Liverpool headed to Wembley for the 1977 FA Cup Final on the brink of a historical achievement. They had already claimed the Football League 1st Division title for the second consecutive season and were in contention of winning the elusive “double” of if they could see off Manchester United in this Jubilee Cup Final. However their place in the footballing history books could be underlined even further just four days later, when they would face Borussia Moenchengladbach in the European Cup Final in Rome. In hindsight it is easy to say that should they have chosen to give up one trophy in order to achieve success in the other two, the FA Cup would be the one. But football was a very different game back in the 1970’s and no Liverpool side would ever allow Manchester United to take a trophy from them easily, and this Cup Final was no different.
The Final was played a good fortnight later than would be usual, and took place on a beautiful late spring afternoon at Wembley Stadium. As usual the match was the highlight of the domestic footballing calendar and saw both BBC & ITV pull out all the stops in their coverage, with the days schedule devoted to the Final. Whilst ITV had Brian Moore on duty as usual, the BBC had a change in the commentary box for the first time in six years. David Coleman was embroiled in a contract dispute and it was widely expected that Barry Davies would take up the microphone. However John Motson was the man handed the task of calling the game for the BBC, although Davies would get the European Cup Final (and all subsequent European Cup Finals broadcast live on the channel) later that week.
For Manchester United the final was seen as a chance for redemption, having been beaten by 2nd Division Southampton 12 months earlier. It had been nine years since they had won any major silverware, ironically the 1968 European Cup which meant that at the time they were the only English winners of the trophy. After the embarrassment of spending a year in the second division, they were now seen to be back as one of the top teams in the country and Tommy Docherty’s side were one of the most exciting sides around. They had breezed past Leeds United in the semi-finals, whilst Liverpool had faced an epic two game struggle against Merseyside rivals Everton to make the final.
Manchester United had won the toss to wear their traditional red shirts, with Liverpool reverting to their change strip of white shirts and black shorts. The match was a tight affair and the first half in particular saw little in the way of goalmouth action. The tension and the heat combined to make the game a stifling affair and honours were even in a goalless opening 45 minutes. Lou Macari had a chance for United, firing an effort into the side netting but the closest they came to a goal was a mishit cross from Gordon Hill that forced Ray Clemence to tip over the bar. At the other end David Johnson fired a shot over from 20 yards and Ray Kennedy was denied by an Alex Stepney save. The Liverpool midfielder, who had appeared as a losing substitute in the 1972 Centenary Final for Arsenal, got on the end of a Jimmy Case cross and placed a downward header towards goal, only to see the United keeper block it with his foot.
The game exploded into life in a five minute spell just afternoon which saw the games three goals and the destination of the cup decided. It was Manchester United that broke the deadlock and they were helped by a poor piece of play from a man appearing in a Liverpool shirt on English soil for the last time. Kevin Keegan had announced earlier in the year that he would be leaving Liverpool to play abroad at the end of the season, and although his destination was not yet known, he was hoping to bow out in style. However a slack pass from him in midfield allowed United to nick possession and Emlyn Hughes allowed Jimmy Greenhoff to flick the ball on towards Stuart Pearson. The England striker raced away from the covering defence to fire past Clemence at his near post.
“There’s a saying in football that Liverpool are at their most dangerous when they are behind” said Motson in the BBC commentary and those words turned out to be prescient, as just two minutes later the champions were level. Liverpool moved the ball forward towards the edge of the box and Jimmy Case. The midfielder was garnering a reputation as one of the hardest shots in football and he produced a rocket shot from the edge of the box into the net that left Stepney in goal for United standing, just clawing at thin air as the ball flew past him into the net. However the sides were level for just two minutes before one of the flukiest goals ever to win a Cup Final settled the match. A long ball forward was flicked on by Macari and caused veteran defender Tommy Case all sorts of problems as he got the ball tangled up under his feet under pressure from Jimmy Greenhoff. Macari had followed the play up and managed to get a shot off that looped off the chest of Greenhoff and floated into the net past a stranded Clemence, a goal called by Motson in what would become his unique questioning style; “Has it gone in? By Macari is it?” Officially it wasn’t Macari, with Greenhoff being credited with the goal, which he quite frankly knew very little about.
It owuld have been easy for Liverpool to allow that goal to knock them off their stride and save themselves for the bigger prize still to come. But the final quarter of the game saw them push forward in search of an equaliser. Kennedy again went close with a rising effort from the edge of the box that just cleared the crossbar before the other Greenhoff in action, younger brother Brian, almost scored a calamitous own goal, very nearly heading the ball over Stepney in an attempt to guide the ball back to his keeper.
Stepney was certainly the busier goalkeeper in the closing stages, denying Case a second equaliser with a good save low down after another effort from the edge of the box. He was slightly luckier moments later when he fumbled another Case shot, just snaffling the ball away from Keegan before he could score a fairytale goal. In the closing moments Stepney was beaten by a Kennedy strike from the edge of the area, but to all those connected with Liverpool’s dismay, the ball clipped the angle of post and bar. The dream of the treble was over.
“Manchester United have won the FA Cup” said Motson as the final whistle blew on the domestic season. Tommy Docherty had his trophy, but it was to be the end of his reign at Old Trafford. Revelations about his private life and an affair with his physio’s wife, meant that he was sacked, with the side he had built on the cusp of becoming title challengers again.
Liverpool had to quickly refocus. There was a plane to catch to Rome and the bigger prize of the European Cup was up for grabs. Despite the disappointment of failing to win the double, there was no time for feeling sorry for themselves. They had another 90 minutes to confirm their greatness. It was an opportunity they would not pass up.
LIVERPOOL: Clemence; Neal, Jones, Smith, Hughes (Capt); Kennedy, Case, Heighway, McDermott; Keegan, Johnson (Callaghan 64)
MAN UTD: Stepney; Nicholl, Albiston, B Greenhoff, Buchan (Capt); McIlroy, Coppell, Macari, Hill (McCreery 82); J Greenhoff, Pearson