This piece follows on from my previous blogs on the first, second and third rounds of the 1986/87 FA Cup, which you can view here, here and here.
The Fourth round of the 1987 FA Cup may have been relatively kind to Division One clubs - only one would lose to lower league opposition - but it was still full of enough drama to keep the competition ticking along nicely. A couple of shocks, an eye opener for Alex Ferguson, an horrific injury to an England Under-21 international which sparked legal action, own goals, thrashings, and growing unrest at Chelsea. Enough incidents to fill a blog at least.
Alex Ferguson had barely got his feet under the table at Old Trafford, when Coventry arrived on a freezing cold January day to provide him with a wake-up call. If he was unaware of the task ahead, then the Fourth round defeat to the Sky Blues must have given Ferguson a rough idea of what he had let himself in for. "We are just not good enough," declared the injured Bryan Robson after City's 1-0 win. It was hard to find fault in that statement.
Conversely, Coventry were flying under the management team of George Curtis and John Sillett. Sillett was very much the character of the duo, always good for a quote, and his jovial nature made him instantly likeable. "My aim is to play football with a smile," said Sillett, who must have been doing something right, as Coventry's gates were up by an average of 3,000 on the previous season, and the team were sitting 8th in Division One.
Coventry stayed in Spain in the week leading up to the match, with Sillett telling all and sundry that he had a good feeling about his team in the cup. Although the icy conditions that greeted both teams at Old Trafford were completely removed from City's Spanish jaunt, the visitors were comfortable throughout, cheered on by 5,000 supporters. Therefore, it was no surprise when Keith Houchen scored the scrappy winner after 20 minutes, with United struggling to string together any spells of pressure thereafter.
Name on the cup or not, the confidence growing around Coventry swelled after their win in Manchester. "You ain't seen nothing yet," boasted Trevor Peake, "We can go on and win the FA Cup after that". Ferguson, on the other hand, was furious, partly with his players, but mainly with the failing undersoil heating system that he felt had cost United on a poor surface; Curtis did point out that the pitch was the same for both teams. For Ferguson, this was one of the first painful steps into sorting out the mess at United. For Coventry, it was just the second chapter in a glorious cup run.
So on to another successful club in the modern era that was floundering back in 1987. Chelsea were very much in possession of the club in crisis tag, just two points off the relegation zone and with a reported nine players on the transfer list, including strikers Kerry Dixon and David Speedie. John Hollins' reign as manager was coming under intense scrutiny, and a season that was fast coming off the rails - Chelsea had lost to Fourth Division Cardiff in the Littlewoods Cup - desperately needed a lift of a decent FA Cup run.
An away trip to Vicarage Road to face Graham Taylor's Watford was not what the doctor ordered, Chelsea's misery plain to see for ITV viewers watching the Big Match Live on the Sunday. A controversial goal, scored by Luther Blissett on his 29th birthday, gave Watford a 1-0 win, leaving Chelsea to concentrate on a relegation battle and the prestigious (ahem) Full Members Cup.
Hollins had the world on his shoulders; players devoid of confidence and unhappy fans, many even booing Dixon when he warmed-up. "John Hollins is like a landscape gardener troubled by moles," wrote Stuart Jones in The Times, and although Chelsea would comfortably avoid relegation, by March 1988 Hollins was gone, as Chelsea slid towards Division Two.
The final all First Division clash was also an all-plastic pitch affair, Luton taking on QPR. With feelings against their artificial surfaces running high, it was probably just as well that the two clubs met, although the insipid 1-1 draw at Kenilworth Road forced the Daily Express' Ian Barnett to include this withering put-down in his match report: "Football's two most experienced teams on the controversial plastic looked as though they had never set foot on it before". A Terry Fenwick penalty was cancelled out by Mick Harford's last minute spot-kick, meaning the two had to do it all over again at Loftus Road on the following Wednesday.
Luton, who had been the very first team to win on QPR's plastic pitch in 1981, would be playing their fifth game in twelve days, four of which had been on the bone-jarring carpets at home and Loftus Road. Early on it told, QPR tearing into the away side and taking the lead when Fenwick again scored. John Byrne doubled the advantage before Mick Harford guaranteed a tense last half an hour by getting Luton back in the match.
Alas QPR held on, although the player that had done so much to get them through was still adamant that he wanted out. Terry Fenwick's comments about the Loftus Road surface left few doubting his intentions: "I hate playing on it and that is the reason I want a move from the club". By the end of the year, Fenwick had his wish, reuniting with old boss Terry Venables at Tottenham.
One manager certainly owed a change of luck in the FA Cup was David Pleat, who prior to Tottenham's match against Crystal Palace, spoke about his recent heart ache in the competition. Beaten late on in the 1985 semi-final by Everton, and losing to the same team in the quarter final a year later (after throwing away a two goal lead), Pleat was desperate to right the wrongs of previous seasons. Tottenham's comfortable 4-0 win at White Hart Lane - with goals from Gary Mabbutt, a Gary O'Reilly own goal, Clive Allen's 30th of the season, and Nico Claesen - continued the club's twin assault on Wembley, and gave Pleat hope that this could be his year. But, as we all know, it's the hope that kills you.
Arsenal continued the North London march to Wembley, demolishing Second Division Plymouth 6-1 at Highbury. Star of the show was David Rocastle, who scored one and made three of the goals, before beginning a two-match suspension for his sending off against Manchester United the previous week - a match that had seen Arsenal's 22-match unbeaten run come to an end. Rocastle, still feeling guilty about his actions, put in a thrilling display, as a rampant Arsenal swarmed forwards at all opportunities, even full-back Viv Anderson getting in on the act with two goals.
The result may have been a disappointment to the 10,000+ Plymouth fans that made the journey, but for manager Dave Smith, and midfielder John Matthews, it was at least a chance to return to pastures old; Smith had been reserve team manager at Highbury in the early seventies, and Matthews had played for the club in the same decade. One man who did dodge a potential bullet though was goalkeeper Geoff Crudginton, who was dropped in favour of Steve Cherry, although the keeper was understandably devastated at missing out on the chance to play at Highbury.
The grudge match of the round involved Wimbledon and Second Division table-toppers Portsmouth. Billed as Dirty Harry's Gang v Ball's Boys, or Alan Bawl v Dirty Harry, the animosity between the clubs could be traced back to the previous March, when Wimbledon claimed a point at Fratton Park that went a long way to ensuring their promotion at the expense of Portsmouth. That match marked John Fashanu's debut, and he was later accused of deliberately elbowing Kevin Dillon, resulting in a fractured cheekbone for the Portsmouth player. "The last time we played them it was open warfare," commented Fashanu, and the pre-match hype surrounding the tie was suffocating.
As with many events that are hyped to the max, the subsequent match was a dramatic let down. Wimbledon's 4-0 win at Plough Lane prompted Alan Ball to state "That was the most embarrassing 90 minutes I have experienced as a player or manager," with Noel Blake adding "We have to put our hands up and simply admit that we let the club down". Without the services of leading scorer Mick Quinn - who was serving a 21-day prison sentence for driving whilst disqualified - Portsmouth stunk the place out, limply succumbing to the Crazy Gang, lacking commitment as Blake would later admit. There was only one flashpoint in the match - Vinny Jones substituted shortly after the incident - as two goals from Fashanu, a Blake own goal and an Andy Sayer strike eased Wimbledon through to the last sixteen.
When the draw for the Fourth round was made, Everton must have been quietly wishing for Bradford to beat Oldham, sparing them a visit to Boundary Park and the artificial pitch that manager Howard Kendall despised so much. Bradford's subsequent 5-1 win was not only good news for Everton, but also for the job prospects of Bradford's caretaker manager Terry Dolan, who on the eve of the Everton match was appointed permanent manager. Everton, boosted by Peter Reid's first 90 minutes since the Hand of God game in Mexico, had just enough quality to see off a brave Bradford effort, new £840,000 signing Ian Snodin scoring the winner.
The four surviving Fourth Division sides would make it no further than the Fourth round. Preston lost 2-0 away at Newcastle, goals from Glenn Roeder and Paul Goddard giving the home fans something to cheer about, their team sitting bottom of Division One at the time, and Hull managed go win 1-0 at Swansea, despite playing 70 minutes with ten men, after Frank Bunn had been sent-off.
Stoke came from behind to beat Cardiff 2-1, with goals from Carl Saunders (his 14th in 13 games) and Phil Heath, thus continuing a remarkable turnaround for the Potteries club. Bottom of Division Two just a couple of months earlier, manager Mick Mills had feared the sack, but a run of 14 matches unbeaten had propelled Stoke up to sixth in the table and into the Fifth round of the FA Cup.
Finally, Barnsley knocked out Fourth Division opposition in Aldershot, albeit after a scare in the first match. Martin Foyle had given Aldershot the lead in the first half, a day after becoming a father; indeed Foyle would rue Steve Agnew's 67th minute equaliser, indicating that the replay three days later meant that he couldn't celebrate quite as much as he had hoped. Agnew for his part bullishly predicted a comfortable 3-0 win come the return at Oakwell, and when a Larry May brace helped Barnsley to this result, Russell Grant must have been worried about his job.
There were a couple of wins for lower league teams over clubs from a higher division. The biggest shock came at Springfield Park, Paul Jewell's goal giving Third Division Wigan a 1-0 win over top-flight Norwich. The win was made that much better by the fact that leading up to the match Wigan's squad had been decimated by a flu bug, twelve players sidelined, and putting the match in serious jeopardy. Come the final whistle, Norwich must have wished that the FA had been more sympathetic to Wigan's plight.
It would be safe to assume that Birmingham chairman Ken Wheldon would not be a very welcome guest as his club travelled to Walsall's Fellows Park. In his tenure as Walsall chairman, he had tried to close the ground down, a proposed ground share with local rivals Wolves in 1982 failing after a Save Walsall Action Group kicked into action. Undeterred, Wheldon took charge at Birmingham and again tried to move Walsall in 1986, proposing they shared St Andrews. Barrie Blower, a member of Walsall's board and a figurehead in the campaign to save Walsall, spoke for the whole club when he stated pre-match "I cannot think of anyone in Walsall who has a kind word for Mr Wheldon".
Walsall's 1-0 victory was, therefore, that much sweeter. The all-ticket affair was not without crowd problems, as passions ran high, but Walsall's win continued their fine form at home, a run of ten straight wins that had coincided with Blower's superstition of leaving the director's box at 2.45 to join the "real fans" behind the goal. The scorer of the winning goal was hotly disputed; from a Paul Jones corner the ball ended up in the Birmingham net, and was officially given to Nicky Cross. Yet, The Times also stated that Trevor Christie laid claim to it, and Walsall manager, Tom Coakley, felt Jones deserved the credit. What could not be disputed, however, was that Walsall had got one over on Wheldon, and to them that is what really mattered.
General opinion towards Leeds' fans at the time may have been been universally condemning, yet Swindon's manager Lou Macari openly welcomed their visit ahead of their Fourth round match at the County Ground: "We don't mind Leeds fans one bit. In fact we want them and I'd welcome as many as possible at the match". Twice postponed - on the Sunday due to a frozen pitch, and on the Monday because of a lack of police resources - the Third Division side took the lead through Dave Bamber, but in a round full of own goals, Jimmy Quinn put through his own net to level matters, and a Fraser Digby error allowed Ian Baird to grab a winner. "I told our defence that they could win it for us - instead they lost it," fumed Macari, yet at the end of the season Swindon could take solace in gaining promotion to Division Two.
Sheffield Wednesday required a replay to see off Third Division Chester City, but the match was completely overshadowed by a shocking injury suffered by Wednesday's Ian Knight. Three minutes into the replay, Knight was tackled by Chester's Gary Bennett, a tackle that would change his career forever. Bennett was late, crunching down on Knight's shin pad, and leaving the England Under-21 star in agony. Knight's leg was shattered, broken in seven places, as part of his bone pierced his calf muscle (sorry if you're eating your lunch). Wednesday won the replay 3-1, but no one was in the mood for celebrating.
Coming so soon after Jim Beglin had broken his leg in a Merseyside Derby, the name of football was again dragged through the mud after Bennett's tackle, with the footballing authorities urged to clamp down on these incidents. Aside from the debate, a talented young man lay in a hospital bed with his career in tatters. "All we can hope for is that it is as uncomplicated as a compound fracture can be," said a clearly distressed Howard Wilkinson. Sadly, Knight would never be the same player again, his time at the top effectively ended through the Bennett tackle.
Ten years later, Knight gained compensation from Chester City, settling out of court with the club, in his claim for £1.5 million (the exact figure Chester paid out was undisclosed). It was the first successful case of its kind, and opened the way for future settlements. Bennett, who wasn't even booked for the tackle, showed genuine contrition for his part in events, as is evident in this article, although his name was tarnished forever. Such a sad tale.
The final tie of the round involved West Ham and Sheffield United at Upton Park. Played nine days after the Fourth round weekend, due to West Ham's delayed Third round replay against Orient, and their Littlewoods Cup quarter final replay (which they lost 5-0 to Tottenham), the Second Division visitors had an extra incentive to defeat the Hammers, a tie against local rivals Wednesday awaiting the winners. However, West Ham were far superior, easily winning 4-0, with two goals from Frank McAvennie, a goal for recent recruit Stewart Robson, and a Tony Gale free-kick completing the scoring.
West Ham's win brought an end to the 1987 FA Cup Fourth round, and cleared the path a little for the journey to Wembley. Yet, as most looked to the likes Everton, Arsenal and Tottenham as likely winners, a team from the Midlands, which had never before progressed past the quarter finals, began to believe that this could be their year. Sillett's desire for football to be played with a smile was working. The smiles on the faces of Sillett, Curtis, and Coventry City's players, were about to get a whole lot wider.