It was inevitable that when Tottenham Hotspur lost their FA Cup semi-final to Chelsea, the media would take great delight in jumping on a rather unwanted record. Since the club overcame Arsenal en route to their ultimate triumph in 1991, they have now lost seven FA Cup semis in a row, culminating in that 4-1 reverse at Wembley in 2017. But it wasn’t always this way: in the 1980s through to 1991, Tottenham won at the last-four stage on four successive occasions. Many of the games in question will live long in the memory, but while it would be obvious – from a nostalgia point of view – to look at the ‘Gascoigne’ semi versus Arsenal in ’91, an equally comfortable – if less dramatic – game had been played out at a rather unlikely venue ten years earlier.
In 2016/17, Spurs, under the guidance and vision of manager Mauricio Pochettino seem to have a team that is capable of competing on all fronts, but back in the early 1980s, they were considered as a ‘cup side’, one that could adequately compete in the knockout tournaments but would be unable to sustain a challenge over a long league campaign. In the present day, online sports bookmaker Betway Sports has published research concluding that the current Tottenham side are overachieving, upsetting the odds to beat Chelsea and Manchester City amongst others. In 1981, however, the opposite was true, with a talented squad featuring the likes of Glenn Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles, Graham Roberts and current Brighton manager Chris Hughton having little or no impact at the top of the first division.
At the end of that 1980/81 campaign, Keith Burkinshaw’s team finished in a mid-table tenth place with 43 points, some 17 points behind eventual champions Aston Villa. That’s a modest average of 1.02 points per game but typically of Spurs teams around that time, they were averaging a relatively healthy 1.66 goals for each match. They scored 70 but let in 68 and that’s a record that is not going to win any league medals for those involved. Further evidence of their prowess in front of goal came in that 1980/81 winning cup run, where 19 goals were scored in nine games at a ratio above two per match. Fortunately for the club’s supporters, the defence managed to keep things tight enough this time.
Route to Wembley
Through the earlier rounds, Tottenham had benefited from playing all of their matches in London and, after a tense 0-0 draw at QPR in their opening tie, the next four games came at their White Hart Lane home. After a 3-1 win over Rangers in the third round replay, Hull City, Coventry City and Exeter City were chronologically dispatched until it was time to meet Wolves in the semi. In the days before Wembley semi-finals, Tottenham fans emerged tentatively out of the capital to make the journey north to Hillsborough.
An eventful first game saw Wolves’ Kenny Hibbitt ‘win’ a dubious penalty to seal a 2-2 draw in the 90th minute and send the match to a replay. Back in the 1980s, the FA Cup meant more to clubs and fans, and it sometimes needed more than one game to decide those semi-finals – where, naturally, the concept of neutral ground should prevail. It felt slightly odd, therefore, that that second match was to be played at Highbury.
Home from home
Spurs were back in London again and bizarrely, their fans occupied the favoured North Bank of bitter local rivals Arsenal. Of the 52,539 crowd, those of us in attendance felt that Wolves fans accounted for around 10% of that sum. Certainly, the choice of venue made it feel like a home game for Tottenham and that put the men in Old Gold at a distinct disadvantage. Spurs took an early lead as a lobbed pass from Hoddle fell into the path of Garth Crooks, who calmly nodded it past Bradshaw in the Wolverhampton goal. A second Crooks’ effort followed in the first period as he ran onto a trademark, slide-rule pass from Hoddle to double the margin and it remained 2-0 at the break.
The second half was unremarkable other than for Spurs’ dominance and a moment of brilliance from Ricardo Villa. The Argentine was already uncertain of his place in this side, but he was already a cult hero with supporters and he had the ability to hit the ball with tremendous power with virtually no back-lift. Such an effort burst past Bradshaw and sealed the game at 3-0. It wasn’t particularly a remarkable game other than the fact that the FA somehow decided to turn the replay into a home match for Spurs. Also, it’s a timely reminder for fans that this club was once able to breeze through FA Cup semi-finals.