It saddens me to see the way that the FA Cup is regarded on occasion these days as almost a second or even third class competition, especially by teams in the Premier League; it appears that the pragmatic choice of securing a Premier League or Champions League spot, with the large sums that come with it, trumps the pursuit of glory, as first team players are rested and squad players who are often very ring rusty are put in their place.
I can understand why Pep Guardiola made even more changes than usual and rested the creative heart of City’s team for the initial tie at Huddersfield. The club had one eye on the huge Champions League game the following Tuesday, but at the same time Huddersfield did the same – resting key players, this time saving them for a league game against fellow promotion hopefuls Reading. It seems the pursuit of promotion is as much of an incentive to rest players as the fear of dropping out of it or missing out on the top four.
It was not always so. When I started attending games in the early 1970s, the FA Cup was unrivalled. It was anticipated with relish by football fans up and down the country; as a rule, no matter how your team was doing in the league, you would usually get your biggest gate of the season for a tie in the FA Cup. This provided extra gate money, then still the main source of revenue for clubs, and the gate was swelled by fans who had been brought up, like myself, on tales of Cup ties of yore and wanted a piece of the glory in a knockout format where potentially anyone could win through via the luck of the draw.
There was certainly no suggestion that players would be rested for any reason.
This was also a time when replays followed on quickly after any drawn games and occasionally, with no penalties to decide the tie after two games, there were sometimes marathon ties with multiple games, which brings me to City’s last encounter with Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup back in 1988.
I’m sure most of you will have seen the goals from the historic 10-1 win over Huddersfield in the 1987-88 season or may even have been lucky enough to witness it live, with three hat-tricks for Messrs Adcock, Stewart and White. City’s attacking line up got going after a rocky start and almost everything went in: Paul Simpson on the wing was devastating, it was a glorious day, one for the record books and one I am sure the men from West Yorkshire try hard to forget.
When only a couple of months later City drew Huddersfield away in the third round of the cup, many fans were as delighted as if they’d been handed a bye to the next round, the talk was how many the Blues were going to win by.
City fans travelled in their thousands to cheer the boys in red and black squares to victory at the Leeds Road ground, another of the stadiums no longer with us. City were without Simpson and Stewart, who had both played key roles in the 10-1, but few were worried as with Imre Varadi back in the side alongside Tony Adcock, City seemed to have more than enough to win the game.
Within five minutes of the start the visitors were one up through a strike from Ian Brightwell bursting from midfield, and the City fans behind the goal at the other end expected the flood gates to open. But it didn’t happen. Though City dominated the game, they squandered chances and plucky Huddersfield just kept plugging away and hanging on.
I can only imagine that either Huddersfield at half time got a boost from only being one down after being under so much pressure or that the City players got complacent thinking the job was as good as done, but whichever of these scenarios occurred, it was the Terriers that started dominating from the beginning of the second half. It was not a surprise when prolific lower league striker Duncan Shearer equalised in the 57th minute, and then put Town 2-1 up with 15 minutes to go.
It was all going wrong for City, the defending had become ragged, frustration mixed with poor refereeing saw Neil McNab sent off followed by manager Mel Machin. Was this ‘Typical City’ striking again, the team they put ten past knocking them out of the cup?
The Blues were within seconds of being eliminated, when a free kick was awarded just outside the box. Veteran defender John Gidman stepped up to take it and hit a beauty into the corner of the net to earn a replay at Maine Road, and relief filled all round the away end. City had rode their luck, but were still in the cup. It felt as the fans headed back home that the replay would be a formality and that Huddersfield had blown their chance of going through.
Paul Stewart was back from suspension for the replay and set about terrorising Huddersfield, but they were proving a different proposition in the cup in comparison to the league where they eventually finished bottom of Division Two, conceding 100 goals.
Town had found some defensive resilience and Cox in goals was inspired; he had a blinder saving attempts from all angles and from all comers. Added to this, Town with Shearer and Cork up front were dangerous on the break and even had a couple of chances to win it.
Steve Redmond at centre half had to be at his best at the back to keep a clean sheet and it proved to be a long a frustrating night for the Blues’ fans. City couldn’t break their opposition down, even in extra time, and the game ended scoreless, so another replay was required.
As the stadium emptied and the supporters drove home, we found out that City had lost the coin toss for the choice of venue for the second replay, so it would be another trip to Leeds Road again.
By the time of the second replay City had not won in six games, the promotion push seemed to be faltering and there were grumblings among the fan base with regards to the inconsistency of the side. But this was the FA Cup, so City fans, even on a miserable rainy night knowing there was no roof on the away terrace, still packed the away end and one again got behind the lads.
Finally this time the fans were rewarded for their loyalty with a dazzling display of attacking play from City – they clicked once again as an attacking force. Huddersfield held on until just after half time, when left back Hinchcliffe picked up a ball deep in the City half. He laid a pass off to Stewart, who had dropped into the midfield, and set off down the wing. Stewart briefly held possession, before threading a return pass to the defender, whose first touch was perfect, pushing the ball into his stride pattern. He entered the box and drilled a low, hard shot into the bottom corner of the net. It was a thing of beauty.
Neil McNab was running the midfield by this stage, Paul Simpson on the wing was almost unplayable and when he burst down the left in the 77th minute, he blasted a low hard cross through the six-yard box, which David White tucked in at the far post. Surely game over and tie won?
For good measure City scored another in the last minute. A high punt forward from Redmond caught the defence flat-footed, Varadi brought the high ball down inside the box and he swept it into the net in front of the City fans. It was the cherry on the cake, topping off a wonderful display and the side had finally got past Huddersfield.
The joy was unbridled behind the goal that night, all the goals were at the away end, and it didn’t matter that most of the fans were soaked to the skin – they celebrated with their heroes. It was a night that reminded them why they follow the team: the collective experience, the sense of belonging, it reaffirmed that all I ever wanted to do was follow my team home and away.
The Wembley dream was alive and the magic of the cup was there in spades that night. These long running cup ties have been banished to the history books now. I understand why, but if you came out of one of them victorious it was glorious.
That second replay was on a Monday night, in order that the winner would be able to play the fourth round tie at Blackpool the following weekend. City were off to the seaside, but this was winter in shocking weather conditions, and the fans were rained on again on another terrace with no roof.
The game was a real scrap, on a pudding of a pitch. City had two goals disallowed and were one down to the Division Three side until yet another last minute equaliser after an almighty and fairly undignified scramble, which looked like a cross between a kids school game and a rugby scrum. Paul Lake poked the ball home causing the soaking wet City fans behind the goal to go into raptures of joy as they had done a few days before in West Yorkshire.
City won a reply against Blackpool, then got straight through against Plymouth and would eventually run into First Division Liverpool in their 80s pomp in the sixth round, where they would be knocked out convincingly. The cup dream was over but it was quite a ride over the seven games.
When City played Huddersfield again in the League that season, it was April. They were down and City were out of the Second Division promotion race, so it was all very much an anti-climax from those heady days in January. Huddersfield finally won at the fifth time of asking, 1-0 – hardly revenge for the 10-1, but a crumb of comfort in a season to forget for Town.
Written by Richard Donlan
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