It would be fair to say that in the early Eighties Albion were rarely favourites when it came to a matchday. That all changed, however, on a sunny, Saturday afternoon at Highbury in 1983.
Second Division Sheffield Wednesday were the opposition in the FA Cup semi-final and having disposed of the mighty Liverpool, likewise Norwich City, Manchester City and Newcastle United, the Seagulls were hotly tipped to keep the run going.
A first-ever visit to Wembley was now just 90 tantalising minutes away but boss Jimmy Melia insists there was no added pressure on his side despite their ‘favourites’ tag.
“There was none at all,” he recalls. “We’d already had that having gone to Liverpool in the fifth round, which was a fortress in those days. To win that game [2-1 thanks to goals from Gerry Ryan and Jimmy Case] was incredible, and it gave us the belief that we could go much further.
“I remember Bob Paisley coming up to me afterwards and saying, ‘Jimmy, go all the way’ and I kept those words with me for the remainder of the competition. With Manchester United and Arsenal also in the hat for the semis, we were pleased to draw Sheffield Wednesday and, to be honest, we fancied ourselves more in that game than any other.”
There was a real dichotomy between Albion’s First Division and FA Cup form but as the Road to Wembley drew ever nearer there was little talk of the club’s slide towards the Second Division. Cup fever was sweeping through Brighton and Hove and it showed little sign of abating.
“You have to remember that back then the FA Cup was a massive competition, watched the world over,” Melia recalls. “In the build-up to the semi-final I remember receiving good luck messages from all over the place: Singapore, Sydney, Malaysia. It was incredible and we hadn’t even got to the final yet!
“For the fans, it did take over what was happening in the league which, as we all know, did not end well. The whole town was caught up in FA Cup fever but the players and staff still had to focus on what was happening in the First Division. “Unfortunately, we were bottom of the table when I came in that season [Melia taking over from Mike Bailey in December 1982] and we couldn’t turn it around in time.”
If there was a chink of light for the Owls, Albion saw Terry Connor cup tied for the semi and his preferred replacement up front – Gerry Ryan – was injured. Gordon Smith was therefore moved into attack alongside Michael Robinson while Chris Ramsey’s suspension saw Gary Stevens switched to right-back with Steve Gatting moving to the centre of defence and Graham Pearce returning at left-back. With Neil McNab also cup tied, 19-year-old rookie Kieran O’Regan found himself on the bench.
“We had to make changes at the back but I remember putting Gordon Smith up front really worked well for us. Within the squad we had real men, solid players who I could rely on, so it didn’t matter if we had to play some out of position, I knew they would do a job for me. The likes of Tony Grealish, Steve Foster, Steve Gatting, Jimmy Case, Neil Smillie, Gordon Smith, Michael Robinson… all experienced professionals who gave everything for us.”
In a game of all-out attack, Albion took the lead on 14 minutes through Case, who beat Bob Bolder with a thunderbolt 35-yard shot which swerved in off the bar for his fourth goal in four FA Cup games.
“It was an unbelievable strike but something he was always capable of,” Melia recalls of his fellow Scouser. “He’d always had a good shot on him and he’d try that routine in training. It’s something he’d work on, firing in shots at the keeper from distance, but to do it when it mattered says everything about him.
“Jimmy was a massive part of our run that season and I think switching him to a more central position made all the difference. He had always played out wide but I felt at this stage of his career, he’d just lost that little bit of pace to get up and down the pitch, so putting him in the middle got the best out of him. If we’d made that change a little earlier in the season, I’m sure we would have stayed up.”
Albion fans behind the Clock End goal were in ecstasy following Case’s memorable strike but were hushed in the 57th minute when Ante Mirocevic scrambled home after a fast start to the second half from Jack Charlton’s men.
“It wasn’t something that worried us too much,” Jimmy insists. “The boys were highly motivated and I knew there would be further opportunities for us in the second half. We just had that little bit more quality as a First Division side. We kept our heads more and our ability shone through.”
The winner arrived in the 78th minute when Case played through man-of-the-match Smith. His initial shot was blocked by Bolder and just as he was about to follow-up, Robinson took the ball off his toe and buried it into the North Bank net.
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“I didn’t care about that, as long as the ball hit the back of the net!” Jimmy smiles. “Again, I remember Jimmy playing a big part with a good ball to Gordon, who was linking up well with Michael all afternoon. He’d actually played more as an attacking midfielder for us but pushing him further forward maybe surprised Sheffield Wednesday.
“Gordon was a great professional, as was Michael, and it was just a shame that he’s remembered for his miss in the final because he doesn’t deserve that. He’s a lovely fella and it’s nice to know he’s still highly thought of amongst Albion fans.”
The final whistle was greeted with wild celebrations from Seagulls fans and players alike, and Melia is memorably pictured hugging his players in white shirt and checkered tie.
“Looking back at my career, I’ve had many special times; I’ve won league titles with Liverpool, I’ve played for England, I’ve won a championship title in Portugal [with Belenenses] and also helped Southampton to the First Division, but knowing I was going to be walking my team out at Wembley in such a prestigious game, well you could see the emotion on my face when the final whistle blew.
“I then just wanted to get on that pitch to celebrate with my players, I was so proud of each and every one of them. It’s just a shame we didn’t go on and win the final, which we should have done, but I was so proud of the players and delighted for the fans that we had this amazing day to look forward to.”