How long does it take to move on from defeat? Weeks? Years? Never? Three months ago, my parents moved house and among boxes of Subbuteo teams were two tickets to the 1988 Liverpool v Wimbledon FA Cup final. The memories came flooding back.
My dad is an Arsenal fan and was determined his son would follow the side he had watched for most of his life, so he was constantly extolling the virtues of the Gunners (marble halls, Liam Brady). However, I was a young Home Counties glory hunter and Liverpool had my favourite player: John Barnes.
At 11 years old, the prospect of seeing the Reds in the season’s showpiece event never entered my head. But one evening, my dad returned from work with two tickets for the final thanks to a bloke called Charlie, a member of Hertfordshire FA. The tickets cost £25 each and my dad said they had an “obstructed view”. I didn’t care.
Everything about the day was special. First, my dad drove us to the match; no getting the tube for this game. The brown Morris Marina was full of sweets and we arrived a mile or so away from the stadium in style (for a sense of how this felt, think Freddie Mercury being whisked to Wembley at the start of the Bohemian Rhapsody film). FA Cup finals were staged in searing heat back then and this was no exception. However, in what was an ominous signal for the result that followed, the Chewits melted in the car.
Minor setback brushed aside, we walked to the stadium, the Twin Towers finally appearing above a sea of red. I was one of the 98,000 in the ground that day. At this point, there were no Wimbledon fans in sight. Why would there be? This result was nailed on!
We got to our seats (the “obstructed view” turned out to be a slim pillar to my left) and watched as the teams walked on to the pitch to be greeted by Princess Diana. Liverpool were going for their second Double in three years. Wimbledon, on the other hand, had rocketed up from the amateur ranks, having won the Southern League 11 years earlier.
Wimbledon started well, with Dave Beasant’s drop-kicks threatening to take out the BBC’s helicopter camera. But after 20 minutes Beasant blocked John Aldridge’s shot before clawing the rebound away from Barnes. I thought my hero had scored.
My hopes were further dashed when Peter Beardsley’s chip was ruled out. Three minutes later, the unthinkable happened. A Dennis Wise free-kick was met by Lawrie Sanchez, who headed beyond Bruce Grobbelaar. Wimbledon were in front.
No matter, there was still time. In the 60th minute came the game’s pivotal moment. Clive Goodyear was wrongly deemed to have fouled Aldridge in the penalty area. With 29 goals that season, surely Aldridge couldn’t miss from the spot. But Beasant dived to his left to become the first goalkeeper to save a penalty in a Wembley FA Cup final. He would later tell how he had studied Aldridge’s technique. From nowhere, people leapt up in front of me. Disguised Wimbledon fans? I’m not sure, but Aldridge fell to his knees with his head in his hands, the stadium quietened and Wimbledon held on.
I was devastated. The defeat was raw for years, not helped by the fact that Beasant’s mum worked at my school.
Looking back, Wimbledon weren’t simply a Crazy Gang. The win had been orchestrated by the tactics of their manager, Bobby Gould, and his assistant, Don Howe. They also had famous players themselves: John Fashanu, Wise, Sanchez, Vinnie Jones, Eric Young, Beasant and Laurie Cunningham.
I had witnessed history. More important, I remember a brilliant day out with my dad. Result aside, it was a magical occasion. My dad and I have been to many games since but nothing has matched the thrill of the anticipation of the biggest game in English football and the sheer occasion of the day.
I wish we went to such events more often. And I do wish Aldridge had taken a better penalty.