GARY JORDAN looks at Alan Sunderland’s last-gasp winner in 1979’s “Five-minute” FA Cup final.
Growing up in the 1970’s live football on the television was something of an event. The drama of the match beamed into your living room for the whole family to enjoy. Children could see their heroes dribble their way into their lives with a growing frequency. One match though still stood out from the rest.
The FA Cup Final was the highlight of the football calendar, bar the World Cup, and it was the pinnacle of a players’ career to reach the final and to play at Wembley Stadium underneath those huge twin towers. Close to 100,000 fans filled the terraces and stands and, on most occasions, it was played out on a gloriously hot sunny day in mid-May. There really wasn’t anything that could come close to it.
The 1979 version of the final ended the decade in fine style. Two teams that were amongst the best supported in the country, both to a certain extent sleeping giants, were the protagonists. After winning the double in 1971 the Arsenal trophy cabinet was gathering dust, and Manchester United had only the FA Cup success of two years prior to look upon since their European Cup win in 1968.
Yorkshire-born Alan Sunderland cut his teeth as an apprentice at Wolverhampton Wanderers and went on to play close to 160 games for the Molineux outfit before his £220,000 transfer to Arsenal in November 1977. He went on to make more than 200 appearances for the north Londoners, notching up an impressive 55 goals. None of those goals were more important, or as dramatic, as his last-minute heroics on 12 May 1979 at Wembley.
Trailing 2-0 through two first half goals by Brian Talbot and Frank Stapleton, the cup looked like it was heading to Highbury. United had acquitted themselves well but just couldn’t find a way through a well organised defence led by captain Pat Rice, flame haired Willie Young and David O’Leary. Liam Brady had kept things ticking over in midfield, and despite a lot of huff and puff the proverbial rub of the green just wasn’t going United’s way. That was until the 86th minute.
With time running out the Red Devils had resorted to long balls into the Arsenal area. Pat Jennings had dealt with most but as another one came over he stayed closer to his line, the danger not gone, but not critical. Joe Jordan sent a low cross in from the left side of the area and Gordon McQueen stabbed the ball past the Irish keeper’s dive. Sensing an unthinkable turnaround United pushed forward and just a few moments later Sammy McIlroy beat two men inside the box and just beat Jennings to the ball to score an equaliser. Cue bedlam amongst the United fans and bench, with Arsenal players dropping to their knees.
What happened next is now football folklore. Two celebrations I remember fondly from my childhood were born out of unbridled passion and joy. Marco Tardelli for Italy in the 1982 World Cup final, and Alan Sunderland in the 1979 FA Cup Final. His arms raised, double fist pumping the air, screaming to the heavens above. And why not. He had just rescued Arsenal from what could’ve been an agonising period of extra-time, and achieved every schoolboy’s dream – scoring the winner in the cup final.
The goal itself, maybe not the greatest ever, was still a very fine one and worthy of settling any final in the world. Brady just wouldn’t accept the fact that Arsenal would lose another final, having lost the year before against Ipswich Town. He charged forward, slipping a perfect pass to Graham Rix on the left. The curly haired winger sent a high cross to the far right of the goal, and with Gary Bailey beaten Sunderland stretched a long-tired leg out to steer the ball home.
As exciting an end to a final that there could’ve been. A goal that no matter who you support makes you appreciate the game more.