In 1991 a Geordie midfielder had marked Wembley’s first FA Cup semi-final with a stunning free-kick as Tottenham Hotspur beat Arsenal. In the second, two years later, Chris Waddle did likewise as Sheffield Wednesday eventually shook off Dave Bassett’s dogged Sheffield United.
Six minutes in, the Owls won a free-kick at the end Waddle’s friend Paul Gascoigne had a crack from in 1991.
“I said to John Sheridan, ‘I’m going to hit it,’ and he said, ‘You’re going to hit it?’” revealed Waddle.
“It was 30 yards out but Alan Kelly had no chance,” says fellow midfielder Danny Wilson. “Kelly was a really good goalkeeper who was outstanding that day but it was world class.”
The adjective soon trips off his tongue again. “Chrissy Waddle was a world-class player,” gushes Wilson. “You could give the ball to Chris and he would give you a breather. He was a lot quicker than he got credit for and could go past defenders with ease. He produced some fantastic passes.
“I remember in that first half how good he was. Trevor (Francis, Wednesday’s player-manager) changed it around and put Chris on the right and John Harkes left, both coming inside, and I don’t think Sheffield United knew how to cope with him.”
If Waddle rose to the occasion, the Blades were struggling.
“It will always be a disappointment,” says Brian Deane. “I don’t know whether I over-thought the game but it was probably one of my poorest performances for the Blades. We’d worked so hard to establish ourselves in the Premier League and a cup final would have taken us to another level and earned us the respect we deserved.”
Wilson remembers “the hairs on your neck stood up” and Deane’s strike partner Alan Cork, an FA Cup winner with Wimbledon in 1988, believes the occasion was decisive.
“It’s a lot easier when you go back,” remembers Cork. “That game was more enjoyable for me than the final because I was able to take it all in. If we’d played them anywhere but Wembley we might have won. I think some of the younger lads thought, ‘Oh s***.’ Not all of them did badly but Bassett teams needed at least 10 players at their best.”
Deane adds: “Wembley was the dream – becoming one of these iconic people. To go there twice, what’s the point?”
At 1-0, the Owls took control.
“We ran out of legs and ideas towards the end of the season,” admits Deane. “We were looking to get to the next level but I think we’d gone as far as we could.”
Wilson remembers: “Paul Warhurst hit the bar and the post. We dominated but it meant nothing because Alan Cork equalised right on half-time.”
Cork says: “If I hadn’t been breathing so hard I might have equalised before then with a left-foot volley. My boy Jack (now at Burnley) was three, he missed my goal because he dropped his hamburger. He was in tears.
“At half-time Bassett told me I would have to man-mark Chris Waddle. We were both knackered so I said to Chris we should walk around together on the left!”
Balding and with a thick beard, Cork was emblematic of Bassett’s Blades.
“I made a stupid comment to Brian Gayle after the third round saying I wouldn’t shave until we got knocked out,” he recalls. “I couldn’t even trim it, Gayley would have killed me! People will remember me for it when I’m gone, and that’s a nice thought.”
Cork fondly remembers his pre-match preparations with goalkeeper Mel Rees, who died of cancer the following month.
“I was playing cards, having a couple of brandies and chatting with Mel, who knew he hadn’t got long left. Harry (Bassett) wouldn’t want all the team staying up having a drink that night but he knew what we’d been through together.”
Not that the Blades had a monopoly on team spirit.
“That’s why it was so close,” argues Wilson. “We had the lion’s share of possession but they were very resilient and hard-working and I like to think we were. We never doubted ourselves.
“Carlton (Palmer) was the left-sided centre-back and was maybe caught out a bit for the goal, but him and Viv (Anderson) dealt brilliantly with Cork and Deane, who were so good in the air. Paul Warhurst had come out from centre-back earlier that season. I remember Paul saying, ‘I’m not a striker!’ Then the goals started to come and when Trevor moved him back he said, ‘I’m not a centre-back, I’m a striker!’”
The Blades took the game into extra-time before Mark Bright headed in a Harkes corner, scoring the winner as Francis told him he would pre-match.
“We never conceded from set-pieces,” says Cork, “but I think there were a few tired bodies.”
It was as good as it got. The Owls lost two cup finals to Arsenal, the Blades were relegated in 1994. “The (Blades) team was at a tipping point,” argues Deane. “We regularly held our own against Everton, for example, but were never, ever going to be as big a club as them.”
“We got up with Manchester United but couldn’t add quality,” comments Wilson. “Players started to get picked off and we were left with an average team.”
The memories made that day were anything but average.
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