Cris Freddi’s look back at the downside of football during the 20th century continues with some terrible Wembley occasions.

I may have bitten off more than I can chew here. With so many cup finals having been played at Wembley, you would assume it wouldn’t be hard to pick out a fair selection of turkeys.

Not so. There has been plenty of poor football play­ed, but even the dullest matches have usually had incident, controversy or significance. For instance, I didn’t think much of the 1985 FA Cup final, but it had Whiteside’s superb goal and Kevin Moran’s landmark sending-off. By all accounts 1927 wasn’t a vintage year (two strong half-back lines cancelling each other out) but a Welsh side won the Cup, thanks to a blunder by a Welsh goalkeeper, the ball allegedly slipping off the grease on his new jersey, hence the superstition of washing goalkeepers’ kit before a game.

See? Always something to report. I’ve made a selection of sorts, but I stress they’re only the worst among equals.Take the seven European finals staged at Wem­bley. Only one was “a disappointing match... a dour match” (Motty 1978). Bruges, who arrived to play the holders Liverpool, “were tentative and unprepared to take chances, even though their team included seven internationals”. Even so, the only goal involved a clever pass by Souness and a neat chip by Dalglish, and Phil Thompson cleared off the line after Jan Simeon had gone round Clemence. We’ve seen worse.

I admit the League Cup hasn’t been short of drab finals, partly because from the start it’s often been taken lightly by the top teams. When the event moved to Wembley, it seemed to promise better things, beginning with famous wins by Third Division clubs (QPR 1967, Swindon 1969) – but we’d already had a harsh physical final in between, Leeds winning their first trophy under Revie by beating Arsenal 1-0 – and there’s been some dreary fare since.

Norwich City, defensive under Ron Saunders in 1973, very average under John Bond in 1975, lost 1-0 each time, the second to a rebound by Ray Graydon after his penalty had been saved. When Norwich won in 1985, it was another 1-0 and another substandard game, perhaps the worst final in the competition’s history: contested by two clubs who were to be relegated, decided by an own goal – but even then we had Clive Walk­er’s missed pen­alty for Sunderland to pro­vide some drama.

The previous year com­pleted Liverpool’s record run of four consecutive wins in the com­petition, but playing against Everton seemed to inhibit them and they only escaped with a goalless draw because the referee missed Alan Hansen’s handball in the area. The replay, won by a Souness snapshot on the turn, wasn’t much of an improvement, but that was at Maine Road.

Those were probably the last of the gen­uinely poor League Cup finals, though the three consecutive 1-0 wins in the early Nineties weren’t much cop and there hasn’t been a really good one since Villa deprived Man Utd of the treble in 1994. This country really does have too many cup competitions.

Meanwhile the original one is in danger of being diluted by European considerations, which would be a shame, not least because the FA Cup rarely ends with a real stinker. It’s mainly been a story of the not great but not bad, sprinkled with the odd classic.

The worst in recent years was probably 1996. The football wasn’t particularly bad as such (the previous year’s final, Everton’s false dawn, was worse) it’s just that not much actually happened. Perhaps too much was expected from two sides geared to attack. But even then we had Cantona completing his rehabilitation after the ban for that kung-fu kick. Captain, only goal­scorer in the game, turner of the other cheek after some twat in the crowd spat at him as he climbed the steps to collect the Cup. Another big Wembley occasion.

You have to go back to the Seventies for the last of the heavy bores, and even then they usually had some­thing to recommend them. The 1976 final wasn’t a good match, but a Second Division side won the Cup and a journeyman player, Bobby Stokes, had the greatest moment of his short life. And 1972 was no better, Leeds beating an Arsenal side who had completed the Double the previous year in a final whose first 90 minutes were described as “the non-event of the century” in the Sunday Times.

That 1971 final let another one off the hook, according to the famous old Charlton goalkeeper Sam Bartram. In 1947 Burnley’s tough defence was pitted against “Charlton’s med­iocre forward line” to produce “the dullest final since the war”. But again we had Chris Duffy’s famous televised goal and an even better celebration run the length of the field. And the ball burst for the second final in a row.

Anyway, said Bartram, it finally had a rival in 1971. “They always said our final against Burnley was the worst in Wembley history. This one must surely have beaten it hands down for boredom.” Boredom boredom Arsenal? Well, they did have Peter Storey to confront Liverpool’s Tommy Smith, but at least extra-time was better, culminating in Charlie George’s goal and a celebration in the Duffy class.

The 1968 final had a little more incident in normal time but was even more physical, littered with the kind of serial fouling that has generally been outlawed today. Brian Glanville called ref­eree Leo Callaghan “altogether too pass­ive and indulgent”, but they all were in them days. But again a grim final was won by an exciting goal, Jeff Astle’s thunderbolt with his standing foot.

The Sixties were generally OK, the Forties and Fifties one minor classic after another. Thirties? No, no horrors there, if you believe the rep­orts. We have to go back to the Twenties for the last sequence of really bad finals. Taking no prisoners had something to do with it. The shoulder charge was in its pomp and full-backs who crossed the halfway line were regarded as positively unnatural.

It didn’t help when “the ball had been soaked in water for a time to prevent it being too lively” as in 1929, when two late goals by Bolton spared someone’s blushes. Three earlier consecutive 1-0 wins in a row were equally bad. Cardiff’s win in 1927 and their defeat in 1925 thanks to a mistake by Harry Wake (The South Wales Football Express can’t have been the only paper to make a pun on his surname). David Jack’s close-range goal won a tedious final for Bolton in 1926.

But the point has been made, I hope. There has been a singular shortage of shockers, in a stadium that was inaugurated by the most vivid final of all time, that white horse controlling that huge crowd in 1923. So I’m going to cheat. To pick the dullest final in England this century, I’m going to go back to pre-Wembley days, in fact to before the First World War. Time to give Barnsley the kind of credit they’re due.

Forget the romantic connotations. To win the FA Cup in 1912, this homely little club played six 0-0 draws (I kid you not), including three against Bradford City and another in the final against West Brom. And scorelines tell the true story in this case: it was a team of rugged defence as well as positively spooky patience. George Utley was “a battler imbued with all the com­petitive qualities the word ‘Barnsley’ conjures up”. Dicky Downs, “the sturdy Barnsley miner”, was cred­ited with inventing the slid­ing tackle, thereby speeding up the game and leading to more injuries.

In the final they twice bored the arse off the crowd before winning with a breakaway goal two minutes from the end of extra-time – then began the defence of the Cup the following year with yet another goalless draw. Partly because Bar­n­sley didn’t reach it, the 1913 final wasn’t a bad match. Wouldn’t even have looked out of place at Wembley.

From WSC 148 June 1999. What was happening this month

Related articles

Photo of the week ~ Getting into the FA Cup spirit at Hastings United
Hastings United 3 Blackfield & Langley 0, 20/10/2012, The Pilot Field, FA Cup fourth qualifying round Photo by Simon Gill for WSC...
When Oldham's amazing cup runs led to a grudge match with Manchester United
Embed from Getty Imageswindow.gie=window.gie||function(c){(gie.q=gie.q||[]).push(c)};gie(function(){gie.widgets.load({id:'ENJ5nMa5QtlS3rPpekItsQ',sig...
West Brom look to FA Cup for sweet relief from Premier League struggles
Embed from Getty Imageswindow.gie=window.gie||function(c){(gie.q=gie.q||[]).push(c)};gie(function(){gie.widgets.load({id:'4QAo_JFjS5V15l0eHAt0Lw',sig...

Sign up to the WSC Weekly Howl - a small portion of despair and enlightenment delivered to your inbox every Friday