Reliving The Five Minute Final, With Terry Neill
by Robert Veitch
Some FA Cup finals disappear into the mists of time, some remain etched in the memory forever. Robert Veitch met up with former Arsenal manager Terry Neill to relive one of the greatest finales in FA Cup history
Back in May 1979, a new broom had swept into Downing Street, Art Garfunkel was at number one with a song about rabbits, and Terry Neill, the youngest manager in Arsenal’s history was returning to Wembley for a date with Manchester United, the FA Cup, and destiny.
Wind the clock forward 40 years and Terry is opposite me, recalling what became known as “The Five Minute Final.”
Terry reminisced, “Back then there was no extra time and penalties, just replays. We took five games to get past Sheffield Wednesday in the 3rd round. We beat Notts County in the 4th round, Nottingham Forest in the 5th, Southampton in the quarter-final and Wolves in the semi.
The night before the final, we had a relaxed team meal in the hotel at Bisham Abbey, a bit of banter between friends. There was no curfew or rules because I trusted the players, they were all good professionals.”
On match day, after breakfast, it was time to don the cup final suits and board the coach. “We had a TV reporter embedded with us, making the journey from the hotel to Wembley Stadium,” he recalled.
Driving up Wembley Way at walking pace was something to behold, through masses of fans, supporting both sides, mingling together. Terry told me, “The regalia of the day was everywhere; banners, flags, homemade FA Cups, but far fewer replica kits back then. Everyone, regardless of which team they supported was in a good mood, desperately hoping it was going to be their day. Players acknowledged the fans, soaking up the atmosphere. There were no dark sunglasses, no mobiles or headphones back then – the players were more approachable. It was a terrific experience.” The traditional pre-match walkabout on the hallowed Wembley turf took place, and then it was down to business.
“We didn’t have selection issues, because our squad generally knew who was playing, it was usually the same starting eleven. We had a squad of 20 players for the 1978-79 season, and played 60 games. But it was the same for all the teams back then.
Our physio, Fred Street, who was the England physio for Don Revie, Ron Greenwood, Sir Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor said to me years later, ‘How did we manage in those days? You, me and Don Howe, up to 70 games a season with only 15 regular players.’
I didn’t fear the Manchester United players, because our players were of a similar calibre. My coach, Don Howe and I would point out the various strengths and weaknesses of our opponents, but there was no fear. Have faith in your own players, they’re the stars.”
When the bell went, the gladiators left their dressing rooms, led to the cauldron by their managers. Both Terry and Manchester United counterpart Dave Sexton were at ease, chatting and laughing as they made their way across the pitch. The teams lined up, the national anthem played and Prince Charles was introduced to the players. The coin toss took place and then it was game on…
The hottest day of the year was unlikely to create a high tempo game, but an intriguing chess match ensued. By half time Arsenal were 2-0 up, with goals from Brian Talbot and Frank Stapleton. The second half mirrored the first, but without the goals. Then towards the end, it all changed, it became memorable for all the right reasons.
The energy sapping Wembley pitch played a part, as did the heat. Players’ socks were rolled down, shin pads were removed, and hands were on hips as players inhaled deeply hankering for breath. Carry on, carry on, nothing else matters, this is the FA Cup, the opportunity might never come again.
In those days, the management team and support staff sat on simple wooden benches, out in the open, a long way from the plush comfy seats of today.
With five minutes of regulation time left, Terry wasn’t complacent; “The game could still be turned on its head, I knew there was time for that. Manchester United were in the ascendancy during the second half.” He was right, Gordon McQueen scored for United in the 86th minute, then Sammy McIlroy equalised in the 88th.
“At 2-2 I did the best acting I’ve ever done in my life,” Terry remembered. “I knew where the TV cameras were. After losing to Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town the year before, I knew cameras would be on me. I didn’t want to be seen as a serial cup final loser. I disguised my true feelings as best I could.”
Terry didn’t look at me as he talked – he was in another place. His eyes were looking through me, reliving the past, looking across the Wembley turf more than half a lifetime later. Viscerally experiencing those coruscating moments again, the tension was etched in his face.
And then he came back to me. “Liam Brady was a super player, his run to set up that winning goal was superb, drawing players onto him, playing a pass to Graham Rix that demanded to be crossed. It was a brilliant cross, arcing away from United keeper Gary Bailey, putting him in an impossible situation. It was dipping too, onto the right foot of Alan Sunderland, who was arriving at speed, at the far post. It was the 89th minute.
Alan Sunderland wheeling away in celebration, arms raised, head shaking like a disbelieving schoolboy remains the iconic moment of the day.
When Sunderland scored the Arsenal bench erupted, Terry’s arms aloft in exultation, “I just couldn’t hold myself back.” Tension released, he straightened his tie and sat back down… there was still a minute to go. “What an amazing cup final”, exclaimed Brian Moore on the ITV commentary. “Sunderland… it’s there… it’s 3-2”, screamed John Motson on the BBC.
Terry picked up the story. “At the sound of the final whistle my heart was bleeding for Dave Sexton, he was experiencing what I had the previous year. He was a great man, a wonderful man. He congratulated me and I was saying sorry to him, commiserating with him. There was a certain sort of camaraderie back then.”
After the match players from both sides were interviewed together in front of blue velvet curtains, swigging milk from old-fashioned pint bottles. The managers were interviewed side by side. A contrast to interviews in front of sponsorship laden boards with the media savvy players of today.
“We had a few drinks to celebrate that night, including champagne from the FA Cup. We also did what all teams did back then – an open top bus ride the following day – parading the trophy through the streets of Islington in front of thousands of fans.”
The day after the day after had its own tale too. “I was back at Highbury, with Ken Friar the Club Secretary. Ken said it was too late to put the trophy in the safe because it was locked for the night. So I popped it in the boot of my car and drove home. When I got there my daughters greeted me. I got the FA Cup out of the boot and showed it to them. “Well done Daddy,” they go, “but it’s all mucky and dirty.” Because of course, it hadn’t been cleaned since the celebrations began. We spent the rest of the day at our neighbours and the FA Cup spent more time in their swimming pool than it did on dry land.“
“I live in Hurstpierpoint these days and still see some of the players from time to time. They were a great bunch of guys. I still go and watch the Arsenal, they’re still my team.
I’m from Northern Ireland, a beautiful little town called Bangor where there’s no big I am. We have a good work ethic. 1979 might be what I get remembered for, but it’s not my greatest moment. That was the gift of life itself from my parents, and then having two daughters of my own.”
Over the years Terry has contributed to several charities. In the 1960s in Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’ it was low-key. In 1984 he helped raise £80,000 for the Sick Children’s Trust after leading a team to Kilimanjaros’ summit. Terry ran the Belfast Marathon for Barnardo’s and the London Marathon for Great Ormond Street Hospital. In 1996 Terry toured Burkina Faso and Ghana with Frank Skinner and David Baddiel amongst others for Comic Relief’s ‘Balls to Africa’ campaign. Now in his late 70s Terry continues to support good causes.
And with that we headed for the park, bouncing a ball as we went. Jumpers for goalposts, smiles in the sunshine, anyone fancy a kickabout?