Arsenal’s testing four days in May 1980

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster. And treat those two impostors just the same.” Using that particular quote from Kipling is a well-trodden path and, to illustrate its relevance, I’ll lean a little on another master of words, Oscar Wilde, whilst at the same time apologising for mangling his famous couplet, ‘to lose one cup final may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’ Across four testing days in May 1980 however, that’s precisely what happened to Arsenal.

They lost the FA Cup Final at Wembley, against the then Second Division club, West Ham United, thanks to that rarest of strikes, a Trevor Brooking header. To date, it’s the last occasion on which a team outside of the top echelon of the English game has lifted the trophy. A mere four days later, they travelled to the Heysel Stadium in Brussels and succumbed to Spanish club Valencia on penalties after the teams had finished goalless following a fairly tepid 90 minutes and extra-time. With an abundance of schadenfreude to the fore, the chants from opposition fans the following season of “West Ham, Valencia! West Ham, Valencia!” would be a regular feature of Arsenal games.

As if that wasn’t sufficient, Terry Neill’s team, despite finishing in fourth place in the league, were the only team in the top six not to qualify for European competition. Fifth place Nottingham Forest retained the European Cup, thereby qualifying for following season’s competition, and sixth place Wolverhampton Wanderers qualified for the UEFA Cup by winning the League Cup. Ironically, the Midlands club had defeated Forest in the final, and with Brian Clough’s team already qualified for the European Cup, had they prevailed against Wolves, as was widely expected to be the case, the other UEFA Cup spot would have gone to the Gunners. Arsenal finished empty-handed, and without having their passports stamped for another European adventure. These were the days well before Arsène Wenger, and back in the 1980s, no-one even contemplated fourth place as being worthy of a trophy, be it real or illusionary.

Arsenal’s FA Cup exploits of the 1979-80 season began in fairly unspectacular form. A 0-0 draw at Ninian Park against Cardiff City, took the Welsh club to North London eight days into the New Year, where a brace from Alan Sunderland saw the Gunners through 2-1 and into the Fourth Round. A home tie with Brighton & Hove Albion proved reasonably comfortable fare and goals from Brian Talbot and Sammy Nelson pushed them through to the Fifth Round, and things began to look quite promising. A 3-0 victory at home, following a 0-0 draw in Lancashire against Bolton Wanderers meant a place in the last four, and dreams of Wembley were on the horizon.

The Gunners were defending holders of the trophy. The previous season had seen a helter-skelter of a final against Manchester United.  Two goals up after first-half strikes from Frank Stapleton and Talbot, Arsenal were cruising towards victory. A carelessly conceded goal to Gordon McQueen put a stutter into their step though and when, just a couple of minutes later, Sammy McIlroy levelled things up, it seemed the game had slipped through North London fingers. In the very moment that the United players were pausing to regain breath and composure though, Alan Sunderland stole in for the winner, breaking red hearts and taking the trophy back to Highbury. Now the Gunners were in contention to retain the trophy.

The last eight pairing sent them on the short journey to Watford, where another a 1-2 victory meant a place in the semi-finals. There they would play Liverpool in a four-game series that took every minute of those contests to decide the winner. After the first game draw of 0-0 on 12th April, the teams met at Villa Park in Birmingham on 16 April. A David Fairclough goal, early in the second period put Liverpool ahead, but an equaliser from Alan Sunderland ten minutes later brought the game level, and a replay was required.

Back in Birmingham 12 days later, Alan Sunderland put Arsenal ahead in the first minute and a goal from Kenny Dalglish, into injury time at the end of the game, neatly bookmarked the earlier strike and locked out another draw. With the Final scheduled for 10 May, there was little time to arrange a third match, so a it was across the Midlands to Highfield Road Coventry on 1 May for the deciding rubber and this time Talbot’s goal inside the first ten minutes was sufficient for a return journey to Wembley. In the other semi-final, against the odds, Second Division West Ham had accounted for Everton at the second time of asking, after a 1-1 draw in the first game. Three goals were exchanged in extra-time. The winner coming from defender Frank Lampard with just two minutes remaining on the clock. A jig around the corner-flag by the bearded Lampard offered hope to ‘Dad dancers’ the world over.

It meant an all-London final, pitching North London against the East End. Arsenal against West Ham United and Terry Neill against John Lyall. If progression to the Wembley final had been stilted at best, at least Arsenal were there with a chance of silverware and entry into Europe. Arsenal were odds-on favourites to lift the trophy for the second year in succession, but the fates were not minded to smile on them over the next few days. Over in Europe, a similar furrow was being ploughed.

The previous year’s FA Cup triumph had put the North London club into the Cup Winners Cup competition and following a similar path to the domestic cup, progress had been steady, if not overwhelmingly convincing. A 2-0 aggregate triumph over an awkward Fenerbahçe SK side cleared the first hurdle and took them into a game against the East German club, 1. FC Magdeburg. Although, inevitably, a less daunting proposition than if Neill’s team were facing the side that triumphed in the competition in 1974, defeating AC Milan in the final, it took a gutsy 2-2 draw in East Germany to make the 2-1 home victory the deciding factor. The last-eight assignment was much more comfortable. A 5-1 home win over IFK Göteborg – then under the care of new manager Sven-Göran Eriksson – rendered the second leg almost redundant, and a 0-0 draw saw Arsenal into the last four. It would get serious from here on in.

The remaining clubs, alongside the Gunners were France’s FC Nantes, Valencia from Spain, and Turin’s Old Lady, Juventus, with the Italians favourites to win the trophy. It may well have been a foretaste of how Arsenal’s luck would run in the next couple of months, but not too many fans would have picked the draw handed to them. They were to face the Juventus with the first leg at Highbury on 9 April.

Things were looking decidedly glum for Arsenal just ten minutes into the game, when a poor back header let Roberto Bettega in on goal. A desperate lunging tackle as the hitman shaped to shoot brought the inevitable spot-kick. Defender Antonio Cabrini stepped up to convert, but Pat Jennings plunged low to block the shot. Unfortunately, Cabrini was quickest to the rebound and with the Northern Irish goalkeeper unable to get to his feet in time to block the effort, the Italian fired high into the net to give the Bianconeri the lead and a precious away goal.

The goal clearly shook Arsenal, but gradually they played their way back into the game, as the Italians responded in determined fashion to defend their advantage. The door to a comeback was prised slightly ajar just past the half-hour when Marco Tardelli pushed the patience of Dutch referee Charles Corver a little too far and was dismissed. Down to ten-men, it was a defensive battle from there for the Italians, but one they were well-schooled for. For much of the remaining hour of the game, the black and white wall remained resolute as Arsenal pushed forwards. With just a couple of minutes remaining, a free-kick from the right side of the penalty area was flighted towards the far post, bypassing Dino Zoff, in goal for Juventus. The ball was then headed back across goal and in a melee of heads, a challenge by Stapleton saw Bettega inadvertently nod the ball into his own net to give the Gunners a draw. For all that it felt like a relief, in the cold light of day, it still meant Arsenal were behind on the away goals rule. Two weeks later, they would travel to Turin with an unenviable task in front of them.

No English club had ever won an away tie against Juventus before, and given the prolonged, and for the most part forlorn, attempts to break down a team reduced to ten men in the first leg, prospects were not overly promising. In a display largely built on a solid midfield and disciplined defence however, Arsenal kept the home team out, and looked for the one killer strike. Time was nearly up and Juventus hadn’t conceded when Graham Rix flung a cross in from the left. Closing in on the far post, substitute Paul Vaessen, who had only entered the fray in the 75th minute, met up perfectly with the ball and headed home from a yard or so out. There was precious little time for the Italians to respond, and Arsenal had delivered the perfect knockout blow – in a very Italian style.

It was a performance that would take them to the 1980 Cup Winners Cup Final in Heysel Stadium, Brussels, where they would meet Valencia, who had comfortably come through against FC Nantes 5-2 on aggregate. Before that evening though, there was the matter of the FA Cup Final to contend with, and the opportunity to already have a piece of silverware safely tucked away in the cabinet when they returned to European affairs.

On 10 May, Arsenal faced West Ham United in the 1980 FA Cup final. It was the Gunners third successive final. In 1978, they had surprisingly lost to Ipswich Town, before winning that classic last-gasp shootout against Manchester United in 1979.  Their opponents hadn’t enjoyed the best of seasons. Although finishing seventh was hardly disastrous, for a club that considered itself a top-tier organisation, it certainly wasn’t anything resembling what they had targeted. A Cup Final carried a little compensation of course, but to make the season successful, they would need to overcome the odds and beat their First Division opponents and reigning cup holders.

As with so many important games, the match began slowly, with both sides keen to minimise potential errors that may have meant losing the game before they even got into it. Arsenal were studied in possession, if a little conservative, but their approach meant they controlled much of the ball. It was therefore a surprise when they conceded the first goal. It came in the unlucky thirteenth minute. Possession broke down when Alan Sunderland was dispossessed. Trevor Brooking broke forward with the ball and a couple of passes later, it found Alan Devonshire wide the left of the Arsenal penalty area.

Faced by Pat Rice and then Talbot, Devonshire dropped the shoulder and got to the line before squaring the ball across the box. The cross eluded Jennings and found its way to David Cross whose stabbed effort on goal was blocked. The ball then bounced to Stuart Pearson who fired left-footed across goal. Ahead of the game, Brooking had been disparaged by outspoken Brian Clough, then manager of European Champions Nottingham Forest, who had borrowed a phrase from Muhammed Ali. With a less than elegant way of illustrating his feelings that the England midfielder didn’t really produce any end product, Clough had alleged that Brooking “floats like a butterfly – and stings like one!” As the ball came across from the former Manchester United striker, Brooking delivered the perfect riposte by crouching low to head home. That butterfly ‘sting’ had certainly hurt Arsenal, and against all the odds, they were behind.

For the remainder of the first period, the North London club largely dominated, but the Hammers’ defence, marshalled by Alvin Martin and skipper Billy Bonds largely contained their thrusts, with anything penetrating the shield being ably dealt with by goalkeeper Phil Parkes. At the break, Arsenal had nothing to show for their endeavours and the second-half would increasingly be a battle between a team resolutely holding on to their lead, and one whose efforts would become increasingly desperate as time ticked away.

Arsenal pressed forwards, but with little variation in their play and with their talismanic midfielder, Liam Brady, unable to pick the lock of the West Ham defence, their efforts floundered. Crosses into the box were either collected by Parkes, or unerringly dealt with by Martin and Bonds. Towards the end, the Gunners backline was denuded by the need to throw more and more players forwards but, entering the last couple of minutes the score remained the same. Then, a break saw Paul Allen scamper clear of the tiring Arsenal backline. A challenge from the outpaced Willie Young brought the teenager down. In modern money, it was the clearest of red cards, but back in those days, the ‘professional foul’ hadn’t entered the football lexicon, and the Scottish defender escaped with a caution. There was however no escape from the result and Arsenal had lost the FA Cup Final. Terry Neill would now need to pick up his dispirited troops for the game against Valencia just four days later.

Other than bringing in Sammy Nelson for John Devine at full back, for the game in Belgium, Neill would retain the team that had lost out at Wembley. Perhaps he was convinced of the old maxim that having lost one final, they would now be even hungrier than before to win this one, and redeem themselves. With fingers crossed, he sent his deflated team out to face Valencia.

Under the management of the legendary Alfredo Di Stéfano, Valencia had enjoyed a less than fulfilling domestic season. A Copa del Rey victory over Real Madrid, thanks to a brace from star Argentine striker Mario Kempes, had sent Los Murciélagos into the Cup Winners Cup, and their progress to the Final had been steady and sometimes spectacular. A comfortable 6-2 aggregate triumph over Danish club Boldklubben 1903 in the First Round meant a tie with Scottish club Rangers. After struggling to a 1-1 draw in the Mestalla, a 1-3 victory at Ibrox was a much-enhanced performance and took them to a domestic encounter against Barcelona. Again, a superb away performance was the key. A 0-1 victory in the Camp Nou left the Catalans a lot to do in the return, and in a goal-glut of a game, Valencia triumphed 4-3, to go through 5-3 on aggregate. In the last four, French club Nantes handed Valencia their only defeat of the tournament as they offered a genuine threat to the Spanish club’s progress, winning 2-1 in France. Back in Spain however, they capitulated under pressure and a 4-0 victory easily wiped out the deficit.

Despite a sixth-place finish in La Liga that left their points tally closer to the relegated teams than to Real Madrid who won the title, Valencia were an accomplished team. As well as the goal-scoring prowess of Kempes, they had the talented German midfielder Rainer Bonhof in the team’s engine room, and a collection of seasoned Spanish internationals to support them.  If Arsenal were to gain their first European trophy, they would need to pick up on the performance at Wembley. Valencia were clearly a cut above a team from the second tier in England.

On 14 May, the 1980 Cup Winners Cup Final got under way. Early on Kempes showed what a threat he would be to Arsenal’s aspirations. A quick throw-in caught the Gunners backline unprepared, as Bonhof hurled the ball to the Argentine striker. The shot was on target and struck with power, but Jennings parried it behind for a corner. It was a warning sign. Arsenal had chances themselves though. After a free-kick was only half-cleared, a cross found Stapleton with room to power a header on goal, but José Carrete was on hand to nod over the bar. At half-time, there hadn’t been a surfeit of action and as with the game at Wembley, Arsenal had failed to break down the opposition defence inside the first 45 minutes. At least on this occasion, they weren‘t trailing though.

The second-half wasn’t a whole lot different, with neither side looking overly convincing. A run and shot by Brady forced a diving save from Carlos Pereira, but it was one he would have expected to make with some comfort. It looked like a game heading for extra-time and perhaps chances opening up as legs and minds became increasingly tired.

Just as it seemed there was little chance of a goal though, those increasingly tired limbs suggested that they might just produce one. Bonhof picked up the ball just outside his own penalty area and drove forwards. With defenders trailing in his wake, and team-mates drawing covering players away, in no time at all, he was clear into the penalty area facing an advancing Pat Jennings. As the big goalkeeper closed down the angles, the German shot with the outside of his right boot, but Jennings deflected the effort wide. Bonhof held his head. It was probably the best chance of a very tight game so far. On the bench, Di Stéfano gesticulated wildly. In his pomp, it was surely a chance that the old maestro would have gobbled up.

Time was clearly eating away at energies and Arsenal also nearly profited. A driven cross by Rix from the right found a diving Sunderland at the far post. His bullet header seemed destined for the net, but Pereira dived back to claw the ball out. At the end of the regulation 90 minutes, there was still no breakthrough, and hardly a sign of one being imminent either. A further 30 minutes – and perhaps penalties afterwards – would be required to settle the issue.

The first period of 15 minutes, was as tight as much of the earlier 90 had been, but in the second period, Arsenal thought they had scored. A cross from O’Leary led to a header by Sunderland. Pereira could only block and the Arsenal striker followed in to fire home. The joy was short-lived though as the linesman’s flag negated any celebrations, judging that O’Leary had been offside when he received the ball. It was the only real prospect of a goal, and that was quickly snuffed out. The teams had played out 120 minutes without a goal, and to be fair, it looked like another 90 wouldn’t change that. This game would be decided from 12 yards. It was the first time that the competition had required spot-kicks to decide its winner.

After the usual melee of players and officials to decide things, it was Kempes to take the first kick. Running up strongly, he hit to the goalkeeper’s right, but Jennings saved with inappropriate comfort. Arsenal fans celebrated, but it was premature. Brady was first up for the Gunners. He struck the ball towards the other corner, but Pereira guessed correctly and parried away. Both first choices had missed their penalties.

Daniel Solsona was a hard-working midfielder, not bereft of skill, but certainly conscious of the importance of the less glamorous elements of the game that prove effective. His spot-kick mirrored that philosophy as he smashed the ball high and well away from Jennings to open the scoring in the shootout. Stapleton stepped forward and delivered efficiently. Pablo Rodríguez followed for the Spanish club, taking a long run up before sliding the ball past Jennings. Next was Alan Sunderland. A cool penalty had Periera scrambling the wrong way. It was now 2-2 with a pair of kicks left for each team.

Ángel Castellanos was a midfielder, brought on by Di Stéfano with just eight minutes of extra-time to play. If it was a ploy to allow him to take part in the penalty competition, he now needed to deliver to justify his manager’s faith. He did so, but only just. Firing high and straight down the middle, the ball clipped the underside of the crossbar before nestling in the back of the net. It was now pressure time, but Talbot drilled low and left to square things up. In effect, from now on, it was sudden death.

Valencia sent Rainer Bonhof forward for their fifth kick. Apparently ‘giving Jennings the eyes’ that he was going left, he altered his body shape at the last moment and dragged the ball right. The goalkeeper was totally off balance and had little chance. John Hollins had also come into the game during extra-time and now the ex-Chelsea man needed to score, or Arsenal were beaten. Placing the ball carefully, the midfielder looked the epitome of calm. The way he converted did little to dispel such an impression.

Now with all the first five penalty takers used up. It was time for the mangers to pick on players who had escaped their eager gaze earlier. For Valencia, it would be the sweeper, Ricardo Arias. For Arsenal, Graham Rix was selected. The Spanish centre-back seemed hesitant, placing and then replacing the ball a couple of times. He stepped back and crossed himself before hitting low, to Jennings’s right. It seemed saveable but, perhaps conversely, may have been too close to the goalkeeper for him to get down to. In any event, it squeezed into the net and the pressure fell onto Rix. Socks rolled down and shirt hanging out, the wide man looked at ease, but his attempt was weak. Pereira plunged left and pushed the ball clear. Arsenal had lost their second cup final in a matter of four days.

It would be another 13 years before a return to Wembley in 1993 saw Arsenal lift the FA Cup again, defeating Sheffield Wednesday after a replay. This time, their qualification for the Cup Winners Cup would prove fruitful. 14 years after their agonising loss on penalties, they would win their first European trophy, defeating Parma of Italy 1-0 to secure the 1994 Cup Winners Cup. If West Ham hadn’t upset the odds at Wembley, and the Gunners’ expertise from twelve yards had been a bit sharper, the wait may not have been so long. For Arsenal fans, those four days in May will still carry a scar.

To Top