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When Arsenal won the FA Cup ... after playing four replays in the same round | Football

Top-flight teams can now win the FA Cup by playing 540 minutes of football. In January 1979, it took Arsenal that long to make it through the third round. Their victory against Manchester United in the final has gone down in FA Cup folklore because of five dramatic minutes at the end of the match – when Arsenal threatened to pull defeat from the jaws of a comfortable victory – but the start of their cup run was just as agonising for players and fans. Their third-round tie with Sheffield Wednesday was an FA Cup marathon that just kept on giving.

The late 1970s were not an easy time for Wednesday. They were languishing in the old Third Division and had looked in danger of falling into the fourth tier before Jack Charlton took over as their manager in October 1978. By the time they faced Arsenal in January, Wednesday were firmly entrenched in mid-table and ready to test Terry Neill’s side.

Sheffield Wednesday 1-1 Arsenal, Hillsborough, 6 January

If the FA Cup used to be a great leveller, the bumpy pitches played their part. With Britain experiencing a cold snap during January 1979, only four matches were played on FA Cup third round weekend. The pitch at Hillsborough passed an inspection, although Neill was far from happy about it. Even though 100 volunteers cleared the snow off the pitch – each receiving a free ticket to the match for their efforts – the surface was rock solid. Arsenal took 70 pairs of boots to the game to cover all eventualities.

Naturally, Liam Brady still managed to look elegant, but it was a lottery for most players, as Neill complained afterwards. Pat Jennings had a difficult afternoon and Willie Young played like “a giraffe on a frozen pond” according to James Mossop in the Express.

Alan Sunderland’s header gave Arsenal a 1-0 lead at the break, but the second half was delayed when Jennings was subjected to a bombardment of snowballs from the Kop. An announcement was made over the PA system appealing for the fans to stop, with Charlton and referee Tony Read also trying to calm the blizzard.

Whether or not the barrage of snowballs impacted Jennings is debatable, but he made an uncharacteristic mistake for the Wednesday equaliser. When Dennis Leman was slipped in down Arsenal’s right, the goalkeeper charged from his line as if he expected Leman to shoot. The Wednesday midfielder dinked in a cross instead, allowing Jeff Johnson to head into an unguarded net. With honours even, the teams would have to meet at Highbury three days later.

Arsenal 1–1 Sheffield Wednesday, Highbury, 9 January

Arsenal looked vulnerable in the first replay. Roger Wylde gave Wednesday the lead in the 45th minute and Chris Turner produced some heroics in goal. Just when it looked like the hosts would go out, up popped Brady with an equaliser in the 88th minute. David Price hit the post for Arsenal in extra time, but the teams could not be separated.

“I was stood looking at the big clock and thought we were through,” said Charlton after the match. The Wednesday manager had the option of tossing a coin for home advantage in the next replay, but he wanted to take the show on the road instead. “I want a neutral ground and I believe – as our lads most certainly do – that we can now take Arsenal and maybe go a very long way in the competition.” So the teams set off for Filbert Street.

Sheffield Wednesday 2–2 Arsenal, Filbert Street, 15 January

Arsenal signed midfielder Brian Talbot for a club record fee of £450,000 before the game in Leicester. Although he was not cup tied, he was ineligible for the third round. In the end, he had a long wait to see if Arsenal would make it through to face Notts County in the fourth round. The saga just kept rolling on and on.

The teams shared four goals at Filbert Street, with Arsenal taking the lead through Brady and then Sunderland, only for former Arsenal player Brian Hornsby to equalise on both occasions.

“Arsenal had the class at times, but were hard pushed to match Wednesday’s bravery and effort,” wrote John Davies in the Express. In the end, Arsenal were thankful that Jennings made a fine save when it looked as if Dave Rushbury was about to score the winner.

Steve Gatting fires off a shot at Filbert Street.

Steve Gatting fires off a shot at Filbert Street. Photograph: PA Photos/PA Archive/PA Images

Arsenal 3–3 Sheffield Wednesday, Filbert Street, 17 January

The third instalment of the tie had been a thriller, but it had nothing on their next meeting at the same ground two days later. Arsenal fans were fearing the worst when Rushbury nudged Wednesday in front and then his goalkeeper saved a penalty from Brady, but goals from Frank Stapleton and Young put Arsenal 2-1 up with a quarter of an hour to play.

The tie was developing the durability of a cockroach, though. With just four minutes left, John Lowey scored for Sheffield Wednesday to push the game into extra time. Stapleton gave Arsenal the lead again, but a penalty from Hornsby ensured that another date at Filbert Street was needed five days later.

Sheffield Wednesday 0–2 Arsenal, Filbert Street,22 January

Neill wanted to play the fifth game of the tie in Coventry, but Charlton preferred another trip to Leicester. “We’ve had two tremendous games here. I can’t see any reason to change. This ground guarantees the match going on again.” He was also happy for another reason: Charlton did not have a long-term contract with Wednesday but was being paid a reported £400 per match. The FA Cup marathon was a good earner for him. Neill also seemed to be enjoying himself, describing the tie as “a serial more entertaining than Coronation Street.”

Steve Gatting, a player whose position had been put under threat by the arrival of Talbot, gave Arsenal the lead with a piledriver of a shot in the 72nd minute. When Stapleton put Arsenal 2-0 up, it was the first time in the soap opera that either team had been more than one goal in front. Wednesday fought back, with Wylde grazing the post and Jennings making some good saves, but Arsenal held firm. They finally “got past a barrier of human endeavour named Sheffield Wednesday,” as David Miller put it in the Mirror.

The aftermath

A relieved looking Neill was extremely complimentary about the vanquished team. “Sheffield Wednesday showed their spirit and attitude to the game. They did the city of Sheffield and their manager Jack Charlton proud,” said the Arsenal manager. Charlton was also impressed by his team’s efforts. “We know that in four and a half of the five matches we were every bit as good as one of the best teams in England.”

The statistics of the five matches are staggering. The two teams played nine hours of football in front of 143,916 spectators at three venues, with the five matches in 16 days producing 16 goals and 10 different scorers. Arsenal fans who lived in London would have travelled more than 900 miles to make it to every game.

Nothing lasts forever. Perhaps the FA Cup replay marathons of the past should remain a fond memory. But surely – given the vast squads at the disposal of Premier League clubs and the money and memories that these games generate for smaller clubs – managers in the top flight can at least concede that one replay is acceptable.

This blog first appeared on That 1980s Sports Blog
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