A big match

“IS this your worst moment in football?”

Steve Coppell thought about that for a moment, before answering a completely different question. It might have been Reading v Burnley on Tuesday night, but it wasn’t. This was Manchester United v Arsenal, 30 years ago this week, as shown on The Big Match Revisited on ITV4 on Thursday.

If Coppell didn’t give a straight response to Martin Tyler’s question at the time, history has certainly answered it since. Losing the 1979 FA Cup final in the last minute must have been desperately disappointing for Coppell – but it certainly wasn’t his worst moment in football.

Reading’s play-off defeat on Tuesday night, which ended his six-year stint as their manager, may be in the top five. It will, though, have to compete with Reading’s relegation from the Premier League last season.

It will also have to compete with Crystal Palace’s extraordinary drop from the top flight in 1993. The club were five points clear of the relegation zone with two matches to go, but somehow were overhauled by Oldham. It was a week which arguably changed the entire course of Palace’s history. Coppell resigned as manager that summer after nine years in charge. Since then, Palace have enjoyed three stints in the Premier League, all of which have ended in relegation after one season.

Even that probably wouldn’t qualify as Coppell’s worst moment in football, though. Top of the list would have to be Wembley, November 1981. Playing for England in a crucial World Cup qualifier against Hungary, Coppell’s knee was shattered in a challenge by Joszef Toth. Although he did recover to play in the World Cup finals in Spain, Coppell was forced to retire within two years.

Losing an FA Cup final seems pretty small beer by comparison. Hell, the FA Cup is barely a blip on the radar for some Manchester United fans these days. And besides, the 1979 final between United and Arsenal was a classic. Good enough, in fact, to be shown at length 30 years on.

By contrast, this afternoon’s clash between the two teams will do well to fill three minutes on United’s official end-of-season DVD. This game was 40 per cent historical significance, 30 per cent occasion, 25 per cent speculation among the crowd as to whether this was Carlos Tevez’s last United game at Old Trafford and five per cent entertainment.

Trying to figure out who was supposed to be playing up front for Arsenal today was no easy task. It was ostensibly a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Robin van Persie as the one. Except that, whenever Arsenal got a free kick in United’s half, he took it, regardless of how far from goal it was.

The spoiler tactics worked, as Denilson and Cesc Fabregas patrolled the area in front of the back four, Kolo Toure and Alex Song kept United’s wandering forwards in check and Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna generally kept the flanks sewn up. Occasionally, the visitors would try a counter-attack. But it became pretty obvious, pretty quickly, that anyone expecting this game to end 3-2 would be disappointed.

Incredibly, someone had expected that scoreline. Even more incredibly, it was a member of United’s 1979 cup final side. Lou Macari, writing in the match programme, predicted a 3-2 win for United.

“We’ve seen some cracking games between these sides over the years and with the Gunners out to avenge their European exit, they might push the Reds all the way today,” Macari wrote.

He was right on the pushing-all-the-way front, but not in the way he expected.

So successful were Arsenal in blunting United’s attack that, midway through the second half, Sir Alex Ferguson decided to match their formation. That involved bringing off the popular Tevez, to the audible dismay of the home fans and the visible despair of the Argentinian.

While he didn’t quite reach Cristiano Ronaldo levels of head-shaking, Tevez still looked rather miffed. Given that United seem reluctant to pay the £25m it would cost them to buy Tevez from Kia Joorabchian, that moment may yet turn out to be Tevez’s Old Trafford goodbye. On the other hand, there’s still a whole summer to sort this one out. Put it this way: Betfred is only offering odds of 5/4 on Tevez still being a United player come August 15.

United were hanging on a little at the end, but got the draw they needed to be crowned Premier League champions for the third year running. Rarely has a 0-0 draw been greeted with such glee at Old Trafford. This was the season when their record breakers were in defence. It has been rather a slog.

Not that the home fans cared too much. “Eighteen times, and that’s a fact,” they chanted, enjoying an 18th domestic league title, and drawing level with Liverpool’s total.

Eleven of those are Premier League titles, and Ryan Giggs has been around for all of them. “Now we will start preparing for Barcelona,” he told Radio Five Live afterwards. “Although obviously we’ve got Hull first.”

Phil Brown may just spot a glimmer of hope in the race for Premier League survival then, particularly after today’s 1-1 draw at Bolton lifted them out of the bottom three. That means a win over United next Sunday would see Hull stay up, whatever their relegation rivals did.

Would United send their best possible team to the KC Stadium next weekend, just three days before the Champions League final? Only Ferguson currently knows the answer to that question.

But with the top four Premier League slots done and dusted, and with the only remaining Europa League place likely to go to Fulham, the top flight only has two remaining pieces of serious business – who goes down to the Championship, and who takes the final Premier League spot that Coppell and Reading were denied in the play-offs.

In both cases, whoever loses out can expect to be asked the same question that Coppell faced 30 years ago this week.


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