The Final that Refused to End: The 1977 League Cup final between Aston Villa and Everton

1977 League Cup Final

Everton and Aston Villa have the longest running rivalry in football. Both clubs were founder members of the original Football league in 1888 and have played more top flight matches against each other than any other team, a total which currently stands at 202. They are also the two teams that hold the record for the most seasons spent in the top division of English football, Everton with 114 and Aston Villa with 105 out of a possible 118. It is, therefore, no surprise, given the long standing rivalry between the two sides that they took part in the longest Cup Final ever played. The 1977 League Cup Final involved three matches at three different venues over a period of five weeks from the 12th of March until the 13th of April watched by an aggregate attendance of over 205,000.

In a bizarre irony, Everton were managed by Gordon Lee, an ex- Aston Villa player and Aston Villa were led by Ron Saunders, an ex- Everton player. Everton’s progress to the final had been largely overseen by Billy Bingham, who famously joked on “Football Focus” in December about his signing of crowd favourite Duncan MacKenzie, “The last manager who signed him got sacked!” .Bingham was dismissed from his duties within a month. It came as no surprise. Everton had struggled to find form during the 76/77 season and with home attendances down to as low as 23,000 and the team languishing in 13th place, Bingham was removed. Everton, not for the first time, seemed convinced that Bobby Robson was going to be the new manager. He wasn’t and Gordon Lee was tempted away from Newcastle to take the position. The season before his Newcastle team had lost in the League Cup Final to Manchester City. His first task was to navigate Everton through a two legged semi- final against Bolton Wanderers. Evertonians were so desperate for success that almost 55,000 were at Goodison for the first leg, which ended 1-1. Despite a penalty miss by Duncan MacKenzie in the second leg, a Bob Latchford goal ensured that Everton went through on aggregate 2-1.

Ron Saunders had guided Aston Villa back into the top division as runners up to Manchester United(really!) at the end of the 1974/75 season. He had a remarkable record of success in the League Cup. He had taken both Norwich City and Manchester City to the finals in 1973 and 1974 respectively and the following year led Aston Villa to victory in the final in 1975, becoming the first and only manager so far to have featured in three successive League Cup finals with three different teams. Saunders’s exciting young team was starting to develop and they had thrashed league Champions Liverpool 5-1 at Villa Park in the previous December. The combined talents of Andy Gray, Brian Little, John Gidman and Alex Cropley were starting to gel as Villa challenged for the top spot. Aston Villa had needed a replay to beat Queens Park Rangers 3-0 to progress to the final, in a bad tempered match in which the bad blood from Alex Cropley’s tackle on QPR captain Frank Mc Lintock from the previous game, led to retribution taking place all over the pitch.

In terms of their League Cup pedigree, there was no contest. Aston Villa had been the first ever winners of the inaugural League Cup competition in 1961 beating Rotherham United over two legs. In 1963, they lost the final over two legs to their bitter rivals Birmingham City. Strangely, participation in the League Cup at this time was not compulsory. Everton, after entering in the 1960/61 season chose not to play in the Cup again until the 1967/68 season. Before 1977, the best progress they had made in the competition was to reach the fourth round on two occasions. Everton were the first Merseyside team to reach the Final, which led rival Liverpool fans to disparagingly refer to it as the “Mickey Mouse Cup”, rather ironic given their later record of success in the competition. The teams had met in the cup only once before, Aston Villa winning 3-0 at Goodison Park in the 73/74 season.

Gordon Lee’s first League game in charge of Everton had been a 2-0 defeat away to Aston Villa on the 5th February 1977, which meant that they had won both the League encounters. On the day of the final Aston Villa were in fourth place in the table but with games in hand on the clubs above. Everton were in fifteenth position. Although Aston Villa were clearly the bookmaker’s favourites, being quoted at 11/10 by most, Everton under Lee had started to improve, winning five games on the bounce and progressing to the last eight of the F.A. Cup.

The final was held at Wembley Stadium on Saturday 12th March. The teams lined up as follows:

Aston Villa – Burridge, Gidman, Robson, Phillips, Nicholl, Mortimer, Deehan, Little, Gray, Cropley, Carrodus.

Everton – Lawson, Jones, Darracott, Lyons, McNaught, King, Hamilton, Dobson, Latchford, MacKenzie, Goodlass.

Many supporters of both clubs struggled to make the kick off time due to the huge congestion of traffic caused by both sets of fans heading south on the M6. It was an incredibly hot day for March as well and Brian Moore, the ITV commentator described it as “a beautiful, crisp, Wembley afternoon made for a Cup Final”. He could not have been more mistaken. Unfortunately for the expectant crowd of 96,223, the unusual heat and the occasion coincided to produce one of the most mind numbingly boring games ever seen at Wembley ending in a 0-0 stalemate. It was the first time that a League Cup final held at Wembley had finished goalless. Even worse the Football League, unlike the Football Association, had decreed that there would be no extra time played in the final, frustrating many of the fans who were blissfully unaware of this fact.

The players involved realised how disappointing the game had been. Bob Latchford admitted “It was a horror show” and Andy Gray felt that “we had let the crowd down by dishing up a boring show”. The Liverpool Echo claimed it was “The Final ruined by tension”, the Birmingham Mail added that it was “Ninety minutes of emptiness”. Perhaps Brian Glanville summarised it best, viewing it as “dull and uneventful as a seaside town in winter”. The highlight was the referee Gordon Kew calling all 22 players together to find a pair of bandsmen’s spurs which had been lost during the half time interval! Both teams undertook a pointless lap of honour at the end, which Andy Gray refused to join.

The replay took place at Hillsborough on a Wednesday evening four days later, before a crowd of 54,840. Aston Villa had one change from the previous Saturday with Gordan Cowans replacing Alex Cropley. Everton made two, with Mick Bernard and Roger Kenyon, playing his first game since Christmas, replacing David Jones and Martin Dobson respectively. On a quagmire of a pitch, the game was only a marginal improvement on the tepid fare served up at Wembley and appeared to be heading for another stalemate. Then in the 79th minute, whilst attempting to clear a weak shot from John Deehan, Roger Kenyon somehow contrived to turn the ball into his own net. It was an incredible lapse from one of Everton’s most experienced defenders and appeared to have gifted the Cup to Aston Villa.

Everton suddenly responded and sent waves of attackers forward in a desperate attempt to save the game. As the final seconds approached, anxious Everton fans were not impressed to see the Cup heading towards the pitch decorated in Claret and Blue ribbons. In the last minute, Jim Pearson delivered a cross into the Villa goal area and Bob Latchford was on hand to tap in the equaliser from close range in front of the delirious Everton supporters congregated in the Lepping Lane end. Even more galling for the Aston Villa fans was the fact that Bob Latchford was a Birmingham City supporter and had been a hero at St Andrew’s prior to his move to Goodison! During extra time, two very tired teams failed to produce a winning goal. Everton had scored all the goals in the match but had failed to win.

No Cup Final in England had failed to produce a winner after a replay and bizarrely no one at the Football League had thought to plan for such an outcome. As expectant fans checked their match day programme for non- existent details, the Hillsborough public address system was forced to announce that they did not know when or where the replay would be held. Both teams were still involved in the F.A Cup and had a backlog of League fixtures to catch up. Incredibly, the second replay would not take place for another four weeks! It was now scheduled to take place at Old Trafford on Wednesday 16th March and for the first time ever in an English Cup Final, the match was to be decided on penalties if no winner emerged. Penalty shoot outs were not an everyday feature of matches in the 1970’s and both sets of players were desperately hoping to avoid this outcome.

The balance of power had changed slightly during this four week period. Everton had been galvanised under Gordon Lee and had only lost 1 of their last 6 games and had progressed to the semi -final of the F.A. Cup where Liverpool awaited them. Aston Villa lost their talisman striker Andy Gray through injury in addition to winger Frank Carrodus. Everton had also lost Duncan MacKenzie but Everton were now emerging as favourites to win in the eyes of most in the media.

The teams for the third meeting between the clubs were as follows:

Aston Villa – Burridge, Gidman, Robson, Phillips, Nicholl, Mortimer, Deehan, Little, Graydon, Cropley, Cowans.

Everton –Lawson, Robinson, Darracott, Lyons, Mc Naught, King, Hamilton, Dobson, Latchford, Pearson, Goodlass

Everton made a change at right back for the third time, with Neil Robinson being selected for the first time by Lee. Although not publicised at the time, Robinson was the first professional footballer who was a vegan and therefore possibly the first vegan to play in an English Cup Final.His counterpart, John Gidman needed a pain-killing injection pre- match and allegedly so big was the needle that his teammates had to hold him down to receive it.

So on Wednesday 13th March, a crowd of 54,749 gathered to witness the last game in the saga.In contrast to the dour matches that had preceded it, this replay ended up being a classic. Everton dominated proceedings in the first half and it came as no surprise when in the 38th minute Ken Mc Naught nodded the ball down for Bob Latchford, Villa’s nemesis to score the opening goal. For the first time in the tie, Everton were in the lead. However, Everton knew one goal would not be enough as Latchford himself said: “Villa were too good a side not to respond”.

As the minutes ticked away in the second half, Everton were edging tantalisingly close to holding on to their lead. Everton’s defence resolutely repelled wave after wave of Villa attacks. Then, in the space of four minutes the game exploded. In the 80th minute, Villa captain, Chris Nicholl picked up the ball just inside the Everton half, moved forward to the centre of the pitch and unleashed a 35-yard pile-driver that flew past David Lawson. Villa fans could not believe their eyes. The last time Nicholl had made headlines for his goal-scoring prowess was when he scored all four goals in a game between Villa and Leicester. Everton, deflated after conceding a goal to such an unlikely scorer, briefly lost their composure. Just ninety seconds later, Brian Little squeezed a low cross shot under Lawson’s body and incredibly after looking dead and buried, Villa were in the lead with eight minutes remaining. The Cup was on its way to Birmingham.

Or was it?

Within a minute, just as Villa fans were looking forward to seeing the trophy, Everton had pulled themselves off the floor and dramatically equalised. This time it was Everton’s captain courageous, Mick Lyons who in the midst of a chaotic goalmouth scramble, forced the ball over the line with his head in front of the joyous mass of Evertonians, congregated in the Stretford End. The contrasting emotions of both sets of fans at this moment was something to behold. With both sets of vociferous supporters singing “We shall not be moved 2 almost in unison, extra time beckoned again.

Tiredness now became an increasing influence on the game as an additional thirty minutes was the last thing both teams needed. Aston Villa had played three games in eight days, whilst Everton had played four in eleven. On 104 minutes, Gidman came off and Gordon Smith took his place. The game entered the final ninety seconds and for both sets of players, the dreaded prospect of a penalty shoot- out loomed. After an incredible 328 minutes of football, the teams could still not be separated.

With ninety seconds left, the substitute Smith sent in a low cross goal-ward. It deflected off the Everton winger Goodlass, which wrong footed the full back Darracott, who was still in a position to clear the danger but in a moment of hesitation let the ball run past him. Brian Little was lying in wait and reacted the quickest to steer the ball past the despairing Lawson in the Everton goal to score his second goal of the match, in front of the despairing Everton fans. Just as in the second replay, a calamitous mix up in the Everton defence had gifted the goal to Villa. The words of commentator John Motson had never seemed more apposite.” What a terrible defensive disaster for Everton” There was hardly time for the game to be restarted before referee Gordon Kew blew the final whistle on a truly epic encounter.

Everton’s devastated players slumped to the floor, many shaking their heads trying to understand what had just happened. Everton fans stayed to applaud their team and then left the stadium in despair. The Aston Villa team joined their fans in an orgy of celebration as they received the cup. A banner displayed in the Villa read “Little Goals Mean a Lot”. It summed up the final.

The League Cup final of 1977 can never be repeated. For those, like myself, who witnessed all three games, it was an experience that will live forever in the memory. It was played over three matches totalling 330 minutes of football in three different stadiums. Over a calendar month had elapsed from the first game to the conclusion. The aggregate attendance was over 205,000 and had yielded over £500,000(over £3.3 million today) in gate receipts. Both sets of fans had travelled over 600 miles to see all three games. Aston Villa became the first club to win the League Cup three times and the first and only club to win the trophy in three different cities. The League Cup is still the only major domestic honour that Everton have not won. They reached the final again in 1984 but lost after a replay to their mortal enemies Liverpool. However, unlike Liverpool, Everton fans can proudly claim that they have never lost a League Cup Final at Wembley.