Remembering the never-ending final: Everton, Aston Villa and the three games to decide the 1977 League Cup

Remembering the never-ending final: Everton, Aston Villa and the three games to decide the 1977 League Cup

I have just come out of a heated meeting with my tutor who insists that I cannot afford to miss his lecture this afternoon. He probably had a point: the finals for my degree were due to start in six weeks and there were still huge gaps in my knowledge. But I was subject to a higher calling: Everton were playing Aston Villa at Wembley in the final of the League Cup the following day and I needed to head back home to Liverpool that very afternoon where I would be part of a minibus setting off for Wembley the following morning at seven.

This unexpected cup run created a massive dent in my limited finances so there was no option but to introduce a nascent form of austerity into my lifestyle and hitchhike home to save on the train fare. Looking back, it is actually quite frightening to recall the number of times I used this method to convey me to Everton games, but every journey passed without incident or alarm. Thankfully, when I received my first ever pay packet, my thumbing days were over.

I picked up my first lift on the M62 in Morley, just outside Leeds, and two rides later I was deposited at the end of the M57, which was within walking distance of home. As per the never-ending student tradition, I arrived just in time for tea, scrounged some additional funds from my parents and then spent the rest of the evening in the pub with some mates. Those were the days.

On 12 March 1977, the minibus departed from outside my friend’s house, who lived a few doors away. Most of my 11 travelling companions were members of his family and his brother- in- law kindly agreed to undertake the driving. En route, most of the passengers were engrossed in reading the Liverpool Echo Special Edition, which charted Everton’s progress to the final. An air of anticipation and expectation enveloped us all

Everton’s form had plateaued during the 1976/77 campaign and, by January 1977, the team were adrift in 13th after a paltry return of just two wins in 11 matches, with attendances slumping as low as 21,000. The club decided to dispense with the services of manager Billy Bingham who was left to regret his remark on a recent edition of Football Focus when, after parading new signing Duncan MacKenzie, he joked: “The last manager who signed him got sacked.”

Despite the poor performances in the league, Everton made progress in the League Cup, the highlight a stunning 3-0 annihilation of Manchester United at Old Trafford in the quarter-finals in front of 57,738 supporters, which was arguably the best performance under Bingham’s reign. It is still the one Everton game that I regret not being able to see. My dad and my younger brother were privileged to have been there, although his teacher looked askance the following day when his reason for missing school was given as going Christmas shopping in Manchester.

In an unexpected development, Everton broke with tradition and didn’t appoint an ex-player as the new boss. Instead, Gordon Lee of Newcastle arrived, which came as somewhat of a shock to both fans and media alike who were confidently expecting Bobby Robson of Ipswich to assume the role.

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Lee immediately set about imposing a more disciplined playing style, with every player expected to adhere to his instructions. Bingham’s side conceded 12 goals in four games in December, and Lee would ensure that those defensive frailties were consigned to the past.

Before he could assume command, coach Steve Birkenshaw was in temporary charge for the first leg of the League Cup semi-final against Second Division Bolton. Over 55,000 crammed onto the terraces of Goodison Park hoping for an Everton victory. A goal from MacKenzie looked set to settle the game until, in typical Everton fashion, they were the victims of their own demise. With just two minutes remaining, goalkeeper David Lawson took too many steps with the ball – an act spotted by the referee – resulting in the award of an indirect free-kick. A sense of foreboding was palpable as Bolton duly equalised.

Lee was installed as manager on 30 January 1977 and his first game in charge saw Everton win a cup replay at Goodison against Third Division Swindon. Two weeks later, in front of Bolton’s biggest gate for years – 50,413 – Everton, despite missing a penalty, won 1-0 at Burnden Park to ensure their first journey to Wembley for nine years.

For Everton’s, Martin Dobson who was released by Bolton as a youngster with no apparent explanation, this victory was especially sweet. The editors of the Bolton Evening News were left to regret printing their special Wembley edition prior to the game.

Our minibus made remarkably good time and, hurtling down the M6 in what appeared to be a constant convoy of travelling Blues, we reached the outskirts of Birmingham in high spirits. With just over 100 miles covered in two hours, we looked set for an early arrival at Wembley and the chance to enjoy a few relaxing beers prior to the kickoff. It wasn’t to be.

Thousands of Aston Villa fans in their vehicles entered the motorway and traffic ground to a halt. Several cars, which were overheating and spouting streams of hot steam, became an added complication and distraction. It was a strange experience to be stuck alongside our rival fans, but good humour seemed to prevail as we bemoaned the inadequacies of the British transport infrastructure. Forty years on, nothing has really changed, has it?

We juddered along, covering a mere two miles in as many hours as Birmingham held us in its grip. By midday, it seemed doubtful that we would even make it to Wembley on time. Eventually, somebody had the bright idea of driving along the hard shoulder, and within seconds everybody took their chance, correctly concluding that the Motorway Police would be powerless to act. It worked: the speedometer picked up and by 1.30pm we were heading off the M1 and looking for somewhere to park and drink in Harrow.

Given the senseless and draconian licensing laws of the time, it never ceases to amaze me how many pints a football fan was able to consume in such a short space of time. Within one hour, I had somehow thrown four pints down my throat, which was less than some other members of my party, but then dashed off to catch the tube to Wembley, making it just in time for the kick-off.

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Aston Villa’s manager Ron Saunders was an ex-Everton player himself and had won the League Cup with Villa two years earlier. This was his fourth final in five years, having taken Norwich and Manchester City to the showpiece event in 1973 and 1974.

The league table showed Villa in fourth and Everton in 15th so it was no surprise that the Birmingham outfit were the bookies’ overwhelming favourites to prevail, especially with the goalscoring threat posed by Gray, Little and Deehan. Yet the arrival of Lee had engendered a sense of optimism amongst the travelling Blues fans.

Unlike the FA Cup final, the League Cup wasn’t televised live and did little to attract the interest of neutrals. Indeed, a full programme of League fixtures was being held at the same time. The game kicked off at 3pm with an expectant crowd of 96,223 anticipating a thrilling encounter.

It was unfortunate that it was an unseasonably hot and humid day and, combined with the occasion, coincided to produce one of the most mind-numbingly turgid finals ever seen at Wembley. The resulting stalemate ended in a 0-0 draw after 90 minutes, though most fans were hopeful that extra-time would produce a decisive result. Bizarrely, there was to be no extra-time as the Football League had expected the outcome to be decided in normal time, a fact most supporters were blissfully unaware of.

For some reason, the authorities decided to dispense with the need for an additional playing period, a decision that still defies logic today, given the time and expense involved in a trip to Wembley for clubs and supporters alike. One of the most enthralling finals, played only eight years earlier, featured Third Division Swindon clinching the trophy with a mesmerising extra-time victory over Arsenal.

At the conclusion of the encounter, two weary sides joined each other in a weary and pointless lap of honour. Brian Glanville succinctly summarised the occasion by describing the final as being “as dull and eventful as a seaside town in winter”. One can only assume Glanville didn’t spend his winter holidays in Skegness. Nevertheless, for both teams, with a replay imminent, the prospect of a trophy still remained.

After the match, we jumped straight on the tube and, having parked in Harrow, we successfully managed to avoid the congestion that clogged the exit roads around Wembley. By around 9pm, it is fair to say that everyone was desperate to slake our thirst and we agreed to exit at the next turn-off near Coventry.

Someone at the back shouted “there’s a pub on the right” so we parked up. In fact, it wasn’t a pub, rather a parochial working men’s club, and in an echo of American Werewolf in London, everything stopped as our boisterous scouse squadron, bedecked in blue and white, marched into the room. We approached the bar with all eyes fixed firmly upon us but safe in the knowledge that this looked the type of place that could ill-afford to turn away customers.

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Despite the language barrier, with almost everybody sounding like the cast from Crossroads, we spent an entertaining few hours with the locals, most of whom were Coventry fans. They looked bemused when we expressed our frustration with Everton’s lacklustre progress since the title win in 1970, constantly reminding us that as Sky Blue fans, they would love to have tasted some of the success that we had witnessed over the years. As we left, the bar manager’s beaming smile indicated that his takings had far exceeded those of a normal suburban Saturday in Coventry.

We finally reached home at 1am. It had been, in the words of Eugene O’Neill, “A long days’ journey into night.”

Tickets for the replay were placed on sale at Goodison on the Monday morning, which was inconvenient for me as I was back in Leeds. Experience taught me to rely on my dad on such occasions and he rang me that evening to confirm that he had secured a ticket for me. My ticket for the game at Wembley cost £1.50, whereas for the replay the price was now £1, the equivalent of £6.16 today and a reminder of how cheap and affordable watching football used to be.

After receiving an ear-bashing from my tutor for missing his lecture, he was apoplectic when I informed him that I would now have to forego Wednesday’s tutorial to attend the replay. Everton seemed determined to ruin my academic prospects at every opportunity

I left Leeds at four in the afternoon and decided to treat myself to a coach ticket, catching the impressively named White Rose Express to Sheffield. I was possibly the only person on board heading for the replay. On the coach were two young French students who made the mistake of conversing in their native tongue. Two irate elderly Tykes took issue with this and started to berate them, shouting “speak bloody English” in increasingly irate tones. The poor girls were on the verge of tears until the driver stopped the coach at the next stop and ordered the 70s version of Brexiteers off.

After arriving in Sheffield by six, I jumped on a bus from the station to Hillsborough. There was only one conversation on the bus, and surprisingly it wasn’t the football: it was the cost of the bus fares. Sheffield City council, led by one-time socialist David Blunkett, introduced a massive cut in the cost of fares, with most short journeys costing 2p – at least five times less than the national rate. Fans paying the conductor consistently queried the cost with a bemused, “How much?”

I had arranged to meet my dad by the players’ entrance at 7.15 to collect my ticket, but instinctively I knew that he would be delayed by his final pre-match beverage in a local hostelry. He arrived at 7.40 and we assumed our place in an incredibly packed Leppings Lane terrace. A crowd of 54,840 crammed into the stadium and awaited the outcome.

The quagmire of a pitch did little to improve the quality of football on offer and it appeared that the replay would also end goalless. However, one could always rely on Everton to conjure up a defensive calamity, and so it proved. On 79 minutes, centre-back Roger Kenyon, whilst attempting to clear a tame shot from John Deehan, bewilderingly contrived to turn the ball into his own net in a moment of comical defending. I am still amazed that this most unlikely of goals has never appeared on the “what happened next?” segment of A Question of Sport. The glory appeared to be heading to Birmingham.

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The League Cup was a trophy that Liverpool had yet to claim so the Everton fans rallied behind the side in increasingly vociferous vocal cadences. Gordon Lee threw caution to the wind, pushing players forward in search of an equaliser. However, as the final seconds approached, Everton fans were dismayed to see the trophy heading towards the touchline bedecked in Claret and Blue ribbons.

Then, with almost the last kick off the game, Jim Pearson found some space in the Villa area to cross the ball to Bob Latchford, who was left unmarked in front of goal. Bob duly dispatched his shot into the net and jumped over the terrace wall to celebrate with the delirious Evertonians as hundreds spilt onto the pitch. For Villa fans to have the trophy snatched away from them by an ex-Birmingham player was particularly galling, but in truth, Everton were the better side and deserved their equaliser.

The muddy terrain continued to drain the energies of both teams as extra-time ensued and neither side could conjure up a piece of sublime skill to seal the victory. Somehow, Everton succeeded in scoring both goals but didn’t win the match.

This was the first time that a domestic cup final failed to produce a winner after a replay and it quickly became apparent that the Football League had not planned for such an eventuality. Most fans remained in the stadium waiting for an announcement over the tannoy, while others leafed through their programmes to check for any proposed replay date. Eventually the matchday announcer was forced to admit that he did not know when or where the next replay would be held and advised fans to check the papers tomorrow.

The game didn’t finish until after 10pm and this would throw my own travel pans into disarray as I had anticipated catching the last coach back to Leeds at 10:45. After spending at least an hour waiting to board a bus to return to Sheffield, I headed for the train station in the vague hope that there might be a service I could catch.

The building was full of bewildered, meandering Everton and Villa fans forlornly trying to work out how they were to get back home. Fortunately for me, there appeared to be a train at 1:20 to Leeds and I headed to the platform where two other Blues were waiting. It transpired that, like me, they were students and lived close to me in Liverpool. We appeared to know many of the same people. Small world and all that, it made the journey back far more entertaining. Of course, I haven’t seen them since.

I slept in till 2pm the next day, missing yet another key lecture. Apparently, my tutor told the other students in my absence that I didn’t seem to grasp the concept that my degree was far more important than watching Everton. How little he knew: I would happily have failed my course if it meant that Everton won the League Cup. And, to be honest, the prospect of resitting my final year did hold certain attractions.

Both sides continued to make progress in the FA Cup as well as accumulating a backlog of league fixtures, which made slotting in a date for a replay more complicated. Eventually, word emanated from the Football League that the replay was to be held four weeks later, at Old Trafford, on 16 April, and if no clear victor was to emerge then, for the first time ever in an English cup final, penalties would be used to settle the tie.

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From a selfish perspective, this rearranged date was perfect for me as it fell during the Easter holiday period. Finally, I wouldn’t have to miss any more lectures.

Old Trafford was probably my easiest journey so far as I was back home in Liverpool. This time, my dad offered to transport us in his work’s minibus. We made good time along the East Lancashire Road, avoiding most of the traffic which chose to travel on the M62. It was a good decision as the motorway was log-jammed, causing a number of Evertonians to arrive late.

Since the last replay, Everton had defeated Derby in an FA Cup quarter-final tie were due to face Liverpool in the semi-final, the one team we really wanted to avoid. Notwithstanding, there was no doubting that the arrival of Lee as manager had ignited an upsurge in form. Surely, now was the time for Everton to deliver at the same ground they destroyed Manchester United in the quarter-finals in December.

Another big, although not capacity, crowd of 54,749 entered the stadium to witness the last game of this seemingly never-ending saga. Once again, there was no live television coverage, which was an oversight as both teams was were about to deliver a classic. Everton dominated proceedings in the first half, and on 38 minutes Chris Nicholl scythed down Latchford, earning himself a yellow card in the process, From the free=kick, defender Ken McNaught – a future Aston Villa player – nodded the ball down for Latchford, Villa’s nemesis, to score the opening goal. It was the first time in the tie that Everton were in the lead.

During the second half, Everton appeared content to defend their advantage; Villa were the dominant team without creating any clear chances. With ten minutes remaining, an Everton clearance found Chris Nicholl near the touchline. He controlled the ball, and with a Messi–type swivel, left Jim Pearson on the floor, heading towards the penalty area as the defenders backed off. He unleashed a 35-yard piledriver with his left foot that flashed past David Lawson into the net.

Everton would later develop a worrying habit of conceding wonder goals to opposition defenders; three years later, Frank Lampard did something similar for West Ham in an FA Cup semi-final replay.

Everton immediately lost possession from the restart and, just 60 seconds later, without a blue player touching the ball, Villa nabbed a second as Brian Little brushed away the attention of three defenders and squeezed his shot under Lawson’s body from the narrowest of angles. Within the space of 60 seconds, it appeared that Everton were now destined to surrender their hold on the cup. Or were they?

This time, Everton retained possession from the restart and immediately forced a corner. Ronnie Goodlass delivered the ball into the Villa box. Everton captain Mick Lyons outjumped John Burridge, the Villa keeper, to knock the ball to Martin Dobson, whose goalward header was flicked on by Latchford to Lyons whose attempt crashed against the crossbar. Before anybody could react, Lyon’s nodded the rebound home in front of the delirious Everton fans gathered behind the goal.

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With the space of barely four minutes, I experienced the full gamut of emotions – from disappointment to despair to delirium. My hand went from holding my head to hugging everyone in my vicinity as the chorus of “we shall not be moved” echoed around the ground.

The match now entered extra-time as the spectre of the dreaded penalty shootout loomed large. With just 90 seconds remaining, Villa launched a counter-attack and played the ball out to Gordon Smith on the right. His weak cross deflected off Goodlass into the area, where it appeared that full-back Terry Darracott would clear the danger. However, for some unfathomable reason, he hesitated and let the ball run past him, leaving Little free to notch the winning goal, his tenth of the competition.

It was a typical Everton defensive disaster that cost them dearly. No matter how many times I relive or rewatch that moment, I still have no explanation for Darracott’s aberration. In truth, many never forgave him.

We stayed behind to applaud our team but exited the stadium before Villa went to collect the trophy. It was a funereal atmosphere on the journey home with not even the prospect of a consoling libation to assuage our collective grief. However, in those pre-video days, we were too late home to watch the highlights on BBC’s Sportsnight.

The experience of watching the League Cup final of 1977 can never be repeated. It took over a month to settle the tie, with three games in three different cities. It is still the longest ever domestic cup final, lasting a total of 330 minutes. The aggregate attendance was 205,000 – a record for any English game and yielded over £500,000 in gate receipts, the equivalent of £3.3m today. Both sets of fans, including myself, travelled over 600 miles to see all three games. And after all that, Everton lost.

The impact of that crushing defeat on Everton is still understated. It would’ve been the club’s first trophy in seven years, with qualification for Europe the following season a reward. Perhaps with that cup win behind them, Everton may have changed their destiny and challenged for further honours – who knows? What is unarguable is that they threw away a golden opportunity by being the authors of their demise

July 8, 1977: it is the moment of truth. I ring my tutor to confirm my exam results. They are nowhere near as good as I had hoped but higher than my exasperated tutor predicted. I would have to wait a further eight years for my devotion to the club to be rewarded, but at least my time in Leeds wasn’t totally wasted.

By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan

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