8 April ~ Whatever this weekend’s FA Cup games bring, it is unlikely to match the thrills of the semi-finals played on this day 20 years ago. It was on April 8, 1990 that the semi-finals were first broadcast live on TV and armchair viewers were in for quite a treat. First up at lunchtime was Liverpool v Crystal Palace from Villa Park. In their first campaign back in the top flight, Palace could barely have been bigger underdogs against Kenny Dalglish’s champions-elect given the 9-0 drubbing they had suffered at Anfield the previous September. Yet somehow they came out on top after a remarkable seven-goal thriller – the highest-scoring semi for 50 years.
Palace captain Geoff Thomas recalled recently how manager Steve Coppell, then a youthful 34, had told his players to “keep it really, really tight”. That proved the case in a first half where Ian Rush scored, but after Mark Bright equalised moments after the restart a surreal spectacle unfolded. Palace led 2-1, then Liverpool 3-2 before Andy Gray equalised in the dying moments to force extra time. From another set piece Alan Pardew headed the winner and Palace were bound for Wembley.
It sounds old-fashioned but back then, teams actually had to win their semi-final to play at Wembley. We were also unaccustomed to back-to-back football matches on TV on the same day – unless it was the World Cup. So, long before any old tosh was given such billing by Sky Sports’ portentous promos, this was a genuine Super Sunday.
As at Villa Park, there was spring sunshine and a rush of goals in the second semi-final between Manchester United and Oldham Athletic at Maine Road. United were en route to the first silverware of Alex Ferguson’s reign but two decades ago Oldham were also a club on the rise under Joe Royle, heading for a League Cup final appearance against Nottingham Forest and promotion to the old First Division the following year.
It was little surprise that the Latics pushed United hard in their first FA Cup semi-final since 1913. After taking an early lead they fell 2-1 and 3-2 behind, hitting back through first Ian Marshall and then, in extra time, Roger Palmer. It took a replay five days later for United to finally subdue Royle's side, Mark Robins’s extra-time strike earning a 2-1 victory.
It was a vintage year for the FA Cup with another 3-3 draw in the final between United and Palace, when Ian Wright’s two goals catapulted him to national prominence, before Ferguson’s men won the replay. Yet while United supporters will remember Fergie’s first trophy in English football with fondness, that year's Cup might resonate even more strongly with fans of Palace, who went on to finish third in the league in 1991, and Oldham.
The Latics are holding a 20th-anniversary dinner for what they call their "pinch me" season at Queen Elizabeth Hall in Oldham on April 28, while John Salako, Bright, Gray and Thomas will bring a flavour of nostalgia to Palace’s end-of-season awards night on May 15. With relegation a worry for both sets of supporters, they could be forgiven escaping their clubs’ current travails with a trip down memory lane today. Simon Hart