Arsenal vs Ipswich Town, FA Cup Final 1978

The third time would surely be the charm for Malcolm Macdonald. His Newcastle side had lost the FA Cup final 1974 to Liverpool and the League Cup final 1976 to Manchester City. Every other year Supermac made the trip to Wembley. In 1978 he had donned Arsenal colours and dragged his new club there with him, scoring in every FA Cup match leading up to the final.

To start their Cup campaign, Arsenal had ran roughshod over Sheffield United in the 3rd Round. Macdonald provided four of the five Arsenal goals on the day. Wolverhampton proved more bothersome. Again it was Macdonald to the rescue, scoring the 2:1 winner in the 90th minute. Walsall were disposed of easily enough, 4:1. Their fellow Third Division outfit Wrexham managed to pull level at 1:1, but in the end were sent home all the same, 3:2. A Macdonald brace at Stamford Bridge ensured the semi-final win over Leyton Orient, 3:0.

So familiar was Macdonald with the hallowed surroundings that, standing in the centre circle of the Wembley pitch, he was relaxed enough moments before kick-off to have a little chat and laugh with Referee Derek Nippard. Maybe he was calmed by the knowledge of Ipswich’s recent run of results. Town had only won one of their last seven league matches before the final. Arsenal would finish 13 spots ahead of their opponents in the final table. (One league match was still to be played for either side, coming on the Tuesday after the final.) Needless to say the Gunners were heavy favourites going into the match. It showed from the beginning.

Early chances on either end

Arsenal kick off and, within the first move up the field, earn a free-kick by the left corner flag. Liam Brady’s outswinging cross with his left is cleared for a corner by Kevin Beattie. Brady takes it again from the opposite side, this time in a short combination with Alan Hudson. It works wonders, as Hudson finds David O’Leary at the near post. But, falling backwards, O’Leary can’t quite get it on target.

Of note: Brady and O’Leary were two of three Irish players in the Arsenal side, alongside Frank Stapleton. The Northern Irish contingent also boasted three players, while one Scottish and four English players made up the numbers. If nothing else, that diversity will have allowed for more opportunities to earn caps and gain international experience.

A case in point is Macdonald himself. Surely one of the most prolific strikers in the First Division during the 70s, he only ever starred 14 times for England throughout his career. Supermac notched up six goals for his national side: one against West Germany, always a bonus, and five against Cyprus, all in one game.

Only a few minutes into the match, Ipswich’s Beattie, from deep inside his own half, lumps a free kick forward rather aimlessly. A first clearance by Willie Young falls short and is put back in. Again it troubles Arsenal’s defence, the second ball comes to Paul Mariner on the edge of the box. He takes it volley with his left, while turning, sends it across the face of goal, but wide of the post.

The early chances on both ends won’t have helped and so the early exchanges are nervy and error-laden.

Tractor Boys make Cup their own

In the league Ipswich had dropped from finishing third in 76/77 to 18th in 77/78. Narrowly avoiding relegation, Ipswich would close the season only three points ahead of West Ham in 20th (of 22). All but one of their wins came at home, a 1:0 win over Arsenal on the first matchday set the tone for the season. True to form, Ipswich lost the return match at Highbury 0:1.

Town’s poor run-in at the end of the season was spruced up by a decent Cup form: The early rounds had seen wins away to Cardiff City (2:0) and at home vs Hartlepool United (4:1). Bristol Rovers of the Second Division forced a replay (2:2), but faltered at Portman Road (3:1). A Sixth Round thrashing of Millwall (6:1) and the 3:1 semi-final over West Brom at Highbury saw the Tractor Boys on the road to Wembley.

And after ten minutes Ipswich had settled and nearly struck the first major blow of the final.

Young loses the ball inside Ipswich’s half. David Geddis brings it forward on the break, makes Brady miss twice and lays it off to Clive Woods. With space in front of him, Woods takes it into the box. Brian Talbot, with clever movement, opens up the space in the middle for Roger Osborne. He gets the square pass from Young but is off balance and does well enough to move it over to Paul Mariner. From six yards out Mariner hits the bar.

The shot not only rattled the bar, but Arsenal as well. Ipswich are on the front foot now, quicker to the loose balls and pinning Arsenal into their half.

Approximate formations and player movements for Arsenal vs Ipswich, May 6th 1978

Approximate formations and player movements for Arsenal vs Ipswich, May 6th 1978

Both sides lined up in a very similar formation: four in the back, a narrow band of three central midfielders in front of that, one free man to link midfield and attack with two forwards up top. From there, however, the sides took a slightly different approach to build play: While Ipswich trusted the age old method of the long ball, and here Mariner would serve as the primary target and drop back into the second line of attack to lay off high balls, Arsenal were looking to get their full backs involved.

Shifting dominance

When in possession Rice and Nelson would push up high, into Ipswich’s half. On the day it hardly proved effective, seldom producing an attack that turned dangerous. To the contrary: Woods was occupying that free role in midfield for Ipswich and would pose a threat down both half-space channels, starting his runs deep; just as he had done when he set up Mariner’s chance.

There is a nice flow to the game. Not necessarily because the technical ability on display is riveting, but for long stretches the sides are evenly matched. The dominance shifts every ten minutes or so: Ipswich put a stranglehold on Arsenal after the crossbar hit, pushing all outfield players into the Gunners’ half. Coincidentally, this set-up gives them the most trouble in breaking down Arsenal, as it robs them of both the deep runs from midfield, as well as long balls from the centre backs behind the defence, that they would use later on for good effect.

If anything, proper chances are what is lacking from the final. The going gets a bit rougher midway through the first half, Burley gets a lick in on Stapleton, Hudson retaliates on Mariner. Both incidents draw no cautions, but the stranglehold is broken.

Brady puts in a pinpoint cross from deep on the left wing. Stapleton escapes Kevin Beattie, but finishing on the turn, he puts his effort wide. On the other end Geddis tries his luck twice from long range and, with one of those shots, forces Pat Jennings into a fine save.

Ipswich equal to anything Arsenal produce

In the first half Ipswich, as the underdog, were equal to anything Arsenal produced. Whenever Town managed to disturb Arsenal’s build-up through the middle, they were able to force mistakes. Arsenal’s attack was reduced to floated crosses from deep wing positions or, more promisingly, counter attacks. Mick Mills and Burley each had to land a last ditch tackle in the closing minutes of the first half to keep the scoreline at 0:0 going into the break.

The first exchanges after switching sides belong to the men in blue: Ipswich break from an early Arsenal corner with Talbot and Beattie, but are caught offside. A few minutes later keeper Paul Cooper lumps it up the field towards Mariner, who is about to make half of the Arsenal defence look foolish. First he drops to around 28 yards out to get on the ball. O’Leary is marking him, goes up with him but is beat to the ball and lands on his backside. Mariner drives into the box, feints and sends Young to the ground as well. Nelson can prevent a shot, but the ball falls to Wark. He catches it perfectly, only to see his effort land on the post.

Where are Arsenal? The second half is hardly an improvement from the Gunners. Relying on the “head down and beat your man” type of play, they are rarely threatening. Sunderland and Brady are the main culprits here, producing only one half chance in the process (56’). Arsenal’s play is now severely lacking width as the full backs have been instructed to stay back while in possession. Surely a reaction from Terry Neill to reign in Woods.

Clive Woods’ best match ever?

However, the 30 year-old is in fine form. Shortly before the hour mark he’s allowed to drive into the box from the left wing, turning Hudson inside out and back again. His ball in is half shot, half cross. Either way Mariner is too late on the far post to capitalize.

Neill’s hand is forced to bring on substitute Graham Rix for an injured Brady. Bobby Robson sticks to the XI he had sent out initially. Only on the morning of the final was the all clear given to play Allen Hunter. The Norn Iron international performs admirably at the heart of defence next to Beattie.

But it’s the tireless Woods who picks the ball up deep on the left wing once again, with fifteen minutes to go. Instead of bringing it up the pitch, he sends a high cross towards the far post. The Arsenal players are in position, the ball seems to hang in the air forever. But still O’Leary mistimes his jump. Behind him Burley made the run in, unhindered by the other two defenders. He sends a header towards goal but is thwarted by a great flying save from Jennings.

Just when the premonition builds, that maybe Ipswich’s missed opportunities will come back to bite them, the only goal of the match comes from an Arsenal corner. A dire one. Cooper had caught the ball easily and now throws it out to the right wing. Who else but Woods picks it up, combines with Burley, then sends it out to Geddis. The forward takes it into the box, blows past Nelson and puts in a low cross across the face of goal. Young tries to clear it, but it bounces off his foot towards the waiting Osborne, who slots it through O’Leary, Young, Jennings and the post into the goal for the 1:0.

And promptly faints.

Mick Lambert comes on to replace Osborne, who is revived on the bench with smelling salts.

Around ten minutes remain for Arsenal to avoid defeat in a match which they entered as heavy favourites but where they hardly ever had the upper hand. If anything space is now opening up for Ipswich, counter opportunities arise from mistakes by Arsenal. The decisive 2:0 looks much more likely than an equalizer. Arsenal’s only effort at goal comes courtesy of Macdonald who had been anonymous for most of the day. His shot from long range lands straight in the arms of Cooper.

Ipswich were far the better side on the day and picked up their first, and only, FA Cup trophy as a result. Arsenal did, of course, not yet know it; but they would be back at Wembley soon enough.


  • Man Of The Match: Clive Woods, Ipswich’s most dangerous weapon going forward, even forced Arsenal to change their approach in getting the full backs to stay back
  • Best Hair: Spoiled for options, Alan Sunderland edges it for his perm & mustache combo
  • Viewing recommendation: Shortwhiled thanks to a nice flow and pace with Ipswich in fine form

The full match can be found on footballia, highlights below. If you enjoyed the write-up leave us a Like on Facebook or follow us on Twitter so you’ll be notified of future installments in the series. Also check out the other Retro Match Reports.

About Sebastian

Sebastian writes and talks about football of all eras in German and English. His series of Retro Match Reports focus on British, German and Italian football history. For YYFP he is currently working his way through the late '70s and early '80s. Follow Sebastian on Twitter: @maltacalcio.

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