Glory days: A brutal battle at Wembley
It was the game that earned Alex Ferguson his first trophy as Manchester United manager but the FA Cup final replay against Crystal Palace, 30 years ago today, was not one for the faint-hearted.
While the 3-3 draw in the first match on the previous weekend had developed into an entertaining tussle, this was more attritional and a case of the Reds needing to get the job done to deliver silverware for the club at a critical time in the boss's reign.
We knew this team could roll their sleeves up and battle but the gauntlet was laid down by Steve Coppell's Eagles very early on. Perhaps desperate to test the mettle of Les Sealey, the shock inclusion in goal in place of Jim Leighton, the Londoners did everything they could to rattle into the keeper, with centre-forward Mark Bright keen to give him a rough ride.
Skipper Bryan Robson, about to lift his third FA Cup leading the Reds, played at Wembley numerous times with his club and in the white of England. Yet this match sticks in his mind as one of the fiercest contests he encountered.
"When you actually look back, years later, then you can understand why it was such a tough game for us," Robbo told us. "They did have really good players and Steve Coppell was a very good manager at that time.
“I can remember the replay. For me, the replay was probably the most brutal, physical game I ever played at Wembley because they were trying to wire into us to upset us.
“I was saying to Incey [Paul Ince] and the other lads, we’re going to need to knuckle in here and give them a smack back if we want to win this cup final. To be fair, the boys stood up to it but it was a really physical game, that final.
"Incey was tough," Robson continued. "He was really good defensively and so quick over five or 10 yards. He was really quick and very aggressive, so I knew I had the right person alongside me in midfield.
“They tried everything, though! There was a lot of physical stuff, not just in the game but off the ball and all that sort of thing. Stuff going on which shouldn’t happen in a cup final really but it did."
Centre-back Gary Pallister offered a similar version of events when recalling the bruising battle with us."I think Palace were so kind of taken to rough Les Sealey up, they almost forget they were playing the Manchester United side as well," said the defender. "He took some fearful whacks in that game but showed what a competitor he was. He had a terrific game and we nicked, well I wouldn’t say nicked it, as we deserved to win the game on the night."
We spoke recently with Coppell, still a favourite of United fans for his wonderful service on the wing for the Reds, and asked whether it was a deliberate tactic to be more physical in the replay.
"We got accused of being the dirty team," he admitted. "But I think, if you reference that game, the number of fouls were fairly even and, you know, I did have a look at some of the challenges. You don't expect Robbo, Mark Hughes, Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce to be shrinking violets, when it comes to a physical confrontation.
“So I think we were wrongly accused of being the perpetrators. But United had more possession, more of the ball. They were better than us, man for man, but, collectively, we had a real go.
“Yes, it wasn't as good a game. It was very, very very tetchy. There were some dodgy, very committed tackles going in."
Of course, Lee Martin emerged as the hero with only his second goal for the club, making an inspired run from left-back that was picked out by Neil Webb's glorious pass. He took a touch on his chest before thrashing the ball past Nigel Martyn.
"I can always remember 'Snoz' was absolutely shattered," recalled Robbo. "It took everything out of him because of the excitement. When we went to pick him up off the ground, after he’d scored, he was just totally out of breath.“I was thinking he’s not going to recover for another five minutes here, so I’d better just watch that space at left-back. But, no, it was a great run and a lovely ball from Webby, I think, he put in a great ball and it was a good finish by 'Snoz'. I think, overall, we just about deserved to win that game, even though it was a brutal game."
Pallister also felt his defensive colleague became lost in the moment after such an extraordinary contribution, one that will forever etch his name in United folklore.
"I don’t think we expected the goal to come from where it did," he admitted."It was a great ball by Webby, played into the channel. Andy Gray didn’t track his runner and Lee got in and smashed it into the roof of the net.
“For the next five minutes, he was on a different planet and we were trying to get him to calm down and focus on the game. He was that giddy with excitement about scoring the goal, he lost the plot for a couple of minutes afterwards.
”It was great for Lee to score that goal, an unexpected source maybe, to come up with it but the victory on that Thursday night was certainly deserved."
The trophy triumph began an era of glory for Manchester United and Ferguson, but it was won, as is often the case, the hard way.
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