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. The years in between had produced such scare pickings they could have filled an idle chapter in The Generation of Swine.  

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 victory over a flu-ridden Newcastle United side.
    
January 1981. City are, just for a change, in a state of some 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 vibrant 1977 side had been sent packing, replaced with roosters and cobblers. Where once Dave Watson and Peter Barnes trod the magic turf, we now gazed down upon Dave Wiffill, Stuart Lee and Paul Sugrue with unblinking eyes. Big Mal, so uncannily sure of his continuing Midas touch, had swapped Asa Hartford for Barry Silkman (the footballing equivalent of making a sow's ear with a Silkman pass).

Allison's sleight of hand had wrenched out the Rolls Royce engine and refitted with the dubious innards of a Fiat Punto.

Allison had been replaced by the less flamboyant but equally self-confident John Bond, a hair-do on legs with a nice line in comfy homilies. After a grim beginning under the new man, City started a long run from the bottom of the table. Thrilling December wins over Everton and Wolves, plus a last gasp defeat of a Leeds side who had come to Maine Road and spent eighty minutes passing back to keeper John Lukic, took Bond's side  away from danger.

At the same time a League Cup run had been taking shape after wins over Stoke and Luton under Allison were carried on 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 took City to the last four. 

A semi-final at last.

Lining up in the League Cup semi finals were the distinctly beatable pair of West Ham and Coventry, who of course promptly drew each other, leaving City to tackle the invigorating and all-conquering European champions Liverpool, a threshing machine that had been devouring everything in its way for years. The feeling was nevertheless of high hopes for advancement, given the vivid upsurge of form under the new manager. The weeks running up to the game were spent in high anticipation. At last that gut wrenching dread that accompanied a match of great consequence gripped us all.

***

Those hopes would be dashed, partly because the referee for the first leg at a thunderous, expectant Maine Road was a gentleman 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 level.

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

The multitude 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. Power had csored in every round except the 5th round win at Peterborough and now his goal had landed City, incredibly, at Wembley. They would then be the sacrificial lambs on Ricky Villa’s FA Cup final barbecue, a swerving slalom goal to be imprinted on every City fan's memory for the next 35 years.

Then a curious thing happened.

Manchester City and cup semi finals ceased to be an item. They ceased to be a topic of even the most distracted conversations. They went off the radar completely. FA Cup semi finals were for teams like Wycombe Wanderers and Watford, Plymouth Argyle and Wimbledon. They were for Coventry and Leeds, Sheffield 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.
Paul Power and Paul Mariner clash in 1981 at Villa Park

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 during 90 minutes of 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...




           
THE MODERN ERA SEMI-FINALS

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

7th January 2016 League Cup semi final
Everton 2 City 1

27th January 2016 League Cup semi final
City 3 Everton 1
     
Samir Nasri celebrates v Chelsea in 2013


Last season, Everton stood in the way and, having won 2-1 in a boisterous first leg at Goodison Park. City had to fight all the way in the second leg, after falling behind to Ross Barkley's goal early on. A rousing second half onslaught brought City the three goals they needed to go through to face Everton's neighbours Liverpool in the final.

A similar feat of recovery took place in the same 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 the kind of rapier wing-play produced by barnes on that occasion that Pep Guardiola now relies upon against Arsenal with Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling more than capable of having a similarly devestating effect on the Londoners' rickety back four. Sané in particular could be a key asset in opening up the Gunners' flanks.  
A (second) place at Wembley awaits. It is questionable whether anyone, who stood through City's semi finals of the 70s and 80s will ever become blasé about such events. Semi finals might be slightly more familiar occurrences these days, but that inimitable tingle of expectation on Sunday afternoon wil be enough to tell all involved that it's time for action. That it entails a Wembley visit in order to get through to Wembley is merely yet another nail in modern football's coffin, as glorious  lucre is placed above logic and tradition by those who purport to run the game on our behalf. 

City's new gold age may already have lasted nearly a decade, but many in sky blue are still rubbing their eyes on a regular basis.

In the name of Dave Bennett and Kevin Reeves, deprived of their moments of glory by the fickle hand of fate in 1981; for Carlos Tevez and Nigel de Jong, semi final scorers in more recent unsuccessful attempts, another golden chance beckons Manchester City. 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
Daily Mirror. City v Middlesbrough, League Cup semi-final second leg. 1975-76
Daily Mirror: City v Middlesbrough, League Cup semi-final second leg. 1975-76
Pablo Zabaleta greets the final whistle v Everton last season with some joy.

3 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?

    ReplyDelete
    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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  2. Excellent piece that brought back tons of memories of 80-81. Thanks a lot.

    Just one minor correction. Ipswich were actually battling with Villa (the eventual champions) for the title that season. Liverpool had by the standards of that era, a poor season in terms of the league finishing a lowly fifth. They did lift their third European Cup and (after dubiously overcoming City in the semi final), added the League Cup to the relentless tally of silverware they accrued back then.

    ReplyDelete

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