The 1980s represent a golden era of FA Cup finals. From Ricky Villa’s mazy dribble to goal, Keith Houchen’s bullet header, Norman Whiteside’s howitzer and “The Crazy Gang beating the Culture Club”, all moments woven into the lexicon of Cup Finals. However, no final proved more dramatic than the 1983 contest when a moment of horror for one striker saw the cup slip through Brighton’s fingers and into the hands of Manchester United. On Saturday at Wembley, the two teams meet again with the ghost of ’83 hanging in the air as Brighton attempt to finally make it back to the Cup Final.
Drama At Wembley
Football was very different 40 years ago – Hamburg were days away from succeeding Aston Villa as European Champions, Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen had just beaten Real Madrid to win the European Cup Winners Cup, Manchester City were relegated and the closest challengers to Liverpool’s all conquering League Champions were Watford. Another team suffering relegation that spring were Brighton & Hove Albion, but The Seagulls still had a chance of sporting immortality when they made it to their first and so far only FA Cup Final. Their opponents were red hot favorites Manchester United.
Under the guidance of Ron Atkinson, United were on the rise having finished third in the First Division. Atkinson had arrived two years earlier and brought with from West Brom powerhouse midfielder Bryan Robson for a British transfer record. By ’83 Robson was England captain and he was joined in midfield by silky playmaker Ray Wilkins and the skillful winger Arnold Muhren, one of the very few foreign players in the English top flight. Veteran Gordon McQueen marshalled the defence whilst in attack Atkinson had teenage sensation Norman Whiteside and the dependable Frank Stapleton.
Brighton may have suffered relegation but they were not without talent. Ireland captain Tony Grealish formed a strong midfield axis with former Liverpool star Jimmy Case whose bulging medal collection was only missing an FA Cup winners gong. Gary Stevens was an emerging talent in defence and up front record signing Gordon Smith and Michael Robinson were a reliable duo.
Brighton had stunned favorites Liverpool in the fifth round, winning 2-1 at Anfield, they booked their place at Wembley when Robinson’s late goal took down Sheffield Wednesday at Highbury. Meanwhile United had overcome both Villa and then Arsenal en route to Wembley, Whiteside’s late goal beating Arsenal in the semi.
When Atkinson and Brighton boss Jimmy Melia lead their teams out of the Wembley tunnel in front of 100,000 fans most expected a routine United win. However it was Brighton who got the better start with Grealish instigating in midfield and on 14 minutes Gary Howlett’s teasing cross found Smith who headed home for 1-0. Brighton held the lead until half time and the upset looked to be on. United started the second half well and Mike Duxbury’s cross caused panic in the Brighton defence and Stapleton was on hand to equalize. United pushed for the winner but Brighton were holding firm until Wilkins picked up the ball outside the box and curled in a beauty and it seemed the game was over. Brighton pushed forward and United began to drop deeper, with three minutes to play Smith won a corner. The ball found its way to Grealish who smashed a drive into the box and Stevens was on hand to blast home for 2-2.
It would go to extra-time and with seconds to go United tried one last attack. The ball was picked off by Brighton and Case’s through ball found Robinson who ran at the United defence, he drew defenders in and played a perfect ball to Smith who was clean through with just the goalkeeper to beat. Smith looked certain to score but took an uncertain first touch and his scuffed shot was pounced on by Gary Bailey and United escaped to a replay. The two team tried again five days later under the lights at Wembley. This time United found their form, Robson blasting in the opener on 25 minutes. Whiteside quickly made it 2-0 and Robson got the third before halftime. In the second half Muhren rubbed salt in Brighton wounds with a fourth from the penalty spot and Brighton’s dream was crushed.
Back From The Brink
Brighton and Manchester United would diverge in polar opposite directions after the final. ‘Big Ron’ would win a second FA Cup with United two years later before departing in 1986 and being replaced by Aberdeen boss Ferguson; United played on into history. Brighton’s four year stay in the top flight was over and they began tumbling down the divisions, and suffered relegation to the fourth tier in 1996. With the club in financial meltdown Brighton’s home the Goldstone Ground was sold. The club looked doomed to drop out of the football league entirely before Christmas ’97. Brighton improved dramatically and went into the final day of the season against bottom club Hereford knowing a draw would preserve their Football League status. Things didn’t go according to plan and Brighton found themselves behind and going down until a late goal from Robbie Reinelt gave Brighton the draw and the club stayed in the league.
From the bottom of the pile Brighton began their slow climb back up the pyramid. The club were now in the hands of lifelong fan Dick Knight who slowly rebuilt Brighton with the club playing their home games at Withdean Stadium, a ground primarily used as an athletics venue. It proved a long hard road for Brighton with Knight passing the torch to Tony Bloom in 2009 who secured the money to build the new Falmer Stadium. By 2011 Brighton were back in the Championship and under the pragmatic management of Chris Hughton they finally secured Premier League status in 2017. Initially Brighton were forced to tread water in the top division before Graham Potter took them to their best ever finish in 9th place and Brighton’s ascent just keeps getting better.
Date with Destiny
Brighton have succeeded Leicester City as the model for clubs without limitless money to emulate. What’s proved even more impressive is when those with limitless money have cherry picked talent away from Brighton; the Seagulls have continued to fly higher, a point proved in the last year by Newcastle taking Director of Football Dan Ashworth and Chelsea tempting away Potter and his backroom staff.
Many questioned the appointment of Roberto De Zerbi as Potter’s successor but it’s proved a masterstroke, the Italian coach has made Brighton into a a team that entertains and unlike Potter’s team is clinical in the final third. Key to Brighton’s improvement in attack has been the form of winger Kaoru Mitomo who’s excelled having spent a year with Union Berlin and academy graduate Evan Ferguson. The 20-year-old striker looks the breakout star of the Premier League season and given a huge shot in the arm to the Republic of Ireland fans who believe their nation has finally found the next Robbie Keane. De Zerbi has taken chances at the back too, dropping experienced and highly rated goalkeeper Roberto Sanchez for journeyman Jason Steele, again De Zerbi’s judgement has proved spot on.
For older Brighton fans the 4-0 pasting of an out-of-sorts United at the end of last season was payback for the Cup Final replay, but now United stand in the way of a return to the final. Unusually it’s Brighton who enter the semi as favorites. The Seagulls last played United on the opening weekend of this season and rained on Erik Ten Hag’s Old Trafford coronation, scoring a shock 2-1 win. United themselves have come a long way since August, Ten Hag molding what many think is a bright new era after a decade of under achievement. However, United will arrive having played the Europa Semi-Final in Seville on Thursday evening and are nursing a string of injuries including three of their first choice defence and star performer Marcus Rashford.
As for the man behind ‘the miss’ Gordon Smith, the Scot went on to be Chief Executive of the Scottish Football Association and has had to come to terms with his unfortunate place in Cup folklore, but as he said during a series of interviews upon Brighton’s promotion to Premier League his shot was on target and well saved by Gary Bailey. Now 40 years on Brighton have a chance to return to the Cup Final and build a new and happier chapter in the annals of the FA Cup.