpool 2 City 2

14th April 2013 FA Cup semi final 
City 2 Chelsea 1

8th January 2014 League Cup semi final
City 6 West Ham 0

21st January 2014 League Cup semi final
West Ham 0 City 3
     
Samir Nasri celebrates v Chelsea in 2013


Now, Everton travel to the Etihad for another grand occasion, having won 2-1 in a boisterous first leg at Goodison Park. City clearly have unfinsihed business with Roberto Martinez's side, as a poor penalty shout in the semi final and another in the recent league stalemate at the Etihad left many feeling short changed. 

What City fans surely cannot complain about, though, is the fact that a thoroughly directionless performance at West Ham last time out actually succeeded in moving them up a place in the Premier League, after Arsenal managed to make an even bigger fist of their game with Chelsea. The crunch draws near for both sides. Everton, beaten at home by Swansea and City, meandering to 2nd place in the league, both need to perform much better on Wednesday if they are to go through to the final. Something has to give, however, and Everton will be doing their utmost to hold onto that one-goal lead from the first game.

Pulling back a deficit of this kind is not out of the question for City. Indeed it has been done before and in this very competition, against Middlesbrough in 1976.

Having won 1-0 at Ayresome Park, Boro travelled west in the hope of making it to their first ever final, but were wiped away by a stunning show of power from City. Inspired by Peter Barnes on the wing and the indefatigable pair of Alan Oakes and Asa Hartford in midfield, the Blues ran out emphatic 4-0 winners in the 2nd leg. Boro, a more than competente side in those days, were flattened to the thickness of a dinner plate.


It is to this kind of decisive forward play that Pellegrini must now turn. With no end in sight to City's curiously dysfunctional line-ups, it is time to knock out the wrinkles and play to win. A semi final demands the tactics that will best serve the need: a win by one goal.

A home game that needs to be won demands a bold approach, especially as the much sought after John Stones appears at his most vulnerable when put under pressure. It was noticeable how City's changed shape late on at Upton Park suddenly reaped rich dividends, as it has done when the chips were down in other matches this season..

With such a slender lead and an oponente in such fragile recent form, City can win with the right mixture of attacking verve and defensive solidity. If that means sacrificing one of the stars shoehorned in behind Sergio Aguero, then so be it. The team has looked unbalanced of late, as if the Chilean is trying to shoehorn all his top players in at the same time.  

 A place at Wembley awaits. It is questionable wehther anyone, who stood through City's semi finals of the 70s and 80s will ever become blasé about such events. Semi finals might be familiar occurrences these days, but that inimitable tingle of expectation on Wednesday night wil be enough to tell all involved that it's time for action. City's new gold age has lasted a half decade already, but most of us are still rubbing our eyes on a regular basis.

In the name of Dave Bennett and Kevin Reeves, deprived of their moments of glory against Liverpool by the fickle hand of fate, another chance beckons, for fate is always watching, always waiting, as those on the Kippax in 1981 will confirm.

Kevin Reeves nets at Anfield in the second leg of the League Cup semi final in 1981

2 comments:

  1. I remember that two legged 1981 League Cup semi final well....'climbing' was the reason Grey disallowed the goal, after Clemence was nowhere near the ball (Sorry to point that out, Simon, your photo above confirms).
    Cheating, lucky Liverpool was the gut feeling at the time.
    If memory serves, Clemence blundered again in the second leg as Reeves did score at the Kop end to level the game at 1-1. Dave Bennett was so unlucky with his header against the bar as well.
    Villa Park, oh Villa Park of blessed memory...30,000 (at least) City fans out of a 46,000 crowd. Where did we get all the tickets?
    C'mon, City, let's have a performance worthy of our current standards tomorrow, and take a healthy advantage to London for the second leg. After that, who knows?

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    Replies
    1. Slip of the brain, Graham! Duly corrected. That season saw some of my favourite City games to this day: the away game at Liverpool, the cup quarter final at Goodison, the reply in front of 52,000 at Maine Road, the 5th round at Peterbrough, the Ipswich semi, 6-0 v Norwich, Big Mal's return with Palace, the League Cup q/f with West Brom and the 5-1 v Notts County. We were a little spoiled that season.

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