Can you name the first player ever to score a goal in FA Cup finals for two different clubs? Like myself before I researched this article, I think most football fans would have to browse Google to come up with the correct answer.
I should add that I’m discounting the unfortunate Tommy Hutchinson, who scored for both sides in the original 1981 FA Cup final between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur!
In fact, the man responsible for first achieving that feat was none other than former Arsenal and Manchester United striker Frank Stapleton.
The quiet Irishman scored Arsenal’s second goal (ironically against United, the club he had supported as a young lad) in 1979’s showdown, which the Gunners won 3-2 with a dramatic last-minute Alan Sunderland goal.
Trust me, it was more traumatic than dramatic for your then eight-year-old United-supporting author. It remains the most heartbreaking defeat I have suffered in my 43 years of following United; the only time I have ever cried tears of despair after a game.
After transferring to Old Trafford for £900,000 to become new United boss Ron Atkinson’s first signing in August 1981, Stapleton claimed the record when he equalised Gordon Smith’s early opener for underdogs Brighton in the 1983 decider. That original game finished in a 2-2 draw but United won the replay convincingly to bring Stapleton a second FA Cup winners’ medal.
Born in Dublin on 10 July 1956, the eldest son of Mick and Chrissie, Frank Stapleton had trials with his boyhood idols at Manchester United, but didn’t make the grade. Undaunted, the young Dubliner impressed enough with junior sides in the Irish capital to get noticed by an Arsenal scout in 1972. He travelled over to North London as a quiet but determined 16-year-old in late 1972. After the incredible ‘high’ of winning the League and FA Cup double in 1970-71, the Arsenal side Stapleton was joining was going into a slow but steady decline under the authoritarian figure of Bertie Mee.
Despite feeling homesick, Stapleton quickly recognised the need to work harder than anyone else at the club if he was to succeed in English football. Instead of heading for the pub, golf course or pool hall after training, Frank stayed behind to work on developing his game. He was desperate to maximise his potential and progress through the underage teams at Arsenal.
Hard work pays off…
All his hard work paid off, eventually. Frank Stapleton made his first-team debut for Arsenal, aged just 18, against Stoke City at Highbury on 29 March 1975. He was eventually substituted for another young Dubliner, Liam Brady, as the game finished in a 1-1 draw.
His second game came the following season, on 6 September at home to Leicester City, and he marked the occasion by scoring his first goal in senior football in a 1-1 stalemate. Amongst his teammates in that Gunners side was a certain Alan Ball. No doubt the little flame-haired England midfielder had a big influence on young Stapleton behind the scenes.
Also in that team, besides Brady, was another young Dublin lad, centre-half David O’Leary, as well as Irish full-back Terry Mancini and Northern Ireland’s Pat Rice. In fact, there were only three Englishmen in the Arsenal starting XI: Alan Ball, goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer and former Manchester United striker Brian Kidd!
Three days later Frank came on as a second-half substitute for Mancini in a League Cup second round tie at Everton, and enhanced his standing at the club further by grabbing a late goal for Arsenal in a 2-2 draw.
Two weeks later he found the back of the Everton net again, this time in a Division One encounter at Highbury which again finished at 2-2.
Those early career goals helped pave the way for Stapleton to become a regular starter in an Arsenal side that largely struggled with the weight of the fans’ expectations. Instead of going on to dominate English football in the early years of the 1970s decade as some pundits felt they might after clinching the double in 1971, Mee’s Arsenal slipped back to relative mid-table (or indeed lower-table) obscurity. They were a dour, defensive team that mostly played a ‘direct’ style of football, despite having the substantial creative talents of Alan Ball in their midfield from late 1971 onwards.
By the end of that first breakthrough season of 1975-76, young Stapleton had made 28 appearances for the Gunners, scoring five goals. The team, however, had finished in a lowly 17th position in the league with only 36 points from 42 games. That was just six points above relegated Wolves. It was poor enough to persuade the club board to ask Bertie Mee to step aside, as former Northern Ireland international Terry Neill took charge of team affairs.
After a fairly unhappy four years at Highbury, Alan Ball also departed, though quite surprisingly he opted to join Second Division outfit Southampton.
Gunning with “Super Mac”…
The arrival of Neill into the manager’s office was accompanied by the summer purchase of Newcastle United and England hotshot Malcolm Macdonald for big money, just under £335,000. The arrival of such fierce competition for the strikers’ shirts could have been a disheartening turn of events for young Stapleton. Instead, and perhaps another indicator of the competitive drive within the young man, Frank rose to the challenge. He formed a lethal partnership with his explosive new strike-partner during 1976-77.
Between them, Stapleton and Macdonald terrorised England’s top-flight defences all season. “Super Mac” ended the campaign with 29 goals from 50 appearances; Stapleton had 17 goals from 49 games.
It was more than enough to persuade the Republic of Ireland player-manager Johnny Giles to call Stapleton up for his first senior cap. That was against Turkey in a friendly international on 13 October 1976. Frank opened the scoring in Ankara just THREE MINUTES into his debut, heading home a Giles free-kick in a game that finished as a 3-3 draw.
However, by the end of Terry Neill’s first season in charge, even the prolific striking duo’s goals (only three sides scored more than Arsenal’s 64 goals that season) could only carry the team to eighth place in the league table. They conceded almost as many goals as they scored. Nonetheless, it was progress, certainly better than constantly striving just to stay clear of the relegation battle.
On a personal level, though, Stapleton was now regarded as an established top-flight hitman. He was a great foil for the lethal Macdonald, and in the words of his hugely talented teammate Liam Brady, “the best header of a ball that I’ve ever seen”.
In the penalty area, Frank Stapleton was absolutely fearless. He also had that supreme calm that only the very best strikers possess, which enabled him to finish chances when under fierce pressure from opposition defenders. As alluded to by Brady’s compliment above, Stapleton was already gaining a reputation as one of the biggest aerial threats in the English game, exceptionally gifted when it came to directing headers where he wanted them to go.
Proving hard to beat
The following season, 1977-78, things continued to improve for both Arsenal and Stapleton. Now part of a feared double-act with Macdonald, Frank Stapleton became the Gunners’ top scorer, notching 19 goals in 51 games in all competitions. Behind them, the team continued to evolve. A strong spine formed, from big Pat Jennings in goal, through O’Leary and Willie Young in the centre of the defence, to Brady, Brian Talbot and Graham Rix in midfield.
In the league, Arsenal became a side that was very hard to beat, the vast majority of their 11 defeats that season decided by a single goal. At the other end, Stapleton and Macdonald plundered the lion’s share of their 60 goals. That was enough to take Terry Neill’s side up to a fifth-place finish, though still 12 points shy of eventual League champions Nottingham Forest.
However, in the cup competitions, that hard to beat trait carried them through to the League Cup semi-final stage, which was narrowly lost 2-1 over two legs to Bob Paisley’s powerful Liverpool team.
They went one better in the FA Cup, though, reaching Wembley on 6 May 1978 for a final showdown with Bobby Robson’s dynamic young Ipswich Town side. However, on the day, they were beaten much more convincingly than the resultant 1-0 scoreline would suggest. Stapleton and Macdonald were starved of service on the big Wembley pitch as the Suffolk side dominated possession for most of the game. Only the legendary Pat Jennings’ heroics and their own woodwork saved Arsenal from a much heavier defeat than Roger Osborne’s solitary goal.
Tragedy strikes the “Mac”; Frank becomes ‘Top Gun’
The arrival of 1978-79 promised much for both Arsenal and Stapleton, but the season was only just over a week old when tragedy struck his strike partner Malcolm Macdonald. In a League Cup tie at Rotherham United on 29 August, Macdonald sustained a serious knee injury which would end his career prematurely at the age of 29. To add insult to that injury, Arsenal crashed to a humiliating 3-1 defeat at Millmoor.
That unfortunate event effectively promoted Stapleton to the position of becoming the club’s lead forward, indeed arguably Arsenal’s ONLY genuine striker at that time. He was thereafter partnered up front in most games by erstwhile attacking midfielder Alan Sunderland.
As far as the league campaign was concerned, the loss of a player of Malcolm Macdonald’s stature and ability just a few days into the new season had the sort of negative impact you would expect it to have. Arsenal were still competitive. Stapleton was even more determined than ever to underline his own predatory abilities now that he was the main spearhead of the Gunners’ attacks. That resulted in Frank increasing his personal “goals for” tally to 28 goals in all competitions, having played 59 games across the Division One, League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup formats.
However, the side slipped back to a seventh-place finish in the league table. Too many drawn games (14 draws in a 42-game season) cost them any chance of challenging runaway champions Liverpool, who finished a full 20 points ahead of Terry Neill’s men. The 17 league goals Stapleton scored in a total of 41 Division One appearances would be the best seasonal return of his career.
Arsenal’s UEFA Cup campaign ended after a 2-1 aggregate loss to Red Star Belgrade in Round Three. That was despite Stapleton bagging four goals over the six games Arsenal played in the competition. However, all of those goals came in the first round ties against East Germans Lokomotiv Leipzig.
Up for the cup!
It was the FA Cup that would save the season, and provide Terry Neill with the only major trophy of his lengthy tenure at Highbury. A colossal tussle with Sheffield Wednesday in the Third Round took FOUR replays to settle in Arsenal’s favour. The Gunners then battled past Notts County, Nottingham Forest, Southampton and Wolves to reach Wembley.
There, on 12 May, they met Stapleton’s childhood club, Manchester United. The team that Neill selected for the game read as follows:
Pat Rice (c), David O’Leary, Willie Young, Sammy Nelson;
Liam Brady, Brian Talbot, David Price, Graham Rix;
Alan Sunderland, Frank Stapleton.
The substitute was defender Steve Walford, who replaced David Price on 83 minutes as Terry Neill attempted to shut up shop.
The first half couldn’t have gone better for the Londoners. Brian Talbot’s early goal settled any nerves they may have had. When Liam Brady waltzed through the United rearguard and crossed for Stapleton to head firmly into Gary Bailey’s right-hand corner just before the break, it was no less than Arsenal deserved. They had a 2-0 half-time lead.
United, by contrast, appeared toothless and riddled with nerves on the big Wembley pitch. With just ten minutes remaining in the game, they had barely caused the Arsenal defence to even break a sweat. It looked like it would be an unexpectedly easy victory for the Gunners.
Then, in one of the most dramatic finishes ever seen in a cup final, United suddenly awoke and scored two quick-fire goals in the space of four minutes. First Gordon McQueen stabbed home a loose ball in the box. Then moments later a marvellous individual finish from Sammy McIlroy levelled the game at 2-2 and had everyone’s thoughts turning to extra-time. All of a sudden it was the men in red shirts from Manchester who looked energised, the yellow-shirted Gunners weary and demoralised.
However, in a last foray, as the clock ran down, Arsenal broke on a swift counter-attack. Even with his yellow socks down around his ankles, a tiring Brady found Rix moving down the left flank. Rix spotted Alan Sunderland making a charge into the United penalty area. His deep, high cross evaded the sprawling, clawing Gary Bailey to fall perfectly for the in-rushing Sunderland to hook into the unguarded United net ahead of a despairing lunge from Arthur Albiston.
As tears of anguish rolled down your youthful author’s cheeks, an ecstatic Frank Stapleton climbed the famous old Wembley steps to claim his first winners’ medal in senior football. It wouldn’t be his last, either.
1979-80: Falling at the final hurdles…
Season 1979-80 turned into a bit of a marathon for Arsenal, involved as they were in both the Charity Shield season opener (lost 3-1 to Liverpool) and European Cup-Winners’ Cup competition, as well as the traditional domestic trophies. Stapleton ended up making a total of 67 appearances for the club, scoring 23 goals. However, it would prove to be too long a season for Arsenal as they ran out of steam at just the wrong moments…
Their League Cup campaign got off to an unbelievable start, as they thrashed Leeds United 7-0 at Highbury on 4 September to win 8-1 on aggregate, though Stapleton surprisingly only claimed a single goal in that game. However, after battling past Southampton and Brighton to reach the quarter-final stage, they surprisingly got held to a 1-1 draw at home by lowly Swindon Town. They then sensationally lost the replay 4-3 at the County Ground, despite Neill fielding a full-strength team.
Their European Cup-Winners’ Cup adventure had much to admire about it. The Gunners proudly represented England, despite usually fielding only a handful of Englishmen in the side. Then again, a few years later Arsène Wenger would eventually field an Arsenal team without any natives in it! They battled past Fenerbahçe, FC Magdeburg, and IFK Göteborg to reach the semi-final stage. There they overcame the formidable challenge of Italian giants Juventus, winning 2-1 on aggregate over the two legs, including a superb 1-0 win in Turin in the second game.
The Cup-Winners’ Cup final, staged at the soon-to-be infamous Heysel Stadium in Brussels on 14 May 1980, witnessed a dour struggle against Spanish giants Valencia. Despite an array of attacking talent on the pitch, the game was unable to produce a goal after 120 turgid minutes of defensive inertia. By now the Arsenal lads had been playing week in, week out for over nine months.
Surprisingly, the opening penalty kicks in the shoot-out to decide a winner were both missed by no lesser figures than Liam Brady and Argentina’s 1978 World Cup-winning hero Mario Kempes. Frank Stapleton kept a cool head to convert his kick for Arsenal, but the Gunners dramatically lost out 5-4 when Graham Rix missed the first of the sudden-death kicks.
Beaten by Brooking
That shattering defeat in Belgium had rounded off a dreadful week for everyone connected with Arsenal. The previous Saturday the Gunners had faced West Ham United at Wembley in a bid to successfully defend the FA Cup they’d won so dramatically a year earlier. They had reached the decider only after a titanic semi-final battle with champions Liverpool, which took a THIRD replay to settle in their favour.
However, despite being overwhelming favourites against a West Ham side who were in the Second Division at that time, Arsenal conspired to lose 1-0 to an early Trevor Brooking diving header. They had spent much of the game in possession. However, Stapleton cut a frustrated figure at the final whistle as the Hammers’ defence, and ‘keeper Phil Parkes in particular, successfully dealt with everything a tired Arsenal side could muster in attack.
Despite having a miserly defence that conceded only 36 goals in the 42 games they played, Arsenal ended the league season with a debilitating 16 draws and having scored just 52 goals. The quiet Irishman had notched 14 goals in 39 league appearances; strike partner Alan Sunderland also grabbed 14 goals. It was enough for a fourth-place finish. That may have been viewed more favourably with time but for the bitter disappointment of two lost cup finals in rapid succession, which clouded the season as a whole.
Losing the considerable talents of talisman Liam Brady to Juventus during the summer of 1980 didn’t improve the mood of Gunners fans either.
Of course, by now Frank Stapleton was not just an established star for his club, but also for his country. By the end of the 1979-80 season, he had won 17 caps for Eire and scored 3 goals, including the opener against Denmark in a European Championship qualifier in Copenhagen on 24 May 1978. However, the Republic suffered a number of near-misses as far as qualification for major Finals was concerned. They, and Stapleton, wouldn’t appear at a Finals tournament until Euro 1988 in Germany, by which time Stapleton’s powers were very much on the wane.
Heading into the new 1980-81 domestic season, the aim at Highbury was simple. After several years of top-half finishes, Arsenal were expected to mount a serious challenge for the league title, despite the loss of Brady. Promising young left-back Kenny Sansom had been brought in from Crystal Palace and experienced ex-Chelsea midfielder John Hollins from QPR.
The opening day of the league season saw Stapleton grab the only goal at West Brom to give the team a winning start.
However, consistency in performance evaded the team throughout the season, enough to leave them lagging too far behind long-time front-runners Ipswich Town and Aston Villa going into the final stretch.
The stinging irony came with a superb unbeaten run of nine games to finish the season. During that run, Arsenal defeated both Ipswich (a crucial 2-0 victory at Portman Road which contributed hugely to Bobby Robson’s side ultimately losing the title race) and Aston Villa. The Villains were, nonetheless, crowned champions of England at Highbury despite having lost 2-0 to their hosts on the closing day of the season.
No-one (including Stapleton himself) knew it at the time, but that 2-0 win over Aston Villa on 2 May 1981 would be his last ever game for Arsenal. The club had climbed to 3rd place on the back of that unbeaten run, but once again too many drawn games (15 this time) had killed their chance to claim the league crown for themselves.
‘Big Ron’ comes calling
The summer witnessed Manchester United finally lose patience with the pragmatic Dave Sexton. He was sacked so that charismatic West Brom boss ‘big’ Ron Atkinson could take the hot seat at Old Trafford. That event had ramifications for Frank Stapleton because Atkinson had identified the quiet but consistently lethal Irishman as the striker he wanted to lead the United attack into a new era.
Join me again next time as we look back at Frank’s time with Manchester United, the club he had supported as a boy, and the club at which he would consolidate his reputation as a top-class finisher.