I have always felt that FA Cup semi final day is one of the best days in the football calendar. For me there is so much excitement surrounding the semis, not only for fans of the four clubs involved, but also for neutrals. There is so much at stake, only one tie away from an FA Cup final appearance, and everything that comes with that. The nerves, the anticipation, the thrill, the excitement, the nail biting, the joy and the sorrow. A whole raft of emotions. For me, some of the best and most memorable games of football I have seen or listened to have been at this stage in the competition.
In an earlier post I bemoaned the choice of a Wembley venue for this season's FA Cup semis. But now I have to hold my hand up and admit that, as things have turned out in what has been a quite remarkable competition, I have had a slight change of heart. I can now accept that a visit to Wembley for all four clubs still involved is a marvellous thing. I cannot begrudge the supporters from Barnsley, Cardiff, Portsmouth or West Brom their big day out. Not in the slightest.
Of course, (the old) Wembley has hosted semi finals before. The first semi to be held there was in 1991, when Arsenal lost 3-1 to Tottenham Hotspur and we witnessed that quality Paul Gascoigne free kick. The FA Cup semi finals have traditionally been held on neutral venues - Villa Park holding a staggering 55 of them - and up until the late nineties drawn games would have to be replayed. This is no longer the case - both games in just over a week will be decided on the day with extra-time and penalties. The last game to go to a replay was the classic Manchester United and Arsenal encounter in 1999.
And it is that game that kicks-off my "six of the best". My most memorable FA Cup semi finals, in no particular order...
1999 ~ Manchester United v Arsenal (replay at Villa Park)
The first tie ended 0-0, but was still a good game. Nelson Vivas had been sent off for Arsenal and Roy Keane had been denied a late winner for Manchester United after a close offside call. But the replay just about had it all. A trademark Beckham effort from twenty yards gave Manchester United the lead and set up a pulsating, end-to-end game. With twenty minutes to go Arsenal equalised when Bergkamp scored with a deflected shot off his Dutch compatriot Japp Stam. Sixteen minutes left, Roy Keane was sent off and the game swung towards Arsenal. Their dominance paid off with a penalty awarded in injury time. Up stepped Bergkamp but his penalty lacked any sort of pace and the huge Peter Schmeichal guided the ball around the post. Extra-time and the game was on a knife edge. Then on 109 minutes, one of the most magnificent FA Cup moments in the history of the competition. Ryan Giggs intercepted a sloppy Vieira pass in his own half and, at full steam, ran straight at the heart of the Arsenal defence. He weaved through the whole of the Arsenal rearguard before shooting high into Seaman's net. Absolute quality. Voted as the best FA Cup goal ever, the only downside was the sight of Giggs' hairy chest.
1975 ~ Fulham v Birmingham City (replay at Maine Road)
This has to be one of my earliest FA Cup memories. The game itself was not a classic, but I never forget the occasion. The first game had finished 1-1 at Hillsborough. Fulham were by far the underdogs and it felt at the time that the whole country (apart from Birmingham) were rooting for Fulham. It is the replay that sticks in my mind. I was on a school trip and remember listening to the second game on the radio on a coach. I couldn't even tell you now where we were or where we were going to or coming from. All I remember is that all the teachers and children were transfixed with the commentary being transmitted from the Maine Road replay. The young striker John Mitchell nudged Fulham into the final with the game's only goal in the dying seconds. When that goal went in the coach load of children erupted with joy. I was 11 years old. A bunch of kids from the North going crazy on a coach because the underdogs from London had done it. The beauty of the FA Cup. I remember that day so vividly it feels like only yesterday.
1990 ~ Manchester United v Oldham Athletic (at Maine Road)
and Crystal Palace v Liverpool (at Villa Park)
I watched both these games on TV. Two fantastic matches on the same day.
Oldham, with their artificial home surface, had already eliminated the likes of Everton and Aston Villa but were not expected to offer much against the favourites Manchester United. Goals from Earl Barrett, Ian Marshall and Roger Palmer put the Latics within touching distance of Wembley. The underdogs refused to lie down and Palmer's equaliser came late in extra-time. The replay (also at Maine Road) ended with a 2-1 extra-time heart break for Oldham. The Latics still managed to get to Wembley that year, losing 1-0 to Nottingham Forest in the League Cup final.
Under normal circumstances, that 3-3 thriller would have been the game of the 1989-1990 FA Cup. But up next was an even more thrilling match between Crystal Palace and Liverpool. Earlier in the season, the league game at Anfield had finished Liverpool 9, Crystal Palace 0. At half-time in the semi, Palace (who were missing the broken legged Ian Wright) were trailing 1-0 to an Ian Rush goal. Liverpool remained hot favourites to reach the final, but in best FA Cup tradition, Palace had other plans. After the restart, Mark Bright shot Palace level and all of a sudden Liverpool looked rattled. Gary O'Reilly then edged the London team in front. Liverpool upped their game and equalised on 81 minutes with a goal from Steve McMahon. Two minutes later Liverpool were back in control and seemingly going through when John Barnes slotted home from the penalty spot. But in a breathless climax to the game, and against all the odds, Andy Gray levelled with a header. The first half of extra-time passed without incident, both teams recovering from an enthralling first 90 minutes. Four minutes into the second period of extra-time, Palace were catapulted into dreamland. A training ground set piece delivered the reward. A corner from Gray, flicked on at the near post by Andy Thorn and Alan Pardew arrived unmarked at the far post to send Crystal Palace to Wembley. This was a huge moment for Palace. They had never played at Wembley before. They had never reached an FA cup final before. At the end of the game, a massive Palace banner read "Thank you God, I can now die in peace".
That season, the FA Cup belonged to Oldham and Crystal Palace, although neither team won it.
1995 ~ Everton v Tottenham Hotspur (at Elland Road)
I have to include this one, simply because it made me laugh so much. It still does. This is the season that had started with financial irregularities unearthed at White Hart Lane. Spurs were given a £600,000 fine, docked twelve league points and banned from the FA Cup. After appeal, the points reduction was lowered to six, the fine increased to £1.5 million and the FA Cup ban remained. The case went to arbitration and by the time the draw for the Third Round took place, the matter had not been resolved. Altrincham came out of the hat to face "Bye or Tottenham Hotspur". The FA eventually backed down, and Tottenham were reinstated. Tottenham fans were duly convinced that this was going to be their FA Cup winning season. But in the semi at Elland Road, it was Everton who triumphed. Everton were struggling to hold onto a 2-1 lead with twenty minutes remaining when the Everton boss, Joe Royle, decided to make a substitution believing that Paul Rideout was injured. By the time Rideout had signalled to the bench that he was fit to carry on, Royle had sent on Daniel Amokachi. The Nigerian scored two goals as Everton ran out 4-1 winners, much to the dismay of the Tottenham fans. Royle explained "what a good mistake" he had made. I laughed so much I almost cried.
1997 ~ Middlesbrough v Chesterfield (at Old Trafford)
Another 3-3 semi final classic. Middlesbrough would go on to win the tie in a replay at Hillsborough (3-0), but the first game at Old Trafford was the one to savour. This really was a glorious FA Cup spectacle. This game swung from one team to the other, there were plenty of goals and lots of incident. It will be remembered most though for a mistake by the referee, David Elleray. Chesterfield sprinted into an early two goal lead, Andy Roberts and Saun Dyche the scorers, the latter from the spot. Ravenelli pulled one back but then in the second half the top-flight team had Vladimir Kinder sent off. Chesterfield were by now hitting Middlesbrough on the break and it was this route that brought about the game's big talking point. On the counter attack, a shot from Jon Howard smashed off the cross bar and landed a good two feet behind the goal line. 3-1 to the Spireites and the underdogs had clinched it. Except they hadn't. David Elleray disallowed the goal for an infringement in the area. TV replays provided no evidence of a foul. Hignett went on to equalise for Middlesbrough with a disputed penalty. Gianluca Festa put 'Boro in front only for Chesterfield to pull level in the dying seconds with a diving header from Jamie Hewitt. Unbelievable stuff. This was Elleray's post match comment about the disallowed goal:
"I wasn't sure whether the linesman was indicating the ball had crossed the goal-line or whether he had spotted the same offence as me...although I can't remember what it was."
At the final whistle, there were mixed emotions from Chesterfield. Their manager, John Duncan, had his glasses knocked off in the celebrations. The moment was captured on TV; perhaps Howard should have offered his glasses to Elleray.
So there you are - my favourite FA Cup semi finals. Both the games on April 6th certainly have a lot to live up to!