“I have always resisted the temptation to describe any match as the most exciting I have ever seen, but this was the exception. This really was the greatest”
Peter Batt – The Sun
“If this match had been presented as a piece of football fiction-writing, you would have rejected it as being too ridiculous”
Desmond Hackett – The Daily Express
Along with the match day programme and some brown faded newspaper cuttings, I found a stub for the Football League Cup semi-final 2nd replay. Do you know how much it cost nearly 50,000 people to see one of the greatest football games ever played? 35p! Think on that for a moment … and then think again…
The inside cover of the programme contains a welcome from the Chairman of the club hosting the 2nd replay of the epic League Cup semi-final between West Ham and Stoke City, Manchester United’s Louis Edwards welcomes the fans and apologies for the fact that the ground is not working to its full capacity: “The building of the cantilever stand at the scoreboard end temporarily reduces the capacity by about 10,000 but I am sure the inconvenience will be worth it…” If you were a Manchester United supporter and was there later perhaps, Louis, but for West Ham fans that had made the journey north and were packed into the Scoreboard end, the inconvenience was considerable.
You see, it was the 26th of January; it was cold and it was wet and it was Manchester. It could have been Siberia. Imagine how wet and cold Manchester is in January and then imagine it raining even more on top of that. And then add some more rain and some more wind. Then imagine huge puddles forming on the girders of the framework of the new stand, then being blown, from a height, down onto the heads of the massed Hammers fans. I was very young and I’ve seen some wet, cold nights since then but I don’t honestly think I ever stood in such diabolical conditions since (and I was at the uncovered end when we lost 6-0 to Oldham in another semi-final). Are we quite clear on this? It was wet! Oh my God – it was wet!
The Stoke fans were happy with the relative comfort of the covered end where the sound ricocheted round the ground while the Hammers fans made their own noise that, despite dissipating into the night, made for an intimidating and electric atmosphere. The pitch was like a quagmire and huge pools of water formed in the penalty area as West Ham and Stoke took to the pitch that night. The mud was ankle-deep and the rain lashed into the players faces. “So British it made you want to stand up and sing Land of Hope and Glory” wrote Batt again.
By the time of the second replay, the combined attendances for both clubs cup runs stood in excess of a staggering 566,000. At kick-off, Stoke had played 920 minutes of League Cup football, West Ham 1060 minutes. At the end of the 2nd replay over 171,000 fans had witnessed the semi-final epic alone. Surely this had to end somewhere?
The match began as it would continue with early chances coming at both ends in a frenetic, breath-taking and exciting opening, but it was probably the 15th minute that will be the earliest and most important recollection for both sets of fans. A through ball eluded the Stoke forwards as Hammers keeper Bobby Ferguson bravely came out to claim the ball in the mud, winger Terry Conroy chose to leave a foot in as he went to challenge for a ball that was comfortably in Ferguson’s arms and the man in the green jersey failed to rise. Moore stood over the prostrate keeper and wouldn’t allow him to be moved while play was held up for seven minutes while players, trainers and even Ron Greenwood gathered round the concussed player. There were no substitute keepers in those days – only one sub was allowed at all – and it was crucial to get Ferguson back in goal. Indeed, play did start again after Ferguson was prescribed smelling salts (!) but Moore quickly signalled to the referee, pointing out that Ferguson was reeling around the goal line like a drunk in the Mile End Road. Play was halted again as the training staff walked Ferguson up and down the line to try and revive him before kicking balls to him in the tunnel to see how he would react. Instinctively, Ferguson palmed the balls away but he had no idea of where he was nor what the occasion could be. In fact, afterwards Ferguson recalled nothing of the night at all.
Down to ten men and with Ferguson off, it fell onto the young Bermudan Clyde Best to go in goal but Bobby Moore took one look at Best, saw the fear in his eyes and took the jersey off him and strode into the penalty area. The Hammers fans roared their support along with a small prayer. Stoke, inevitably, tried to throw everything at the Hammers goal but only got their opportunity when right-back John McDowell attempted a disastrous back-pass that stuck in the mud, the defender recovered quickly but, panic stricken, could only charge down John Ritchie in the area and a penalty was awarded by referee Pat Partridge. The chances of Moore saving Mike Barnard’s penalty were ‘millions to one’ according to legendary Brian Moore’s commentary but, incredibly, Moore dived to his left to beat out the ball but, with West Ham fans celebrating and Stoke’s holding their heads, the ball ran loose straight back to Barnard who lofted it back over Moore. Moore admitted afterwards that saving the penalty was one of his greatest feelings in football and it was only a shame it was followed soon after by one of his worst
Another night it might have been all over but the Hammers came back. Pop Robson forced a brilliant save from Gordon Banks before the sublime Billy Bonds – having perhaps his greatest ever game for the Hammers – beat two men and cloying mud in a blistering run through the centre before hitting a left foot drive that took a deflection and flew past Banks. It was 1-1 and the 40th minute and the West Ham contingent’s cheers sounded even louder shortly after when Ferguson rejoined the game, louder still in the first half of injury time when Bonds again ploughed past three Stoke defenders on the right wing and squared the ball for Brooking to lash home from just inside the area. This was glorious stuff.
Ironically though, it was the Stoke-inflicted Ferguson injury that led twofold to the Potter’s equaliser before half-time. Firstly, It was nearly eight minutes into injury time when Stoke’s skipper Peter Dobing scored but, worse, an obviously unfit Ferguson was nowhere as Dobing ran in, wandering onto the edge of his area enabling the Stoke skipper to simply drive the ball past him.
The second half started 15 minutes late and Stoke took an early advantage after only five minutes when Terry Conroy – football can be cruel can’t it? - roundly booed by Hammers fans for his assault on the Hammers keeper, hit home as Ferguson again dived late to a ball skidding on the mud, that crept inside his far post. West Ham’s response couldn’t have been more positive, probably sensibly deciding that they were virtually playing without a goalkeeper, the Hammers laid siege to Stoke’s goal. Redknapp, as in the 2nd leg, again hit the foot of a post with Banks beaten, before the Hammers suffered the ultimate ignominy in view of what had happened before. Alan Bloor clearly fouled Geoff Hurst in the penalty area but, though Hurst stumbled, he stayed on his feet, Partridge waved for the advantage and Hurst crossed for Redknapp, who had stopped expecting a whistle for the penalty, to recover briefly and again hit the post. “You’re too much of a Gent, Geoff – if you’d gone down it was definite pen” was Alan Ball’s post match analysis.
Again and again, West Ham attacked but this time there was to be no more controversial incidents or late drama. Stoke pulled everybody back and put themselves in front of everything the Hammers could throw at them. It was heart-stopping, stirring, exciting stuff and, when the whistle went with the score 3-2 to Stoke, the players just dropped into the oozing mud as the men in red and white stripes celebrated the first final appearance in their long history. There is a famous photo of Banks celebrating in front of the Stoke fans, fist clenched and covered in mud.
The normally placid Ron Greenwood was scathing in his attack on Terry Conroy later “You saw it – draw your own conclusions” he said, also admitting “He [Ferguson] doesn’t remember anything about the game. He still doesn’t know the score” Greenwood also complained about the attitude adopted in the second half towards Ferguson calling it ‘simply bad sportsmanship’
Looking back though it’s hard to deny Stoke their victory either, controversial though it was, it’s an old cliché but this was one game nobody deserved to lose. West Ham did get to Wembley and won three years later (another time ok?) but, nevertheless for some, that epic cup run and semi-final perhaps encapsulated all that there is to love and hate about West Ham. Entertaining, frustrating, terribly unlucky, irresistible at times, annoying in others, with great players mixing with lesser in a combination almost guaranteed to thrill and aggravate at the same time.
As for me, well I was never more upset and rarely as proud. Sodden through to the bone and dejected beyond belief, I saw the Stoke coaches rocking in the car park as the fans celebrated and prayed I could do that someday. I’m happy to say I did (although I’d like to have done it some more!).
As ever in football, you can couch anything you like with words and excuses but, for West Ham, their season ended that night in January. They slumped out of the FA Cup to a Frank Worthington inspired Huddersfield and flirted with relegation, as usual, before pulling clear. Geoff Hurst left for Stoke the following season and even the great man himself had departed for Fulham within two years. I’ve often wondered what might have happened had the Hammers gone on to beat Chelsea, as Stoke did, and qualified for Europe that season.
It was virtually Bobby Ferguson’s last hurrah too, fighting for his place with Peter Grotier before losing it completely to Mervyn Day although, to be fair, Ferguson stayed as reserve for a good many years after. It could have been grim, but the spine of Lampard, Bonds and Brooking continued and they, at least, went on to greater glories.
But, there is a curious postscript to this story. In those days, when you travelled up north to games – never in the south - you were often handed a magazine called ‘Football League Review’. It was the mouthpiece of the English games governing body and contained reports, rule changes and letters- oh! And adverts - 20 ½ p for a pack of Park Drive tipped cigarettes anyone? £883 (!?!) for a Vauxhall Viva deluxe?
Sometime in the autumn – I don’t know how or when – there had been an offer to get tickets for the League Cup final in March. Convinced that the Hammers would be at Wembley my Granddad simply applied and paid for two tickets – can you imagine that now? - and until January at least, it looked a sound investment. In March though, there were two West Ham fans with tickets to a Stoke City v Chelsea Cup final and no opportunity to sell but, never having visited Wembley at that time and certainly never seeing a final, it seemed a shame to waste the opportunity.
So it was that two quiet Hammers fans found themselves amongst the massed ranks of Stoke City fans in what eventually turned out to be a the Potteries club first trophy in 108 years of existence as Stoke beat red-hot favourites Chelsea 2-1 in the final. As Stoke have since to return, it’s pretty odd to think I witnessed something most Stoke fans can now only dream of. And it might not be considered the done thing in the fraught times of 21st Century Premiership football – but, you know, I was really pleased for Gordon Banks…