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Classic FA Cup finals – Arsenal vs Manchester United, 1979

Martin Cooper April 14, 2020
Photo by Allsport/Getty Images

Martin Cooper looks at another great game from the world’s greatest cup competition

In my first “classic FA Cup final” I covered Sunderland’s shock victory over Leeds in 1973. When Arsenal and Manchester United met at Wembley in 1979, they had also suffered recent cup final defeats to lower-league opposition – Manchester United at the hands of Southampton in 1976 and Arsenal against Ipswich Town two years later.

Second-tier teams in the FA Cup final are as rare as hen’s teeth these days – the last time was Cardiff against Portsmouth 12 years ago – but it was a much more common occurrence in the 1970s.

However, on 12 May 1979 Arsenal and Manchester United were both in the top ten of the First Division at a time when Liverpool and Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest were battling for domestic and European dominance. United had knocked out Liverpool in a semi-final replay at Goodison Park, while Arsenal had won at Forest by an identical 1-0 score in the fifth round.

That was mine

In the final, Arsenal took the lead with 12 minutes gone after David Price lured out United goalkeeper Gary Bailey before crossing for a combination of Brian Talbot and Alan Sunderland to bundle home. Both claimed the goal and, although it was later credited to Talbot, Sunderland was to have the final say (spoiler alert).

Photo by Mark Leech/Getty Images

Despite constant United pressure and a disallowed Gordon McQueen goal, Arsenal doubled their lead through a Frank Stapleton header in the 43rd minute following a quick break and fine run by Liam Brady.

The cup appeared to be Arsenal’s as a largely quiet second half neared its conclusion and, when McQueen turned in Joe Jordan’s cross in the 86th minute, it appeared it to be a mere, if well-deserved, consolation. Two minutes later, however, Sammy McIlroy collected a long Steve Coppell ball, beat David O’Leary, nutmegged substitute Steve Walford and squeezed it past keeper Pat Jennings, the ball trickling just inside the post.

As the crowd and watching television audience caught their breath and awaited the inevitable half-hour of extra time, Arsenal attacked straight from the kick-off. Brady somehow found the energy for yet another mazy dribble, releasing Graham Rix on the left wing, whose long, arching cross was fired in at the far post by Sunderland. Three goals in three minutes – even Jennings looked stunned at the other end of the pitch.

There was just time for Jordan to fire one last header into Jennings’ hands before the final whistle blew. In commentator Brian Moore’s words: “What an amazing cup final.” Arsenal had made up for their Ipswich embarrassment the year before.

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Martin Cooper is a senior editor and writer at The Focus. The man behind the style guide comes from a newspaper and magazine background and has worked in the sports, aeronautical and hospitality industries. While head of production at The Argus he appeared on the Jeremy Vine radio show and worked as a freelancer on the sports desk at The Sunday Times. Martin is also an FA Level 1-qualified coach and took his youth team from division five to division one in two seasons before going out at the top.