The result was never in doubt in the half-time entertainment at Villa Park on 8 April 1990. The police dog representing Liverpool sailed over the ever-increasing barriers with speed and serenity, while the Palace pooch stumbled and failed to keep up. A sympathetic, bordering on patronising, round of applause rippled around the ground. It was abundantly clear who was top dog, both literally and in a football sense.
The introduction in the match programme was typical of the prevailing mood: “Villa Park opens its doors today, with its annual sense of pride, for the staging of an enthralling FA Cup semi-final between favourites and outsiders. Liverpool, with their magnificent roll of honour, have become accustomed to being rated as the team most likely to win virtually every competition they enter, frequently justifying such confidence.”
A lot of the build-up focused on when Liverpool, the cup holders, could start resting their players for the bigger challenges ahead, such as securing their 18th league title. Palace fans could hardly argue. The bitter memory of their 9-0 drubbing at Anfield seven months earlier was still far too fresh in the memory. Ian Wright had just broken his leg and his replacement, Garry Thompson, was cup-tied. Even Palace manager Steve Coppell was struggling to make a case for his team. “All clubs have to put up with injuries, but I haven’t a clue what team I shall field against Liverpool.”
Coppell showed limited ambition in his programme notes, describing the game as a great day out for the fans and a bonus for the team. His description of his opponents did not brook any argument: “They are magnificent.” The players shared their manager’s view. “The first priority in everyone’s heads was do not embarrass ourselves today, do not lose 3-0 or 4-0,” recalls Palace midfielder Andy Gray.
Coppell and his assistant, Alan Smith, had devised a plan to upset the odds and puncture the air of the opposition’s invincibility. They knew their own strengths lay in fitness and organisation. While out walking his dogs, Smith had discovered a steep hill on Farthing Downs that bore the nickname “Happy Valley”. He used that steep slope in the Surrey countryside to prepare his players to face any challenge.
“We used to go on Mondays, having played on Saturday,” explains club captain Geoff Thomas. “There’s no way anyone would do such a thing now. It was insane. Steve was a fit guy still and he would do one hill but then stay at the top and watch us go up and down. We were physically sick most of the time.”
Palace switched from their usual 442 to a back five for the game. “We changed our system and went man-to-man,” Coppell says. “So Richard Shaw, who was the best at marking Ian Wright in training, took Beardsley and so on, even to John Salako, who had a defensive job to do on Ray Houghton.”
Despite this careful preparation, Coppell’s thoughts before kick-off were not overly optimistic. “I hope we don’t get battered. I hope we don’t get nine-niled,” he said to himself. “But the one thing I stressed to the players was if they scored first, don’t panic, keep it tight. Our plan was to still be in the game after 70 minutes and then hope our superior fitness may tell.”
The game started the way everybody expected, with Kenny Dalglish’s team quickly finding their stride. That superiority was confirmed in the 14th minute, when Alan Pardew’s misplaced pass allowed Steve McMahon to slip Ian Rush through on goal. The Welshman tucked the ball past Nigel Martyn calmly. “The reaction of the Liverpool players when they scored wasn’t overjoyed,” remembers Thomas. “It was: ‘Here we go, it’s an easy canter to the Wembley final.’” But that was to be Rush’s last contribution, as he was replaced by Steve Staunton in the 30th minute.
The half-time chat between Bob Wilson and Ray Wilkins on the BBC panel focused on how comfortable Liverpool were. Former Palace boss Malcolm Allison, who was stationed in the tunnel, was the only pundit insisting the underdogs still had a chance: “Palace were physically stronger, while Liverpool were technically better,” Allison said. “Palace have got to gamble a bit more and go forward.” Palace fans in the crowd were relieved that their team had restored some respect after the nadir of that 9-0 defeat.
There was no panic in the Palace dressing room. “Don’t lose your shape,” Coppell told his players. “Don’t lose your discipline. Remember your man-to-man responsibilities.” Gray did not agree: “In my head, if we had taken the chains off a bit we would have caused them problems a bit earlier but the gaffer insisted we stuck to the plan.” The second half had already started when Coppell and Smith emerged from the dressing room. They were still on their way to the dugouts when they received a jolt to their system as right-back John Pemberton started rampaging down the touchline.
Smith turned to Coppell, saying: “What the fuck is Pembo doing?” Undeterred, Pemberton’s burst of pace took him past a couple of Liverpool defenders and, as Gray describes it, “his peach of a cross” ended up at the far post, where Salako’s shot was initially saved by Bruce Grobbelaar’s feet before rebounding to Mark Bright, who hooked it into the net. The idea of keeping it tight had lasted all of 16 seconds.
Having tweaked Liverpool’s tail, Palace were expecting a backlash. But it did not materialise. After some more pinball in the Liverpool box, Gary O’Reilly gave Palace the lead. O’Reilly was an unlikely hero. He spent two years at the club and only scored twice: this goal in an FA Cup semi-final and one a month later in the final. He chose his moments wisely.
For 10 minutes, it looked as if the impossible might actually happen. But those hopes were dashed quickly. Steve McMahon restored parity in the 81st minute, lashing home after a short free-kick had caught the Palace defence napping. Liverpool had the perfect chance to take the lead two minutes later, when the erstwhile marauding hero Pemberton conceded a penalty. In his anguish Pemberton laid his hands on referee George Courtney, leaving Thomas to fear the worst for his teammate. “I thought George did well when Pembo pushed him, as another official might have sent him off.” Pemberton escaped with a yellow, but John Barnes was not as forgiving as the referee, slotting home the penalty to give Liverpool a 3-2 lead with just seven minutes to play.
“At that time I was probably thinking we have had a good go and we’ve done alright,” Coppell recalls. “And to a certain extent there was an element of relief that we hadn’t been hammered.” With a few minutes remaining, just as thousands of Liverpool fans raised their scarves in unison for a chorus of You’ll Never Walk Alone, Palace put the ball in the Liverpool box for another pinball session.
A long free-kick was headed on by Thomas and, when Grobbelaar flapped unconvincingly at the ball, Thomas knocked it back into the goalmouth. “I saw a picture in my head and bang,” says Gray. “I just knew that ball would come to me.” And come to him it did. Venison chested the ball into the air and Gray nipped in to knock it into the net. “It was one of the smartest goals I ever scored,” he says.
Gray ran to the fans with outstretched arms and an even wider smile. There was still enough time for one last Palace chance in the 90th minute, as Thomas recalls. “I remember leaping so high, and was just behind Andy as he hit the crossbar from a corner. I can still see it now. If Thorny had left it, I would have chucked everything at it to get it in.”
After such a wildly fluctuating second half, extra time was a bit of a blur. With a little over 10 minutes remaining, thoughts were turning to a replay after the most honourable and dramatic of draws. One final twist awaited and yet again Liverpool’s vulnerability at set pieces was exposed.
The Palace winner was straight off the training ground. “We did this every week,” says Coppell. “Andy Thorn was the best near-post target. We used to do the same thing every week and I used to think why don’t teams stop this? Gray struck the corner and Thorn flicked it on at the near post, giving Pardew the chance to bundle the ball into the net past a couple of bemused Liverpool defenders. Scruffy and unglamorous it may have been, but the goal sparked the sort of delirium in the Palace half of the Holte End that can only be experienced on a standing terrace, as fans tumbled into one another in a mass of exultation. It was fitting that all four Palace goals were scored at the end where most of the fans were congregated, allowing the intimacy of celebrations to be joy unbound.
That it was Pardew, the man who had sloppily conceded possession for the first Liverpool goal, who scored the decisive goal provided the final act of redemption. Not the most talented of players, Pardew came from humble beginnings, costing a mere £7,000 from non-league Yeovil Town in 1987. It was apt that he had delivered the knockout blow.
At the end of the match, Coppell, who had never lost semi-final as a player, sprinted off the pitch to give the players the chance to celebrate with the fans. “I was very much aware that this was the players’ moment so I wanted to get off,” Coppell says. “Job done. When me and Al were in the dressing room we were obviously overjoyed, but our feelings were more of relief than anything else. We just sat in a big tub, thinking we had done it but also wondering: ‘How have we done it?’”
The players eventually returned, as Thomas recalls “I remember coming in and the kit man Spike Hill was sitting on a crate crying his eyes out and that’s when it hit home, and we saw it with the fans just how much it meant. On reflection, we should have spent more time with the fans.”
Thomas and his teammates did get the chance to be with the supporters as Coppell recalls: “I remember that one of the directors, Gordon Looking, who ran a doughnut shop in Brighton had for some reasons made red and blue doughnuts. So we had three or four trays. We got stuck on the M6 going back to London, all the traffic was stopped and the Palace fans were jumping around so we got off the bus and started throwing doughnuts at people and everyone was loving it.”
This was the first time its 119-year history that both FA Cup semi-finals had been televised live and, within an hour of the game at Villa Park drawing its final, frenetic breath, Oldham and Manchester United were trading blows at Maine Road. As Palace fans filtered out of the ground, dazed and confused, one turned to a disbelieving Liverpool supporter to offer his consolation: “Cheer up mate, at least you won the bloody dog contest.”