Arsenal vs Manchester United, FA Cup Final 1979

The New Wembley Stadium has yet to craft its own legend. For all the improvements in convenience and safety modernity has brought about, one aspect feels lacking: the roar of the crowd. Whatever the cause, the dropping prestige of the FA Cup itself, a generous helping of corporate tickets in the allocation for the final or tepid atmospheres up and down the country in general, the sound emitting from either end of the Old Wembley used to be spine tingling in comparison.

As the teams emerge from the tunnel to kick off the 1979 final, the volume level is already deafening. Referees, players, and coaching staff are visibly giddy with excitement as the noise engulfs them. Before the match, though, protocol awaits. Charles, Prince of Wales, with a host of dignitaries in tow, has to be introduced to the players. As the entourage pass by the two sides, lined up to face each other, the players exchange quips like school boys behind their teacher’s back.

Any joviality is gone with the opening whistle. From the first Arsenal attack, Frank Stapleton and Jimmy Greenhoff collide. Both go down, receive treatment, and carry on shortly after. It’s nothing malicious from either player, but goes to show neither side will hold back.

Which is just as well, because both sides trust a straightforward, flat 4-4-2. Scrappy, individual battles should rule the day. Some subtle details in the differing approaches: United’s wide midfielders would stay wide and ahead of their full backs going forward, while providing additional cover in defence. Arsenal prefer to play it more loosely, Rix would hug the sideline, Brady drifts inside enjoying a free role behind and in front of the midfield. The Gunners work with full back overlaps more than their opponents.

Approximate formations and player movements for Arsenal vs Manchester United, May 12th 1979

Approximate formations and player movements for Arsenal vs Manchester United, May 12th 1979; Brady started on the left, but was free to roam where he pleased, and rightly so.

From the early going it’s apparent that United are more dangerous on the counter than when Arsenal are set. Off a cleared Arsenal free kick the break is on. Coppell finds Greenhoff in the first line of attack. The centre forward lays off a header for the onrushing McIlroy, who also only needs one touch to send Thomas down the left wing. Rice had the side covered and blocks the cross aimed at Greenhoff (8’).

Talbot with the opener

A few minutes later Brady starts an attack in the centre. Macari is on him tight, McIlroy comes over to help but they can’t prevent the pass out to (I believe) Stapleton on the right wing. Up top Price had moved into the box with only Buchan marking him. Stapleton’s low cross takes a somewhat fortuitous path, sneaking through a number of legs, but it nevertheless arrives at the near post for Price. Buchan fluffs on the tackle, Price cuts a pass back into the middle where Talbot beats out his own team mate Sunderland to stick it into the net for the opener.

Just the year before Talbot had climbed the steps of Wembley to receive his winners’ medal. Ipswich had rightly triumphed in the FA Cup final, beating Arsenal 1:0. Moving to the runners-up, Talbot’s transfer commanded a hefty £450.000. His goal, then, went some way in re-paying the fee and put him on track to become the first player to win the Cup with two different sides in subsequent finals. Arsenal had made the trip to Wembley yet again, overcoming Notts County (2:0), Nottingham Forest (1:0), Southampton (1:1 & 2:0), and Wolverhampton (2:0). Oh and Sheffield Wednesday whom they met five times in 17 days. A fibonacci-esque series of draws (1:1, 1:1, 2:2, 3:3) forced replay after replay, until finally Arsenal claimed the Fourth Round spot (2:0).

It only takes a few minutes for United to shake off Talbot’s opener. Thomas tries to test Jennings from close range, doesn’t hit it flush, and so it’s easily gathered up by the keeper (15’). United respond by pushing their wide midfielders higher up, almost turning the 4-4-2 into a 4-2-4. Time and again the wingers look to send Joe Jordan into aerial duels with Willie Young, the forward nearly always gets his head onto the deliveries first. Although no big chances are actually created using the tactic, it allows the trailing side to establish a foothold in the opponent’s half to try and claw their way back into the final.

United were certainly no strangers to adversity during their Cup campaign. Five hurdles had to be taken to make it to Wembley, only two were cleared on the first attempt: Chelsea (3:0) and Colchester (1:0). The former would later finish dead last in the First Division, the latter plied their trade in the Third Division. Trips to Fulham and Tottenham both produced 1:1 draws, forcing replays at Old Trafford where United prevailed (1:0 and 2:0 respectively). In the semi-final they met Liverpool who were already on coronation street claiming their 11th league title. At Maine Road Brian Greenhoff and Joe Jordan provided United’s goals in a 2:2 draw, whereas Jimmy Greenhoff was to be the sole scorer at Goodison, securing United’s spot in the final.

Stapleton tacks on another

Mid-way through the first half United push for the equalizer and are well in with a shout. Arsenal play it cautious, keep six men in their own half regardless of what opportunity springs up and are thus always outnumbered going forward. Danger stems from Brady who, after starting on the right wing, has been playing through the middle, and now comes over the left wing. As the match becomes ever more physical and the fouls start to pile up, the raucous crowd demands, “We want football”.

It bears saying, these are not the finest footballing sides in the land going at it. Liverpool reign supreme, having won 19 of 21 home games, scoring 51:4 goals. They drew the other two, in case you were wondering. Their fine form saw them eight points clear at the top of the final table, ahead of European Cup champions Nottingham Forest. Arsenal meanwhile were 20 points off the pace, under 2 point rules no less, finishing the 78/79 season in seventh place. United sat in ninth, a further three points behind.

The league meetings then, between Arsenal and United had produced a 1:1 draw at Highbury, and a 2:0 win for the Gunners at Old Trafford.

Either score before half time would point the way. Greenhoff goes close after a good half hour. Nicholl had put in a cross from the right wing, Jordan had dummied underneath it, leaving Thomas to lay it off into the path of Greenhoff who had stretched the defence with a run parallel to the incoming cross. His eventual shot, while turning, goes off target.

Can United keep up the pressure?

Arsenal manage to stifle the red attacking waves, without expending too much energy. And without producing too much inside Bailey’s box. Stapleton pulls off an overhead kick to send a Nelson cross sailing over the crossbar (36’). It’s Arsenal’s first attempt since the opener.

Though behind, approaching half-time United look the better side. Questions remain about their fitness going forward. Would they be able to keep up the pressure and tempo? Should they be, there would still be life left in the final. And then Brady goes and spoils Dave Sexton’s team talk.

Arsenal break from a cleared Thomas cross. Yellow shirts flood forward, a rare sight in the first half. Talbot, Rice, and Brady take it up the right wing. Stapleton and Sunderland make their way into the box. 30 yards out Brady receives the ball from Talbot and immediately blows by Albiston. Buchan comes out towards the edge of the box, and is left stabbing the air as Brady skips past him too. In the middle it’s three United defenders keeping a generous distance from two Arsenal forwards. Brady, with all time in the world, decides to float a cross towards the far post, where Stapleton gladly heads home the 2:0 (43’).

United push back but hardly create

With Arsenal’s lead now doubled and Sexton’s team talk all the more important, the Manchester United manager apparently did find the right words. United come out pushing again, looking for a way back into the game. First McQueen, with a header off a corner, then Thomas with a scuffed shot from close range miss the target.

Arsenal try not to fall into the same trap, of sitting too far back and inviting United in. At 2:0 they are somewhat more confident to push out. Stapleton is more involved now. Time and again the forward finds space on the left wing, content to just hold the ball and let others move up.

Arsenal's Liam Brady, shown here awarding a Touchdown to Juve's Giuseppe Furino. (Image: Public domain)

Arsenal’s Liam Brady, shown here awarding a Touchdown to Juve’s Giuseppe Furino. (Image: Public domain)

With close to an hour gone Stapleton holds up a long ball just so. Fending off McQueen, Stapleton leaves it for Brady who has Nicholl in front of him and Rix darting up on the left wing. Brady plays Rix in behind Nicholl beautifully, putting just enough pace on the ball to allow Rix a cross near the goal-line without having to stop. In the middle United’s defenders are once again marking dead air, as both Stapleton and Sunderland are left to their own devices at the far post. They jump in unison, hindering each other more than any player in red, with Stapleton beating out Sunderland. Bailey had scampered across the face of goal following the cross and now clears the header with his knee.

Both sides take a breather mid-way through the second half. United are gathering any last bits of strength for a final push. Arsenal are also huffing, showing signs of wear and tear. Coppell and Sunderland go close at either end, but ultimately can’t bother the opposing goalkeeper.

With only minutes to go and defeat looming, United are attacking towards their own end. A sea of flags rises in front of them and the tune of “We’ll support you evermore” rings in their ears.

The Five Minute Final

Steve Walker is introduced by Terry Neill for David Price to shore up the defence and presumably just to give Walker a taste of Wembley. Moments later O’Leary climbs onto Greenhoffs back, conceding a free kick some 35 yards out on the right wing. Time and again Gordon McQueen had ventured forward on set pieces, his 6’3’’ frame a promising target for United’s dead ball specialists. Although the deliveries were sound, McQueen’s headers, on the day, had hardly troubled Jennings. This time Coppell’s cross whizzes past everybody. Jordan picks it up at the far post, sends it back in, low and hard. McQueen sticks a boot on it and directs it into the goal to restore hope amongst the United faithful.

Arsenal knock it around from the kick off, soon ending up at Jennings’ station. The goalkeeper sends it deep into United’s half where the reds claim possession once more. Nicholl sends it long for McIlroy just as Arsenal try to clear out. McIlroy pulls into the box. O’Leary misses a tackle, Walker scampers back but overshoots on his tackle as well. Jennings is out quickly, but fast to the ground as well. McIlroy slots it just underneath Jennings’ outstretched arms to level the score and send the United end into a complete frenzy. The noise level had risen with each evaded tackle, but as the ball trickles across the line bedlam erupts. For all of thirty seconds.

Sheer frenzy at Wembley

“Nobody around me seemed to know about it except me”, recounted John Kelsall. “Everybody was still celebrating the equalizing goal. I had to grab my brother and tell him, and gradually our end of the ground stopped jumping around. It was like a Mexican wave but in reverse.”

Arsenal had one attack left in them. It was a carbon copy of their move seen just 30 minutes before. Brady, in the left half channel, blows through United’s midfield, leaving two challengers in his wake. Rix is bombing up the left wing, again, and is played in by Brady, again. Rix delivers a cross towards the far post where Sunderland is waiting. And this time it’s only Sunderland as Stapleton keeps his distance. United’s defence do likewise. The cross is a tad too long but Sunderland adapts quickly, gets his boot around the ball, and puts Arsenal back into the lead with virtually the last kick of the match.

It’s ecstasy in the one end, defiant “United” chants in the other. Mind, some fans may well have not even realized Arsenal had scored. If any match is proof of Wembley’s legend it’s this one, less for the match itself than for the sheer energy in and the noise generated by the crowd.


  • MOTM: Brady, asked all kind of questions of United’s defence to which they didn’t have all the answers
  • Best Hair: Spoilt for choice, but Jimmy Nicholl claims the award
  • Viewing recommendation: Maybe for Brady in full pomp, but really highlights are enough for this one

Full match included below, jump to 1:40:00 for Walker’s introduction and the subsequent mayhem. If you enjoyed the write-up give us a like on Facebook and/or follow us on Twitter to be notified of future installements in the series.

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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