It’s 37 years today since Albion’s FA Cup final appearance at Wembley but the passage of time hasn’t changed the feelings of regret Gordon Smith still has about the defining moment of the game against Manchester United.
Gary Stevens’ 87th-minute goal made it 2-2 and took the game into extra time and on a heavy, stamina-sapping pitch Smith, who had put Albion in front in the first half, had the chance to win the Cup only to see his shot smothered by Gary Bailey when he only had the United keeper to beat.
Smith’s memory of those few agonising moments remain crystal clear. “Jimmy Case played a nice ball to Michael Robinson and, in those situations, Mike used to go totally solo in the box but he decided to pass to me.
“My decision making was poor. I would normally open my body to side-foot it across the goalkeeper, but I decided to hit it hard and low.”
‘And Smith must score’ cried Peter Jones on BBC radio’s commentary. Except, on this occasion, he didn’t.
“For some reason Gary Bailey decided to dive and although he went the wrong way the ball stuck in his legs and he gathered it as I went in for the rebound,” said Smith.
“Any criticism I get I deserve – I should have scored. It was the lowest point of my career. I made the wrong decision and I am gutted about it. I will never get over it, all I can do is apologise to everyone who was affected by it – my team-mates, the fans, my family.”
Of course Albion fans did forgive. The replay was lost 4-0 but for a generation of Seagulls’ supporters that magical FA Cup run all the way to Wembley created memories that will last a lifetime. And it was the same for the players, as Smith recalls.
“The build-up was unbelievable,” he said. “I had played in Scottish Cup finals for Rangers but nothing can compare to the FA Cup final. It was the biggest club match in the world at the time because it was shown all over the world.
“We’d made a record, and Jimmy Case and I were on Top of the Pops on the Thursday before the final promoting it even though we weren’t allowed to sing it on the show.
“Then we went to the hotel in London by helicopter and Jimmy Melia had got us all an outrageous suit to wear – a beige jacket and shoes with black trousers! But when we got to Wembley, we all realised Jimmy had a different suit on! He said ‘this is my lucky suit, it’s what I always wear!’ Earlier that day Jimmy Case had gone to a shop by the hotel and he bought a different suit as well which he wore to Wembley. But I never wore that outfit again!”
Smith also revealed that Albion’s players tried to spook their opponents in the tunnel before kick-off.
“They were the favourites and under pressure, so we started talking to them, most of it unmentionable stuff. They didn’t know what to do, their reaction was amazing. They were keyed up and we did it deliberately to try and put them off.”
Smith put Albion in front with a perfectly-placed first-half header but if the game will be forever remembered for his extra-time miss it was an incident in the second half, when Norman Whiteside clattered into right-back Chris Ramsey and forced the Albion defender to go off, which Smith believes was a huge factor in how the game panned out.
Watching the challenge now, it’s amazing that Whiteside wasn’t even booked by referee Alf Grey.
“Norman Whiteside hurt Chris Ramsay in a bad tackle and Man United should have been down to ten men," said Smith. "When they equalised the goal was scored at the back post where Chris would have been defending but by then he could hardly walk and had to go off.
“Ray Wilkins scored an absolute belter [to make it 2-1] and most people thought that was it. Then Gary Stevens scored from the corner with three minutes to go. We went into extra time really confident.”