It’s 35 years to the day since Brighton & Hove Albion reached The FA Cup Final for the only time in the club’s history, with Manchester United the illustrious opposition under the famous Twin Towers.
It proved to be a bitter-sweet occasion in more ways the one; the Seagulls had already been relegated from Division One, following a four-year stay in the top-flight, and had failed to overturn a suspension handed out to talismanic skipper Steve Foster. There was also the agony of the infamous last-gasp extra-time miss from Gordon Smith, which would have seen the coveted trophy heading back to Sussex.
Still, Albion had won the neutrals’ hearts with a storming performance in a pulsating 2-2 draw, with Smith and Gary Stevens bookending second-half United goals from Frank Stapleton and Ray Wilkins.
Albion broke the deadlock on a rain-sodden Wembley pitch when Smith connected with a Gary Howlett centre to steer his 14th-minute header past United keeper Gary Bailey.
“We showed that we weren’t along for the ride and were there to win the Cup,” recalls man-of-the-match Stevens. “Of course with Steve Foster missing we all took on the extra responsibility for him, and Tony Grealish, God bless him, did a marvellous job as captain.”
Albion went in at the break in the ascendancy but then came a defining moment that tipped the tie in United’s balance. Norman Whiteside put in a ‘challenge’ on Chris Ramsey, which started on the defender’s shin and ended on his ankle. In clear pain, the full-back was unable to challenge for a far-post ball which Stapleton equalised from. When later asked whether he could have prevented the goal, Ramsay said, “Yes, of course I would. That’s where I should have been.”
Whiteside escaped without a caution and United took the lead with Wilkins’ exquisite curling left-footed effort which saw Albion keeper Graham Moseley clutching at thin air.
Ron Atkinson’s men had one hand on the Cup but with three minutes remaining, Jimmy Case played the ball to Grealish on the edge of the area, who sent a speculative effort into the box. Stevens controlled the ball near the penalty spot and fired, unmarked, into the net. A great time to net your first of the season!
“Tony got hold of it, had a shot, and I followed it in looking for any rebounds,” recalls Stevens. “It ended up landing right at my feet so it was a case of keep your head down, keep it below the bar, and in it went.”
Extra-time proved to be a cagey affair, with neither side having a clear effort on goal, but with the game entering its final minute, Case chipped a through-ball for Michael Robinson to chase. The hard-running centre-forward shrugged off Kevin Moran and then held the ball back to beat Gordon McQueen. Inside the box, he squared to the unmarked Smith, ten yards from goal. ‘And Smith must score!’ declared BBC radio commentator Peter Jones, as the Scot trapped the ball and fired his shot. Alas, the effort struck the legs of Bailey and the grateful keeper dived on the ball to stop Smith getting the rebound.
Albion’s chance had gone, with United comfortably winning the replay 4-0, thanks to a brace from Bryan Robson and goals from Whiteside and an Arnold Muhren penalty.
“Looking back, I won a Uefa Cup winners’ medal with Spurs and played in the 1986 World Cup finals, but reaching the FA Cup Final is right behind that,” recalls Stevens.
“If anything it’s possibly even more of an achievement, given Brighton’s place in the football’s pecking order. We’d played our part in the club’s history, the only time the club has reached The FA Cup Final, and even to this day it’s something I’m immensely proud of.”
Albion: Moseley, Ramsey, Pearce, Grealish, Stevens, Gatting, Case, Howlett, Robinson, Smith, Smillie. Sub: Ryan.
United: Bailey, Duxbury, Albiston, Wilkins, Moran, McQueen, Robson, Muhren, Stapleton, Whiteside, Davies. Sub: Grimes.