The mid seventies were a very dark time for the side from the red half of Manchester. The end of the Matt Busby era had seen the side slide from the pinnacle of the English game and had even seen them relegated from the top flight in 1974. Promotion back to the top flight was instant and under Tommy Docherty the Red Devils had enjoyed a great season back in the first division, This FA Cup final was supposed to be the crowning moment of their return to the top. Instead it turned into one of the classic Cup Final shocks.
Southampton were at the time a 2nd division club and this result would be the springboard which would fire them into the most succesful period in the clubs history. With Lawrie McMenemy at the helm, the Saints were the classic mix of youth and experience, and actually had more players in their side who had savoured the unique atmosphere of Wembley Stadium on Cup Final day, with skipper Peter Rodrigues, Jim McCalliog and Peter Osgood all having played in the showpiece occasion. Only Alex Stepney in goal for United had been there before.
Referee Clive Thomas got proceedings underway with his trademark movement on a glorious afternoon, one which would be a feature of that summer. It was the favourites who made the brighter start as Steve Coppell tried his luck with a shot from distance that was spilled by Southampton keeper Ian Turner, Lou Macari just unable to turn in the rebound.
Manchester United were rampant in the opening stages of the game and had obviously seen the nerves in the Southampton keeper. Stuart Pearson again forced Turner into a save, this time with a snap shot from six yards out which again the keeper could not hold, Sammy McIlroy this time turning the spilled ball wide of the post.
United were rolling forward unimpeded in the early stages but were already showing an alarming amount of wastefulness in front of goal. Full back Tom Forsyth won the ball in midfield and strode forward with two players crying out for a pass to his left hand side. Instead the full back took on the shot, firing wildly wide of the goal and prompting David Coleman, on commentary for the BBC to remark “He was greedy.”
The Reds were rampant and Turner was being kept busy. On 11 minutes a ball lofted over the top of the Southampton defence saw Gordon Hill through on goal having beaten the offside trap. The Saints keeper though had now settled into his job and was out quickly to easily block the United wingers weak attempt to lift he ball over him. “Turner earned his money then” said Coleman and it the Southampton keeper was worth every penny in the first quarter of the game.
Southampton had barely had a foothold in the game and their first effort was a panicked long range effort by Paul Gilchrist which was easily held by Stepney in the Manchester United goal. It was however a sign of the Saints growing into the game and the next 15 minutes saw the game become a much more even contest.
United though still looked the most threatening and Turner was again called into action in the 27th minute. This time it was Macari who got in behind the defence and from the byeline he pulled the ball back into the path of Gerry Daly. The Irishman shot from 8 yards but was denied by the feet of the Southampton keeper.
Six minutes later it was the turn of Stepney to save in similarly unorthodox fashion as the Saints star man almost made his mark. The veteran McCalliog, who had scored for Sheffield Wednesday in the final 10 years earlier, produced a delightful ball to send Mick Channon away. The England striker though was thwarted by the former England keeper and the deadlock remained unbroken.
Five minutes before the break, United had a half hearted claim for a penalty as Stuart Pearson went down under a challenge in the box by Jim Steele. Referee Thomas though was unimpressed, gesturing to Pearson to get up and replays proved him to be correct as they clearly showed that the Reds striker had dived, an act of cheating made worse by his poor attempts at looking for sympathy by limping off the field.
The second half started in a similar vein to the first with the men in red well on top. However the action in the next 15 minutes made it feel that this might just be the underdogs day as Southampton’s goal led a charmed life.
Lou Macari was the first United player to have a sight of the goal in the second stanza, but could only screw an effort well wide when ideally placed in the centre of the goal 20 yards out after 52 minutes. This though was just the precursor to a bombardment of Ian Turner’s goal.
On 54 minutes Steve Coppell was sent away down the right wing by Pearson. The diminutive winger pulled the ball back to his striker who had continued with his run and struck a superb volley in mid-stride which flew just over the bar.
Southampton, in boxing parlance, were happy to take a standing count as Clive Thomas allowed the game to be halted for an injury to the Saints skipper, Peter Rodrigues. The Welsh international was enjoying an Indian summer to his career and had been rescued from the scrapheap by Lawrie McMenemy just 12 months previously. The veteran full back was contemplating opening a pub after he had been released by Sheffield Wednesday, only for McMenemy to draft him in as the leader of his experienced side.
The breather did not pay instant dividends as United went for the jugular and came so close to taking the lead on 59 minutes. A corner was flicked on at the near post and the ball found its way to Sammy McIlroy on the back post, but amazingly the Irishman headed the ball against the bar from barely a yard out. Southampton had made it to the bell unscathed and set about finding their way back into the fight.
The final 30 minutes saw the belief begin to grow in the 2nd division side and it was them that were now going to do all the attacking. Rodrigues fired the first shot, even though it was hopelessly wide, but it was the ease in which Southampton carved the United defence apart which would have set alarm bells ringing, the full back left in acres of space to shoot.
Manchester United made a change midway through the second half and it was a strange one as teenager David McCreery came on to replace a potential match-winner in Gordon Hill. It failed to stem the growing Yellow tide and the diminutive Bobby Stokes fired the latest Southampton warning shot over Stepney’s crossbar.
McAlliog was now pulling the strings in midfield, sending Channon away with a lovely long ball. The England striker slipped but managed to retain possession rolling the ball into the path of Osgood. However there was to be no fairy story for the former Chelsea legend as his shot was straight at Stepney in the United goal.
Nerves were beginning to shred as the clock wound down into the final ten minutes. The coolest man on the pitch though was the veteran McAlliog and with seven minutes low he set in motion one of the most famous of Cup Final goals. Once again it was a lovely long ball over the top, this time sending Stokes away. The little man collected the ball in the inside right position and managed to get a shot away from the edge of the box. By hitting it early, it wrong footed Stepney in the United goal and rolled into the net at the far post. Coleman greeted the goal with his trademark. “One-Nil” pausing before adding “Southampton go mad.”
Replays showed that there was more than a hint of offside about the goal, but Southampton and Stokes in particular didn’t care. There was a special prize for the scorer of the opening goal that day as Coleman explained that he had won himself a car “and he says he’s already booked driving lessons.”
The Reds of Manchester were stunned and were unable to rouse themselves to fight back. The remaining minutes ticked by without alarm for Southampton and the final whistle saw manager Lawrie McMenemy and his team celebrate the first FA Cup triumph in the clubs history. It was a precursor to promotion and 27 unbroken years in the top flight. For United it was a painful end to a succesful first season back in the First Division. They and manager Tommy Docherty would not have to wait too long for redemption.