A Cup final five minutes for the ages
Forty years on, they still talk about those five minutes.
As Manchester City and Watford prepare to contest the 2019 FA Cup final, memories of the sensational climax to the 1979 edition remain imperishable for all who were there — nearly 100,000 at the old Wembley — and the millions more who tuned in on television for what, in those far-off days, was still the biggest and most glamorous set-piece event in the English football calendar.
And if Arsenal and Manchester United didn’t exactly serve up a classic for the guts of 85 minutes, they more than made up for it in the final five, United improbably coming back from two-down to seemingly ensure the game would go to extra time before, even more improbably, Arsenal struck again with only seconds remaining to make it 3-2 and ensure the Cup was Highbury-bound.
At the heart of it all was Liam Brady, the great Irish Gunner who was, by common consent, man-of the-match.
It was the then 22-year-old who had set the ball rolling by initiating the move which ended with Brian Talbot giving Arsenal the lead in the 12th minute.
And it was the gifted midfielder who was again the chief architect as Terry Neill’s dominant side made it two before the break, Brady skipping past two United players before using his right foot — perceived to be his less educated one — to clip a perfect cross for his fellow Dubliner Frank Stapleton to do the rest in trademark style, finding the net with a textbook downward header.
And so things stood, with Arsenal seemingly cruising to victory, until the extraordinary climax which would give rise to the legend of ‘the five-minute final’.
With time running out, two quick-fire United goals, the first from Gordon McQueen, the second a solo effort combining heroic levels of guts and guile from Northern Ireland’s Sammy McIlroy, turned the game on its head.
Or so it seemed at the time. But Liam Brady wasn’t finished yet, from the restart promptly leading the Gunners with a solo charge deep into enemy territory before releasing a pass to the overlapping Graham Rix.
And from the latter’s deep cross, there was Alan Sunderland, arriving at full stretch at the far post, to put an abrupt end to United’s comeback and claim the cup for Arsenal with a last-gasp winner.
“Everyone talks about it being a five-minute final,” United’s McIlroy once said. “And in those five minutes I went from such a high to probably the saddest feeling I ever felt in the game when the final whistle went.”
For Arsenal, the emotions surged in the opposite direction.
From seemingly winning the Cup to possibly losing it to definitely winning it, with hardly any time for anyone to make sense of what was happening — it’s little wonder that, for all the silverware Arsenal have accumulated in their rich history, that 1979 FA Cup triumph continues to hold a special place in the hearts of Gooners.
And when, to mark its 40th anniversary, I put in a call to Liam Brady this week, I didn’t have to work hard to jog his memory, newly refreshed as it was by a recent reunion of the class of ’79, a team which also included five other representatives from the island of Ireland: Frank Stapleton, Dave O’Leary, Pat Jennings, Pat Rice and Sammy Nelson.
“Everybody was there for the reunion which was great,” Liam told me. “And all the players are in decent health. Some have got more ailments than others but, 40 years on, you would expect that. And it must have been nearly 40 years that we were all together in the same room so that was nice.
Of course, 40 years ago the Cup final was a much more important thing, wasn’t it? It was every bit as important to the fans and the media as winning the league. No player ever thought that winning the FA Cup made you the best team but certainly the prestige attached to it in those days was every bit as strong as winning the league.
For the man the North Bank revered as ‘Chippy’, there was an additional sense of personal mission going into that 1979 decider.
The previous year Arsenal had also reached the final, coming up against Ipswich Town and, though he had been nursing an ankle injury, Brady gambled with his fitness to claim a place in the starting line-up.
The gamble backfired: he was forced to limp out of the action, replaced by Graham Rix who Brady had to guiltily admit to himself should have been on the pitch instead of him in the first place. And to compound his and Arsenal’s misery on the day, a Roger Osbourne goal with 13 minutes to go was enough to give Ipswich the Cup.
With all that in mind, Brady was anxious to make amends when given another opportunity one year later. “Yeah, I was very conscious of that and very happy to have the chance to rectify it,” he said.
“When you think that someone like George Best never got to play in an FA Cup final, you can never guarantee that you’re going to get another chance. So in 1979 I was fit and raring to go on the day and, thankfully, I had a part to play in what went on.”
More than a part, of course, but even the star of the show has to admit that, up until that incredible denouement, there was little sense that he was involved in what would turn out to be a Cup final for the ages.
“No, it hadn’t been a classic,” he observed.
“We had been the better team in the first half and capitalised on the chances we had. I don’t remember United having a really good chance. But, in the second half, especially as the clock ticked down, we were probably thinking that if we just protected our lead we’d be alright. And, of course, as last week showed in the Champions League, in this game you never know what’s going to happen. And it is remembered for that five-minute finish, no doubt about that.”
Ecstasy to agony and back to ecstasy again: not surprisingly, Brady remembers the end game as a stunning emotional rollercoaster.
“Absolutely. I think I was almost in shock when they equalised. I think, before that, everybody in the team thought the result was a foregone conclusion and that we’d be walking up the steps to get the cup. And then to get the winning goal in the last minute, it was sensational.”
Ask Liam Brady for a hat-trick of highlights from his illustrious career and he’ll nominate his international debut on that memorable day in Dalymount Park in 1974 when Ireland defeated the Soviet Union 3-0 and Don Givens scored a hat-trick of his own; winning his first Italian title with Juventus in 1981; and, of course, that 1979 FA Cup final thriller.
“Yeah, those are the top three and I really couldn’t split them,” he assured me this week.
Brady accepts that, in the long shadow cast by the Premier League and the Champions League, the grand old trophy no longer shines as brightly as it once did. But he still expects this evening’s decider to reward attention.
“When there’s change and progress you always get casualties and the FA Cup has been somewhat damaged,” he acknowledged. “But it still has its attraction, especially this year because Manchester City want to make it a domestic treble and Watford, as underdogs, have got everything to play for.”
But they’ll have to produce something really special to even come close to rivaling those five minutes which have lasted a lifetime.