Arsenal’s Cup Final Calamities

Seven showpiece matches that demonstrate nothing in football is predictable

Arsenal’s Cup Final Calamities

Oopsy daisy… Martin Hayes hits the post in the 1988 final v Luton

Arsenal have reached 35 major Cup Finals in our history winning 17. Of the eighteen defeats, 7 were massive shocks and in some cases they allowed our opponent to secure their only ever silverware. It might well be a painful ride, however I have decided to look back in turn at each of those surprise results to assess what happened on the day, how things could have been different and how the team responded to each setback.

This was our first ever appearance in the F A Cup Final, in contrast Cardiff had been losing finalists 2 years before. The legendary Herbert Chapman was still assembling the side that would go on to dominate the 1930s and make Arsenal the envy of the football world. This Final was both the first to be broadcast live on BBC radio and also to feature Abide With Me.
The match was not a great spectacle and was settled when a shot by Hughie Ferguson squirmed under Welshman Dan Lewis in the Gunners’ goal. Lewis faced accusations of a deliberate ‘mistake’ to help his fellow countrymen. He instead blamed his brand new goalkeeper jersey for the error. Arsenal subsequently ensured all brand new goalkeeper shirts were washed prior to being worn. Cardiff secured their only major honour as well as ensuring that the F A Cup left England for the first and only time.
It would take Chapman’s side a further 3 years to win their first trophy as they beat his former side, Huddersfield Town 2-0 in 1930 as they embarked on a decade of near dominance of the English game.

Having been losing finalists to Leeds United 12 months earlier Arsenal returned to Wembley as overwhelming favourites to land their first ever League Cup trophy. However eight of Arenal’s squad had been suffering from flu prior to the game plus the combination of The Horse of the Year Show and heavy rain had turned the playing surface into a quagmire. Swindon, playing in their first ever match at Wembley took a shock lead through Roger Smart after an under-hit backpass from Ian Ure.
It appeared that we would lose consecutive League Cup Finals by the same 1-0 scoreline until Bobby Gould headed an equalizer in the 86th minute. It was only a temporary a stay of execution as two goals from Don Rogers in extra time wrote his name in Swindon folklore and they registered their first and to this day, only major honour.
After the game Frank McLintock, the Gunners’ passionate skipper tossed his runners up tankard as far as he could after suffering a fourth straight defeat in a Wembley Cup Final (he also lost two FA Cup Finals with Leicester City that decade). Yet from the ashes of one of the bleakest moments in Arsenal’s history there was a determination borne amongst this group of players to not feel this way ever again. The seeds of the Fairs Cup victory the following year were planted that horrific day and the Double would follow within the season after.

Terry Neill’s charges marched to Wembley thanks to the goals of Supermac (Malcolm MacDonald) and with some very promising youngsters breaking through – notably the Holy Trinity of Liam Brady, David O’Leary and Frank Stapleton. Ipswich were making their first ever Wembley appearance and despite being huge underdogs, after an initially bright start by Arsenal, they dominated the game hitting the woodwork three times before a late goal by Roger Osborne took the Cup to Suffolk – it remains Ipswich’s only F A Cup Final appearance.
As for Arsenal, starting the game with key players like MacDonald and Brady patently unfit was a gamble too far. On the biggest stage the Gunners had suffered a mauling – the 1-0 scoreline was flattering in the extreme. After the game Neill vowed that he would bring his team back in twelve months and that this time they would win. Neill delivered on his promise as Alan Sunderland’s 89th minute goal settled the ‘Five Minute Final’.

Growing up in Essex this match remains the most painful of all for me. Quite a few of my friends were and still are West Ham supporters and on the morning of the game Essex Radio promoted their coverage of the Final by suggesting that if West Ham could keep the score down to a 4 or 5 nil then they would have done well. As an impressionable eight year old I looked forward to my beloved Arsenal retaining the trophy later that day.
However this Arsenal team were out on their feet before they even set foot on the hallowed Wembley turf that sunny May day. We would eventually play 70 games that season including four against a formidable Liverpool side in the semi final as well as Juventus, who would prove stubborn opposition in the European Cup Winners Cup Semi Final. Liverpool would go on to retain their First Division Championship however they finally succumbed to a Brian Talbot header in the third replay, just nine days before the Final. Paul Vaessen then headed a last gasp winner in Europe to ensure the Gunners became the first English team to win at the Stadio Comunale and in so doing set up the chance for double Cup glory.
And yet, a shattered Arsenal simply did not show up for the encounter with the Hammers and Trevor Brooking’s 13th minute goal would prove the difference on the day. The only other mention of note was Willie Young’s second half professional foul on Paul Allen which somehow saw him escape a red card.
Four days later, after a sterile 0-0 draw Arsenal would lose their first ever penalty shootout to Valencia to finish a season that had promised so much empty handed. The final blow came in a 5-0 reverse against Middlesbrough to finish in fourth place in the league and miss out on European qualification. Liam Brady left that summer followed 12 months later by Frank Stapleton. It was the end of an era and ultimately a team that should have won much more had only a solitary FA Cup to show from four Cup Finals.
It would be seven years before Arsenal would return to Wembley when they overcame the seemingly unwritten rule that every time Ian Rush scored, Liverpool won. Arsenal trailed however they fought back to win 2-1 to become the first winners of the Littlewoods Cup.

Were it not for the West Ham Final this would be the most painful defeat for me – this was the first Cup Final I attended, I was sixteen and purchased a scarf, hat and programme to ensure I had several mementos of what I hoped would be a great day. Arsenal the holders were enormous favourites and had the vast majority of the support at Wembley, for Luton this was their first Cup Final appearance in the League Cup (which was sponsored by Littlewoods at the time).
The Gunners would again confirm that if their Cup Final opponents had the word ‘Town’ in their name then it was highly likely that they would emerge triumphant. David O’Leary was ruled out through injury thus thrusting Gus Caeser’s name into infamy. Brian Stein gave the Hatters a shock early lead as Caeser incorrectly appealed for offside and they maintained this lead until half time. Arsenal’s performance had been soporific. The introduction of Martin Hayes for Perry Groves briefly swung the game in Arsenal’s favour. Two goals in three minutes by Hayes and Alan Smith put Arsenal in front and we should have increased the lead yet further chances for Hayes, Thomas and Rocastle were saved by Andy Dibble who was playing only his sixth game of the season. One miss by Hayes, hitting the post from only a yard out was incredible.
With ten minutes remaining a foul on Rocastle led to a penalty and a chance to seal the game. However Dibble saved Nigel Winterburn’s resultant spot kick and suddenly the momentum was with the underdogs. Caesar miskicked a clearance allowing Danny Wilson to equalize. As an aside Danny Wilson was also the name of a Scottish pop combo who had a number 3 hit that year with Mary’s Prayer – still a favourite song of mine - I just wish they had named the band something else! The coup de gras was delivered in the final minute by Stein with our defence all at sea and again Ceaser particularly culpable.
As bad as this Final was for us Gooners, and trust me this was REALLY bad, who could have predicted that within a little over 12 months Arsenal would be capturing their first League Championship for 18 years and a second title would follow just two years after our Anfield heroics with many of those defeated at Wembley playing key roles.

I confess to having a bad feeling about this game. I did not attend the Final however I did tell my mates who were going that whilst I sincerely hoped I was wrong I felt that this game was going to provide a fitting ending to an inglorious season. The 1994/95 campaign already had its footnotes with the sacking of George Graham in February for taking illegal payments in player transfers whilst Paul Merson had publicly revealed his drug and drink addictions. On the pitch things were not any better as the Gunners slumped to 12th place and the very real threat of relegation was a possibility as late as April.
The Cup Winners Cup run was the only possible form of salvation. David Seaman had been the hero in an epic semi final against Sampdoria (who just happened to be my favourite Italian side) as he saved 3 penalties to seal our place in the Final in Paris as we aimed to become the first team in history to retain the trophy. 12 months previously, with Ian Wright suspended and John Jensen, David Hillier and Martin Keown all injured and facing the might of the holders Parma, Arsenal were expected to be blown away. However the famous back five (including Seaman) arguably had their finest hour as we triumphed against the odds 1-0.
After a goalless first half Juan Esnaider put Zaragoza in front with a fine shot. John Hartson then equalized to take the game into extra time. Nayim’s last minute lob hogged the headlines as Seaman desperately back pedaled to try to keep the ball out. It should not be forgotten that Seaman made two outstanding saves in the Final, both from Xavier Aguado. So Stewart Houston’s temporary reign ended empty handed and he would be replaced in the summer by Bruce Rioch who in turn would leave the hotseat within 12 months to be replaced by a certain Arsene Wenger.

In the midweek leading up to this match we played Stoke City at home, I attended that game which was notable firstly for Sebastian Squillaci’s first Arsenal goal and more significantly injuries incurred to Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott which would ultimately rule them out of this Final. Thomas Vermaelen also missed out through injury.
Birmingham had lost both league matches to Arsenal during the season and were destined to be relegated at the end of the campaign. Meanwhile Arsenal were still chasing silverware on 3 fronts. However, despite Arsenal being massive favourites once again they started a Final slugglishly. After just two minutes goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was extremely fortunate not to be punished with a penalty and a red card for a rash challenge on Lee Bowyer. Bowyer had been flagged offside yet TV replays proved he was onside.
Nikola Zigic headed Birmingham in front however Arsenal rallied and just moments after Jack Wilshire’s piledriver thudded off the crossbar, Robin van Persie equalised, however he was injured in scoring the goal and would eventually have to be replaced midway through the second half. Level at the break, Arsenal took the game to Birmingham and in the final 20 minutes there only looked like one winner. It says something that Ben Foster’s heroics in goal earnt him the Alan Hardaker award as man of the match. Perhaps only Arsenal could lose a final they were fully expected to win in the chaotic fashion that decided this game. Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny had a major breakdown in communication allowing Obafemi Martins the simplest of finishes to score a last minute winner.

Our season collapsed after this result as we won only 3 of our remaining 14 games in all competitions and the trophy drought would extend to 9 years before finally being ended in another dramatic final in 2014 - this time Arsenal emerging victorious against Hull City - albeit that was another Final that could easily have been lost.

All these Finals have something in common asides being ones in which we have tasted defeat. They are also the only times we have faced any of these teams in a Cup Final and logic suggests that Arsenal would come out on top most times against such opponents. I personally would love us to face West Ham and Luton in Cup Finals to avenge 1980 and 1988 respectively (I understand Swindon still smarts, yet I wasn’t born at the time of that match) yet as we all know football does not work like that.


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  1. John F

    May 08, 2020, 14:33 #116819

    The Ipswich final was my first final and it was terrible.I couldn't face going to school on the following Monday so I bunked off. On Tuesday when I did turn up my form tutor read out my forged note to the class which read "sorry my son could not make it to school on Monday as he w as feeling sick" which made the whole class break out in laughter.I am going to blame Ipswich for my terrible education as that was the first time I had bunked off but it lead on to many many more.I was at the Luton final we really should of won that game.