The latest extract from Matthew Eastley's fantastic FA Cup book 'FROM RICKY VILLA TO DAVE BEASANT - When the FA Cup Really Mattered, Volume 3 - The 1980s' is a look back at the 1983 final, where Brighton nearly beat Manchester United in the dying seconds.
It’s one of the most defining moments in the history of the FA Cup Final. With the players of Manchester United and Brighton and Hove Albion on their last legs, and the score locked at 2-2, Albion striker Michael Robinson slid the ball across to his fellow striker, 28-year-old Gordon Smith, from Kilwinning in Scotland.
It was the last minute of extra time and destiny awaited. Brighton, who had played superbly, looked set to win the FA Cup for the first time in their history. Indeed, on BBC Radio Two, commentator Peter Jones, cried: “And Smith must score!” He didn’t and the course of football history was changed forever.
In the 1980s, the FA Cup Final opened its heart to several teams who had never been there before. In 1983, it was Brighton’s turn.
Julie Ryan has two reasons to remember the occasion. At the age of 25, not only had her beloved team reached Wembley, she was also seven months pregnant with her second child. Two months later she gave birth to a son, Gregory: “However,” she says, “if Smith had scored, I think I would have had a premature birth and my son would have been called Gordon!”
It had been a truly odd season for The Seagulls. While they kept winning in The Cup, their league form was atrocious and, after losing at home to fellow strugglers Manchester City, their relegation was confirmed after four seasons in the top flight.
But Julie says: “Reaching the FA Cup Final was one of the most exciting events in the club’s history. Even though we were faced relegated, the club and the town were buzzing.
“The atmosphere on the London-bound roads was terrific as a long line of vehicles headed slowly towards Wembley, waving Brighton flags and scarves from car windows, with horns hooting in frenzied bursts.”
Fans started arriving at Wembley at around 12:30. Albion fan Jamie Smith recalls an amusing incident in the queue before the match. He says: “There was a lovely old chap in front of us who was a bit slow on his feet. I heard someone shout ‘come on, hurry up granddad we’ve been waiting two hours here to get in.’ To which the old chap replied ‘Two hours? I’ve been waiting 75 f***ing years to get in here.’ Priceless.”
Julie Ryan and her family were at the Wembley Hilton hotel to watch the Brighton side arrive in a helicopter and they watched it circle Wembley a few times before touching down.
Brighton play superbly and, with four minutes to go, Gary Stevens equalises to make the score 2-2 and force extra time.
Seagulls fan David Trenner says: “After being outplayed for 90 minutes we were the stronger team in extra time and Michael Robinson had two great runs against a tiring Gordon McQueen.”
There’s a minute to go and the players are on their last legs, many seemingly settling for the replay. Wilkins, shinpads discarded, passes to Kevin Moran who strikes a somewhat aimless ball upfield. It’s cut out on the volley by Stevens who finds Case. What a player he is! In one movement he controls the ball, turns and then lobs it over the United defence which has been caught square.
It’s a foot race and Robinson has just enough in the tank to get there before Moran who tumbles over. Frantically tracking back is McQueen who is forced to come across leaving a blue-shirted player free in the box. It’s Gordon Smith. United fan Rick Welch remembers: “As Robinson passed the ball, McQueen turned. He was looking straight in my direction, and I remember the expression of horror on his face as he realised that Brighton had a man over.” This is the moment surely, the moment the underdogs win the Cup.
Gordon Smith is nine yards out with just Bailey to beat. On Radio Two, that wonderful radio commentator Peter Jones intones: “AND SMITH MUST SCORE.” It certainly looks like he should. He shoots low and hard. He hasn’t done much wrong but the South African keeper saves with his legs. It remains the most famous miss in FA Cup Final history:
David Trenner says: “Bailey spread himself and got lucky, the ball sticking between his knees. If it had gone in you would have said: “He didn’t have a chance.’ I have the game on video and watch it now and again. One of these days the ball is going to bobble off Bailey’s knees and go in.”
The likeable Smith would later say: “If time travel ever becomes a reality, I will be the first to volunteer and go back and score that goal.”
After the game there was a sense of regret among the Albion fans. David Trenner says: “As we left, we knew we had blown our chance - the underdog doesn’t get a second chance.”
Paul Waghorn says he came away not realising how close Gordon Smith had come to scoring and still considers it a great save by Bailey, rather than a shocking miss by Smith.
By 8pm, most Albion fans are back in Brighton and there is a party atmosphere, almost as if they had won the Cup. Mike recalls staggering down West Street with a friend on his shoulders: “We were determined to celebrate and squeeze every ounce of joy from the day,” he says. “Several adult beverages later, we jumped in a taxi and headed home, exhausted, elated, hoarse but ready to go again.”
It wasn’t to be for Brighton as United eased to a 4-0 victory in the replay on the following Thursday but how close had they come?
The overriding memory of the 1983 FA Cup Final remains Gordon Smith’s miss in the dying moments of extra time in the first match. Some say it’s unfair to blame Smith but, while it was a decent save by Bailey, you would still expect a top flight striker to score from that distance. The charming Scotsman, who moved to Manchester City, was never allowed to forget the miss and a Brighton fanzine was later named And Smith Must Score. Smith would later become chief executive of the Scottish FA and, with wonderful self-deprecation, called his 2005 autobiography And Smith Did Score.
At the end of the 1983 FA Cup Final replay, as the television cameras focused on the thousands of blue and white flags fluttering proudly in the early summer, evening sky, commentator John Motson said: “Jimmy Melia and his Brighton team will never be forgotten.” And do you know what? Motty was right.
“I don’t think I’ve read anything better on The Cup than these books. They really hit the spot.” - David Barber, FA historian
Out now! FROM RICKY VILLA TO DAVE BEASANT When the FA Cup Really Mattered, Volume 3 – by Matthew Eastley (Pitch Publishing, £14.99).