The 1991 FA Cup final: the day two decades collided and English football changed its outlook

The 1991 FA Cup final: the day two decades collided and English football changed its outlook

Signposting in movies is one the most potent of the director’s tools, a moment in the unfolding story that presages what is to happen at the denouement. Our hunger to impose order on our lives often drives us to attempt to apply a similar structure to actual historical events, and this is particularly the case in sport.

Matches looked at through the lens of history are shaped into a recognisable narrative, and so the outcome takes on an air of inevitability, rather than being put down to fortune. We draw an imaginary line between unconnected events to form them into a compelling story which, rightly or wrongly, becomes enshrined in popular memory.

Takes of redemption are particularly seductive: take the line between Stuart Pearce’s two penalties in the shootouts against West Germany and Spain; by fashioning these chance occurrences into a fable of indomitable courage, we can chalk them up to destiny, rather than to the random chance of an injury to Graeme Le Saux, Terry Venables’s first-choice left-back, without which “Psycho” wouldn’t have played in Euro 96.

Tragedies, at least in the dramatic context, are arguably even better suited to the signposting principle. The red card which curtails Zinedine Zidane’s participation in the match featured in his eponymous film is a good example, foreshadowing the events that would unfold in the 2006 World Cup final.

The 1991 FA Cup Final, pitting Pearce’s Nottingham Forest against the Tottenham of Venables and, of course, Paul Gascoigne, is another such event. In retrospect, we can identify numerous signposts for what was to come for some of the game’s biggest characters. The match is a nexus point in history, when the 1980s met the 90s. How different it might all have been.

If Gazza’s knee had made it through the match unscathed, how might England have fared at Euro 92? If Forest had won the FA Cup, the only domestic trophy to elude Brian Clough, would he have retired honourably, as Pearce speculates in his autobiography Psycho? That could have left the way clear for someone else to arrest Forest’s decline, at a time when it was still a job to tempt the biggest names. If Venables had failed to win the cup, would he ever have got the England job that Clough had coveted for so long?

In the spring of 1991, England was in the throes of change. As so often seems to happen, sport provided an allegorical parallel with the state of the country, as English football’s first full season in the new decade ushered in a changing of the guard, comparable to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher after a decade’s hegemonic rule.

Liverpool, themselves the dominant force during the 80s, lost their crown to Arsenal. A new England manager ushered many of the heroes of Italia 90 off the international stage; in the FA Cup, meanwhile, three decades collided on a fateful afternoon in May, which deserves to be remembered for much more than one man’s shattered knee.

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It is comparatively rare these days that two mid-table sides make it to the final of the FA Cup, which has become something of a cherry on the cake for Champions’ League contenders in the 21st century. In 1991, both these teams had dispatched a member of the top four, Forest seeing off Crystal Palace in the third round and Spurs defeating Arsenal in the first Wembley semi-final.

Gascoigne’s extraordinary opening goal in the Arsenal match – a 30-yard free-kick – provided an outlet for the release of pent-up adrenaline, keeping him just the right side of the edge. He certainly had previous in regards getting hyped for a match at Wembley; in All Played Out, his memoir of England’s 1990 World Cup adventure, Pete Davies recounts how Gazza almost decapitated him, pummelling a ball against the tunnel wall prior to a match against Czechoslovakia that was effectively his ticket to the World Cup.

On that occasion, as in the Arsenal match, he was able to channel some of that energy into his football, with spectacular results. Sadly for him, the early stages of the cup final provided no such opportunity, leaving the energy to explode out of him in a far more destructive manner – one that had profound consequences for the match, for himself, for football clubs in England and Italy, and for the national team.

At the time, I had found a new passion to replace toys as I entered my teens. Like so many, I had been captivated by Italia 90, and although Forest was my club of choice, my biggest hero at the time was England’s new leader, the epitome of all that was wise, pure and good: Gary Lineker.

Lineker had also scored in the clash with Arsenal, while Forest eventually overcame ten-man West Ham, after a contentious red card, in the other semi-final at Villa Park. If my excitement at my favourite player and team contesting the famous final was palpable, it reached fever pitch when my dad informed me that he had purchased tickets for the match.

It was to be a day that changed my life, cementing my love for Forest, and providing my first exposure to the visceral emotions that watching your team In the flesh can generate – from the explosive ecstasy of the bulging net to the exquisite agony of defeat: the bittersweet lot of a football fan, encapsulated in a single, undimmed memory.

Even the pre-match formalities have about them an air of fatalism with the benefit of hindsight. Two of England’s most tragic 90s figures, Gazza and Princess Diana, were juxtaposed in the sunshine. Clough and Venables walked out hand-in-hand, at the former’s instigation. If this suggested some kind of special bond between the two – both mavericks and outsiders in their different ways – it was a false impression.

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Venables appears to have been thoroughly bemused by the whole thing, commenting in a Sky interview years later that they looked “like a right pair of woofters” – a remark that landed him, and the broadcaster, in hot water with viewers. Clough, meanwhile, felt no special affection for his Tottenham counterpart, writing in his autobiography Walking on Water, “I was never a Venables fanatic, exactly, but I did recognise and respect his ability as a manager.” Whatever the reason behind it, the image of the pair walking out onto the pitch has an enduring resonance: the greatest manager England never had, and one of the best that they all too briefly did.

If reaching the FA Cup final was an unprecedented achievement for Clough, the match itself showed tell-tale signs of the waning of his powers, from his team selection to his inability to influence the game once it began. At the time, there was an oft-repeated media line that Clough and Forest played at Wembley as regularly as the England side.

Two League Cups and one Full Members Cup had been acquired in the preceding two seasons, with one more Full Members Cup (and a losing appearance in the League Cup Final) to follow in 1992. The man whose goal had secured the second of those League Cup victories, Nigel Jemson, was not in the FA Cup final squad, despite having scored a hat-trick in an earlier round against Southampton.

As Pearce recalls, “I believe that Clough picked his favourites, instead of the best side on that day,” leaving out both Jemson and Franz Carr over personal grudges. “We were surprised at his choice,” Pearce recalls, “particularly as in the past Clough had even selected his strongest side for testimonials.” Contrast this with steely pragmatism with which Clough approached the European Cup final in 1979, leaving out loyal favourites Archie Gemmill and Martin O’Neill.

Clough famously remained on the bench before extra-time, leaving it to Gemmill, now his assistant, to rouse the players. Tony Francis, in his book Clough: A Biography, speculated that this might have been “a clever piece of psychology” but also that Clough might simply have been avoiding the attention of the cameras. In The Footballer Who Could Fly, Duncan Hamilton, who knew Clough for two decades as a reporter, recalls “his inexpressive marble gaze, as if his eyes were suddenly sightless.” Whatever the facts behind this decision, it seems at odds with the Clough of earlier years. If Clough was indeed playing mind games, he lost.

It is worth reflecting on what others lost that day. Gascoigne’s injury had a profound effect on his career, and arguably wrecked England’s chances in the following summer’s European Championship, where he surely would have made a difference to a team starved of creativity by injury to another star in John Barnes, and by Graham Taylor’s bewildering decision to drop Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle.

One man who did go to Sweden, of course, was Lineker. Another famous image, that of Lineker’s substitution in England’s defeat against the hosts, marooned forever on 48 international goals, can also be traced back to this final. Having already seen a goal disallowed for an erroneous offside call, Lineker won a penalty, after a foul by Forest goalkeeper Mark Crossley.

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“Shades here of the World Cup,” commented John Motson on the BBC, referring to England’s quarter-final win over Cameroon in the 1990 tournament. Although, as Lineker reflected in an interview with FourFourTwo magazine in 2017, “I hit it really sweet.” Forest’s goalkeeper – famously the only man to have saved a Matt Le Tissier spot-kick – dived to his left to make the save.

That miss was on Lineker’s mind the following year when Spurs met Forest in the League Cup semi-final, and he found himself once again facing Crossley from 12 yards. “Because he’d done that,” he reflected in that FourFourTwo feature, “I just chipped one down the middle, so I got a little bit of revenge there.”

If that tasted sweet, however, it turned sour when he tried the same trick against Brazil in a May 1992 friendly – exactly one day less than a year on from the cup final miss. On that occasion, England’s ace – whose balls were golden before David Beckham’s had even dropped – stubbed it meekly into the goalkeeper’s arms.

It is not inconceivable that had Crossley not saved the cup final spot-kick, Lineker might have stuck to the method that had served him well in Italy, and scored against Brazil to equal Bobby Charlton’s England record. It may not have made a difference to England’s failings in Euro 92, but might have spared Taylor at least one of the sticks with which the press, and the public, went on to beat him.

Notwithstanding the personal falls from grace that began to unfold that day, there was at least one tale of redemption. Tottenham’s Gary Mabbutt, whose own-goal in 1987 had given Coventry the FA Cup, pressurised Des Walker into heading into his own net in extra-time, and was able to lift the trophy as captain. Within the ground, the tannoy announcer informed the crowd that Mabbutt had been the scorer.

If the match is remembered for the antics of Gascoigne, it was another Spurs midfielder who used the occasion to stake a claim for a place in England’s midfield in the build-up to Euro 92. Paul Stewart was man of the match, scorer of Tottenham’s second-half equaliser, and the man whose flick-on prompted Walker’s desperate header past Crossley.

He went on to enjoy his best-ever season the following year, winning three caps for his country and being named as a standby for the squad that travelled to contest the Euros. With the benefit of hindsight, given what he revealed years later regarding the abuse he suffered from a youth coach, the undoubted high watermark of his career is arguably the most impressive achievement of all, and certainly the most poignant.

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On the subject of midfielders, English football’s most influential midfield general of the 90s was on the pitch with Gascoigne and Stewart that day – but he was playing for Forest. At 19, Roy Keane had a breakthrough season that year, having been brought over from Ireland – arguably, Clough’s last great achievement. He was a leading contender for the PFA Young Players of the Year Awards, losing out to future Manchester United drinking buddy Lee Sharpe.

Keane’s name received the loudest cheer from the fans before kick-off, louder even than club legends like Pearce and Nigel Clough, emphasising the esteem in which he was held. His influence on this match was limited, but he would back to savour plenty of Wembley glory in years to come.

This final marked a turning point in so many histories. At the conclusion of the Nottingham Forest Match of the Day VHS, released that summer and concluding with the FA Cup final defeat, John Motson noted that “for this young side, there would be lots of tomorrows.”

Instead, there were two more seasons, culminating in relegation following the loss of Walker – and subsequently, the departure of Keane, Charles and Nigel Clough. In an ironic twist, when Channel 4’s Football Italia – launched largely on the back of Gazzamania – aired its first match, between Sampdoria and Gascoigne’s new club Lazio, the only England international on the pitch was Walker, playing for the team from Genoa.

Tottenham’s victory, meanwhile, made the club the most successful of all time in the FA Cup with eight wins, an auspicious achievement. The record was overtaken within four years by Keane’s Manchester United, and subsequently claimed by – of all clubs – Arsenal.

On 18 May 1991, a football match took place at Wembley, and a bright new chapter for English football came to an abrupt and premature end. With English clubs back in Europe following the Heysel ban, and the launch of the Premier League on the horizon, the sunny skies above the stadium seemed to reflect the outlook for the domestic game.

The bright new generation of stars from Italia 90, including Gascoigne and Walker, under the leadership of new England captain Lineker, looked set to spearhead a bright new future. Instead, the feelgood factor engendered by England’s World Cup achievements shattered, along with Gascoigne’s knee.

Following the strange inter-regnum of Leeds winning the last football League Championship, Sky’s ‘Whole New Ball Game’ kicked off without Lineker, Gascoigne or Walker. Venables left Spurs under a cloud, presaging his departure from the England job, and Clough’s Forest were relegated. Venables, along with Gascoigne and Pearce, was back at Wembley for English football’s next moment in the sun at Euro 96, but by then, the book was firmly closed on the old certainties with which the 1990s had begun.

By Jeremy Davies @JAODavies

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