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The FA Cup semi-finalists: a journey through history

We take a look back at the FA Cup semi-final records of Everton, Manchester United, Watford and Crystal Palace.

Stu Forster/Getty Images

It's FA Cup semi-final time! Are you excited? Of course you're excited! So just to get you even more excited — as if that were even possible, you excitable so-and-so — here's a quick look back at the history of all four semi-finalists with this particular stage of this particular competition. We've got sex, we've got drugs, and we've got rock and roll. Well, sex. And Frank Lampard. And short shorts. What more could you possibly want?


Of the four teams left in this season's competition, it's Everton that have the longest association with the FA Cup's late stages. They first reached the semi-finals in 1893, when a young Tony Hibbert led his team out to face Preston North End at Brammall Lane. Then he did so again, because they drew the first game 2-2. Then he did so again, this time at Ewood Park, because they drew the second game 0-0. Everton won the third game 2-1, but lost the final. Presumably they were a bit knackered.

Only two teams, Arsenal and Manchester United, have been to more semi-finals than Everton's 25. However, Everton's 13 final appearances are surpassed by both those sides (19 and 18) and Liverpool (14), and equaled by Newcastle United. As well as providing some very specific bragging rights, does this perhaps suggest a slight tendency to stumble at the penultimate hurdle? Probably not. It's a very small sample size.

Anyway, Everton's long and proud and occasionally glorious history means that we're rather spoiled for choice when it comes to picking a game. So let's go back to 1980 and choose one that they lost. West Ham, their opponents, were down in Division Two at the time, though there were plenty of notable in their line up, including Trevor Brooking and Frank Lampard: The Prequel. After a 1-1 draw in the first leg at Villa Park, the game was goalless over 90 minutes at Elland Road before exploding into life in extra time. Alan Devonshire carved open Everton's defence for the opener, before Bob Latchford nipped in at the near post to equalise. But with just a few moments remaining, a diving/collapsing/sprawling header from Lampard: Year Zero was enough to send the Londoners through.

Confirmation of the past's general weirdness comes when we consider the officials. The first leg had been a controversial affair: there had been a controversial penalty, a disallowed West Ham goal, and a red card for Everton's Brian Kidd. So after a week in which Jon Moss has been hauled through the miseries of modern post-hoc refereeing analysis, just for having had the temerity to possibly make a mistake or two on television, it's vaguely amusing to note that the FA, back in 1980, went ahead and gave the replay to the same referee, Colin Seel. Couldn't get away with that nowadays, of course; Twitter wouldn't stand for it. There'd be outrage. There'd be sarcasm. There might even be memes.

Manchester United

Let's begin with some more moderately diverting numbers. When Manchester United take the field on Saturday afternoon, they will be competing in their 28th FA Cup semi-final, drawing level with Arsenal in the process. If they win, it will be their 19th semi-final victory, which will also match Arsenal's total. And if they go on to win the competition, then they will lift the trophy for the 12th time, which by strange and mysterious coincidence is the number of times Arsenal have won the thing. All pretty spooky.

Of course, United played Arsenal in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final, the replay of which is one of the most thrilling football matches in the history of not just the FA Cup semis but arguably the sport. So we're going to ignore that in favour of what looks, on paper, to have been perhaps the most boring: United vs. Leeds, 1970. The first game finished 0-0. The replay, after extra-time, finished 0-0. Leeds eventually managed a single, solitary goal in the second replay, and went on to the final.

Apparently, scorelines can be deceiving. The Times, displaying the customary restraint of the paper of record, proclaimed the series of games to have been "The greatest semi-final since the last war":

Looked at across its length the game had everything — courage, stamina, will power, speed, excitement and skill. In the end it was a triumph for the superbly ordered Leeds system — "a team without a weakness", said Nobby Stiles — the machine over individual flair and vulnerability which looked victory in the face at Villa Park and turned away.

Other, more Mancunian sources have less complimentary things to say about Leeds and the uses to which they put their boots and their studs. But from the Manchester perspective, this game was all about the off-field intrigue. This was the first season after Matt Busby, and the day of the replay was the moment the reign of his replacement, Wilf McGuinness, began to come apart. Three hours before kick-off, when the players were due to be having an afternoon nap, McGuinness burst into George Best's hotel room to find him very much awake and actively enjoying the company of another hotel guest.

Faced with the choice between imposing his authority and dropping Best, or picking him anyway and hoping that things might work out, United's manager opted for the latter, only for the whole thing to blow up in his face. A visibly knackered Best missed his side's only real chance of the game, falling flat on the floor when clean through against the goalkeeper. The dressing room turned on their manager for failing to enforce his own rules and playing favourites. And United won just two of their remaining league fixtures, finishing eighth in Division One. Denied the chance to pick a trophy in his first season, McGuinness' team started the next season in miserable form, and he was sacked in December with United in 18th.


Sure, Watford seem nice. They've got a friendly yellow kit. They've got a handsome, urbane manager. And they've got a mascot that wouldn't look out of place in a public information campaign designed to make children aware of the health benefits of not chasing stripy insects with sticks. But underneath all that lies a terrible secret: when it comes to FA Cup semi-finals, Watford are bullies.

Like most bullies, they themselves have been bullied by those larger than they. Watford have been to the FA Cup semi-finals five times, and four times they've been dealt with harshly. In 1970 they arrived as plucky upstarts from the second tier and top-flight Chelsea dissected them 5-1. Though they were in Division One by the time 1987 rolled around, they were just beginning their descent from the Graham Taylor-inspired highs of the early part of the decade and were again hammered, this time by Tottenham, who saw them off 4-1. The noughties brought two more defeats: Southampton saw off second-tier Watford 2-1 in 2003, and then — after a promotion — Manchester United handed out another 4-1 drubbing in 2007.

This kind of thing can really corrupt the soul, and so it was that when third tier — third tier! — Plymouth Argyle made it through to the semis in 1984, Watford — who, like all football clubs, are not constrained by the linear progression of time — were in no mood to indulge the fairytale. By all accounts Plymouth brought sunshine and balloons to the fixture, and were excellent, attacking and positive, while The Times of the following day described Watford as "surprisingly lethargic". But it was Watford who got the goal, and killed the dream, and went on to their only final to date. They got done 2-0 by Everton. Man hands on misery to man ...

Crystal Palace

We're doing the obvious one. Of course we're doing the obvious one. Apart from anything else, we don't have much choice: Crystal Palace have only been to three semi-finals, and they lost the other two: 2-0 to Southampton in 1976; and 2-0 to Manchester United in the 1995, a replay following a 2-2 draw. Though they came pretty close to a victory there, leading 2-1 deep into injury time before noted goal machine Gary Pallister popped up and did that Manchester United late goal thing.

So it's to 1990 and to Villa Park we must go. Well, to 1989 first of all: when Crystal Palace went to Anfield in the league that September, Liverpool were defending league champions, Kenny Dalglish was manager, and eight different players — Nicol, McMahon, Rush, Gillespie, Beardsley, Aldridge, Barnes, Hysen — scored in a 9-0 win. The reverse fixture in January wasn't quite so comprehensive, but Liverpool won 2-0; in three hours of football, they'd scored 11 unanswered goals. Fair to say that going into the semi-final the south Londoners were slight underdogs.

At half-time, Liverpool were 1-0 up, Ian Rush tucking home after a certain Mr A. Pardew lost the ball in midfield. But Palace's manager Steve Coppell had responded to their early season humiliation by finding his inner drill sergeant and imposing a strict regime of cross-country runs and terrifying-sounding "hill repetition sessions". "[Liverpool] were the footballers," remembered goalkeeper Nigel Martyn later, "but we were very fit". And they showed it straight after half-time: John Pemberton tore his way down the Liverpool left, slung the ball into the middle, and after a certain amount of bouncing around, Mark Bright slapped home the equaliser.

With 20 minutes to go, Palace took the lead for the first time, Gary O'Neill poking the ball home from a freekick. And then things got really silly: Liverpool equalised in the 81st minute after a well-worked free-kick; retook the lead in the 83rd minute after Steve Staunton descended, perhaps legitimately, in the penalty area; and then threw it away in the 88th. Well, punched it away. Bruce Grobbelaar came, saw, and failed to conquer, and after a short and not particularly dignified scramble, Andy Gray nodded home the equaliser from short range. Heads entirely gone, Liverpool's defence then stood and watched as Palace nearly burgled the game from another set piece in the final minute, but Andy Thorn could only find the crossbar from a yard out.

Just as well, really, because if there's one thing more important than making the train home, it's narrative. Thorn's miss cued up Pardew's redemption, and so it came to pass that with eleven minutes go, after a well-delivered, flicked-on corner from the Palace left, our hero rose like the fourteenth century English peasantry and, much to the inconvenience of the nation's reigning aristocracy, nodded Crystal Palace into the FA Cup final for the first and so far only time. That wasn't a bad game either: they drew 3-3 with Manchester United, before losing the replay 1-0. And nobody ever heard from Alan Pardew again.