This piece follows on from my previous blogs on the first, second, third, fourth and fifth rounds of the 1986/87 FA Cup, which you can view here, here, here, here and here.
"It's at about this stage when you start thinking of Wembley". So said Tottenham keeper Ray Clemence as the FA Cup Sixth round weekend neared in 1987, the eight teams remaining just two matches away from walking out at Wembley in front of the watching millions across the world. For four teams though, their road to Wembley would be blocked at this stage, some in slightly more controversial circumstances than others.
As an Arsenal fan, I was strutting around at the time, my chest puffed out as Georgie Graham's red and white army had just reached Wembley in the Littlewoods Cup, the painful memories of the mid-80s fading into the distance, as the new youthful Arsenal performed heroics against our North London rivals in three spine-tingling semi-final matches. Pride can often come before a fall though. The FA Cup quarter final against Watford is still a match that winds me up to this day, a feeling of what-if swamped with an overriding impression that we were wronged on that fateful day.
Arsenal may well have reached the Littlewoods Cup final but in the meantime their league form had dipped alarmingly, just three points from 18 ending any realistic hopes of the title, as their odds went from 11/4 to 12/1 in the space of a couple of matches. This seemed to justify George Graham's repeated proclamations that his young team could not last the pace, although as he was apparently sitting on a £3 million war chest (not literally, I hope), these statements, along with his standard response of only spending when he felt he could add quality to his squad, sent the blood pressure of many Arsenal supporters through the roof.
One player many felt Graham should have pursued was Watford's John Barnes. The England winger was out of contract in the summer, and had made his intentions clear that he would be leaving the club, a decision which had the full backing of his manager Graham Taylor. Fiorentina were apparently interested, and it became increasingly likely that a move to the continent would be Barnes' preferred destination. When Harry Harris reported in the Daily Mirror that Barnes had spent £1400 on a satellite TV dish to watch Italian and German football at home, that was obviously the biggest confirmation we all needed that Barnes would soon be plying his trade abroad.
As the Arsenal match approached, a reported £1 million bid from Liverpool gave us a better idea of what lay ahead. Through it all, Barnes was adamant that he wanted to see the season out in a Watford shirt, determined that his last ever appearance for the club would be in a Wembley final. But first would come a trip to Highbury, and although the Hornets were undoubtedly a bogey team for Arsenal during the 80s, Watford were not fancied by many in the press to make it through to the last four.
Brian Stevens; now there is a name that will be lodged in the memory banks of many Arsenal supporters of a certain vintage. The appointment of Stevens as referee for the quarter final had caused controversy, Taylor contacting the FA in an attempt to get the official dropped for the fixture. Stevens had refereed Arsenal's 3-1 win at Highbury in October, a match that had seen Watford keeper Tony Coton sent-off, and had led to Taylor accusing a linesman of manhandling him, an accusation that Stevens had refused to include in his match report. Watford's appeal fell on deaf ears, the FA understandably reluctant to switch officials on the request of a club, leaving Taylor philosophical: "I have no doubt Mr Stevens will handle the match fairly".
Things started off well enough for Arsenal, a slapstick mix-up between Coton and John McClelland gifting Ian Allinson the opener. But the warning signs had already been evident, the pace and trickery of Barnes providing a chance that somehow Blissett missed before Arsenal had scored. Throughout the match, Arsenal's full-backs were troubled by Barnes and David Bardsley, and it was the latter who jinked past Sansom to set up Blissett for the equaliser to leave the teams level at the break.
Hayes and Sansom both put half chances over the bar in the second half, before Bardsley once again left Sansom flailing, his cross met by Barnes who rose in front of Lukic to give Watford the lead. Arsenal pressed and pressed, knocking at the Watford door and hoping to find an opening, but Coton stood firm, and as the match approached the final minute it looked as if the visitors had done enough to secure a semi-final place. And then all hell broke loose.
Steve Williams launched a free kick into the Watford box, inevitably aimed at Niall Quinn, but as defender Steve Sims attempted to win the ball, the linesman raised his flag across his chest for an Arsenal penalty. Stevens had other ideas though, waving play-on, as Arsenal then paid the ultimate price for not playing until the whistle. Blissett raced away, and after Lukic had saved his initial effort, he buried the rebound to send Watford's travelling supporters delirious.
Fury was very much the feeling enveloping the rest of the stadium. Arsenal's players surrounded Stevens, who after a brief chat with his linesman decided that the goal should stand. Steve Williams, who could never be described as a shrinking violet, tore into Taylor, calling the Watford manager a cheat - "I've been called worse," Taylor admitted - as Arsenal's players and fans lost the plot (Taylor was also pelted with coins for his troubles).
"You could have been forgiven for thinking, at the end of a sixth round tie which Arsenal had deservedly lost, that this was Buenos Aires or provincial Italy, the fuss that was going on," wrote David Miller in The Times. The scenes were not ideal after Blissett's clincher, but you knew why they had taken place.
"Yes, he (the linesman) was flagging for a penalty to Arsenal," Stevens later relayed. "But I was five yards away from the incident and he was 40. I acknowledged his signal and allowed the game to go on. When the ball was no longer in play, I explained to him that I didn't believe an offence had been committed".
With all the fuss that had been made pre-match, it was inevitable that Arsenal and their supporters would have some suspicion about that last minute decision, although Taylor claimed that he had only asked for the referee to be changed as he felt he would be placed in a no-win situation. The sense of injustice is still felt all these years later as I type this though, rightly or wrongly. It's probably time to let it go.
Moving on. The live Sunday match on ITV saw Wimbledon take on Tottenham, in what might understatedly be described as a clash of cultures. Indeed, Wimbledon boss Dave Bassett described the tie as "Dallas versus Crossroads" when the draw was made, the press positively salivating over the prospect of Wimbledon's long-ball game coming up against the passing philosophy of David Pleat's Tottenham. "They have their way of playing the game and it has proved successful for them," stated Pleat who probably still had Tottenham's last encounter with Wimbledon etched indelibly on his brain.
Wimbledon's 2-1 win at White Hart Lane was bruising to say the least. Lawrie Sanchez and Graham Roberts were sent off - Roberts stretchered off at the same time - and Tottenham's Gary Stevens fractured his shoulder, as both managers defended their particular approaches to the game. "The trouble is though, that when we lose, we are boring and accused of playing offside. When we win, we are labelled a bunch of thugs," said Bassett, with Pleat diplomatically indicating that "It's not the way I'd want to play," when pressed about Wimbledon's methods.
To prepare for the match, Bassett and his men to spent five days in the Costa del Sol, for what is probably now classed as warm-weather training, but back in 1987 involved the Wimbledon players invariably throwing fully dressed members of the British media (including Martin Tyler) into the hotel swimming pool. Whilst out in Spain, John Fashanu, whose abrasive style Bassett had compared to Nat Lofthouse, Tommy Lawton, Bobby Smith and Ted Drake, stoked the flames before the big match: "We are going for Spurs' most vulnerable point - their lack of aggression. They are going to be scared".
If this comment was meant to intimidate Tottenham, then it backfired. Superbly led by the defensive duo of Richard Gough and Gary Mabbutt, Tottenham coped with all that Wimbledon threw at them, and even when Vinny Jones did manage to get a shot on target, Ray Clemence was equal to the task, not bad considering that 24 hours earlier the Spurs keeper had been haemorrhaging severely through his gums, after having four teeth removed the day before due to a clash with Niall Quinn in the Littlewoods Cup semi-final replay.
As the second half developed, Tottenham began to exert pressure of their own, and it was no surprise when they took the lead in the 83rd minute after Chris Waddle shimmied past Nigel Winterburn and hammered a shot beyond Beasant at his near post. Just to make sure, Hoddle then sealed the tie, scoring a trademark free-kick after Waddle had been poleaxed by Andy Thorn. Wimbledon knocked out by Hoddle and Waddle, and to make matters worse, they would soon have to suffer the indignity of Diamond Lights like the rest of us.
"To get to Wembley would be a lovely way for me to bring my Tottenham career to a climax," said Monaco-bound Hoddle, before adding that his goal was dedicated to Danny Thomas, who was watching the match in hospital after having his knee ligaments damaged after a reckless challenge from QPR's Gavin Maguire. After the disappointment suffered at the hands of Arsenal in the Littlewoods Cup, Spurs had passed a huge test at Plough Lane, and were now the undeniable favourites to lift the FA Cup.
Howard Wilkinson was trying his best to play mind games before his Sheffield Wednesday team took on Coventry at Hillsborough. In truth though, Wednesday were in an abysmal run of form, with just three wins in their last 15 and no league wins in ten, so Wilkinson's comments were perhaps the act of a desperate man. "This is our tenth quarter-final match in three and a half years and that's quite a record," said Wilkinson, before attempting to unsettle Wednesday's opponents. "Coventry have never been beyond the sixth round and that makes it a big psychological barrier for them to clear".
Under the ultra-relaxed duo of John Sillett and George Curtis, Coventry were hardly likely to be rattled by Wilkinson's pre-match remarks, skipper Brian Kilcline rightly pointing out that the team had faced enough tension in the past through their various relegation scraps, so an FA Cup quarter final held no fears. "We have to win two games to reach the final and our players are familiar with that sort of pressure," Kilcline responded, and cheered on by an estimated 15,000 away supporters, the Coventry team were as good as the words of their captain.
Led by the imposing presence of Cyrille Regis up front, and buoyed by Nick Pickering, Dave Bennett and Keith Houchen passing late fitness tests - Sillett admitting that if this had been a league match then the trio would have missed out - Coventry dominated proceedings from an early stage, and fully merited their lead given to them by Regis after 17 minutes, Bennett supplying the through ball. Bennett's influence on the match was telling, in a round where the wide men seemed to excel. Not bad considering this was only his second match in two months.
Coventry looked comfortable, although Ogrizovic was forced into action to save a Gary Shelton effort, and to deal with a dodgy back pass from Greg Downs towards the end of the first half. An injury to Lloyd McGrath in the second half finally opened the way for Wednesday to equalise, Gary Megson able to find some space at last to level matters. Boosted by the goal - the first Coventry had conceded in 337 minutes of FA Cup football in 1987 - Wednesday put Coventry under the cosh, the away team all of a sudden looking shaky, where before they had looked so solid.
And then came another moment that convinced Sillett that maybe this was Coventry's year. With Micky Gynn poised to make an entrance in place of the struggling Houchen, Sillett turned to his physio, George Dalton, for advice. "He reminded me that Keith was a goal scorer. So I said I would leave him on a bit longer and five minutes later we were in the semi-final. Things like that make you believe luck could be on your side".
Gynn was told to sit down, as Houchen's love affair with the competition continued; a 78th minute goal via a deflection off of Mark Smith, and a goal just five minutes later after a Nigel Worthington mistake, put Coventry in the last four for the first time in their history, as the strains of Que Sera, Sera were heard from the away end.
And finally on to Leeds' visit to Wigan's Springfield Park. Sadly, at the time this caused much consternation, with the local police force in Wigan demanding that the tie should be switched, due to safety concerns. This plan upset many FA Cup purists and Wigan chairman Bill Kenyon in particular: "We are the giant-killers," complained Kenyon. "We are the little 'uns who have battled through for the right to stage a quarter final - and I don't see why we should let the hooligans force us to give up our biggest day".
Fortunately the tie would remain at Springfield Park, Greater Manchester Chief Constable James Anderton managing to secure a 12,500 capacity all-ticket affair on the Sunday at noon. This decision was warmly received in Wigan, the Third Division team delighted that they could take on Second Division Leeds on a ground where they had only lost one cup tie in their last 34. Manager Ray Matthias was adamant that his side could cause Leeds difficulties, and encouraged his players to play without fear and trepidation.
Under Billy Bremner's management, Leeds were firmly in the hunt for a place in the new end of season play-offs in Division Two, but they would be without the suspended pair of Brendan Ormsby and Ian Baird for the Wigan cup tie. Leeds had in fact tried to ensure that the duo could play at Wigan, rearranging a league match against Portsmouth in order that they would both serve the final match of their ban, but the FA smelt a rat and decreed that both could play in the league but not the cup. "It's discriminating against Leeds," moaned the Leeds chairman Leslie Silver, who had a point, although his stance was not exactly helped when police nearly arrested former Southampton player Baird for flicking the Vs at Portsmouth fans during the league fixture at Fratton Park.
Played in high winds, the match was the very definition of frenetic, the hard playing surface adding to the mad pace of the game. Both keepers in Mervyn Day and Roger Tunks were tested during a first half in which Wigan had the strong wind at their backs, Bobby Campbell missing Wigan's best chance. It would be Campbell who spurned Wigan's best opportunity in the second half, his header hitting a post when it looked easier to score. It proved to be a turning point.
Leeds' match winners on the day were way down on the list of likely candidates. John Stiles, son of Nobby and nephew of John, curled in the first from 20 yards, the midfielder only playing due to the fact that Mark Aizlewood was cup-tied. Then after a few narrow escapes, Micky Adams burst through to hammer a scorcher with his weaker right foot to end Wigan's brave run. "Anything off my right foot is a great bonus, but I struck it well and felt it was in all the way," noted Adams, who had left Coventry in January, and had now set up a clash with his old team in the semi-finals.
Round by round the 1986-87 FA Cup was building momentum towards a dramatic conclusion, the Sixth round bringing a refereeing controversy, a win for Dallas over Crossroads, another belief affirming victory for a club that was beginning to dream, and a hint of a return to the glory days of the past for a fallen giant. The semi-finals would also not disappoint, as a wine bar owner took centre stage in a story that is still remarkable all these years later, and Coventry returned to Hillsborough to contest a classic semi-final on their road to Wembley.