Tuesday 21 February 2023

The Nearly Men of '76

On Sunday Newcastle United face Manchester United in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley and it comes some 47 years after Newcastle’s only other appearance in the final of the competition otherwise known as the League Cup. On that February day in 1976 it was the other side from Manchester who were the opposition, however, and two years after defeat to Liverpool in the FA Cup final Newcastle were desperate for a first Wembley win since 1955. But although City were not of the same class as Liverpool they were still, nonetheless, a formidable side and seven places above the Magpies in the league table would they prove too much for the men in black and white?

Big Match Special -Pull-out starts on page 31 read the strapline on the front of local newspaper The Journal. But on that day of the final, you did not actually need to get past page one for mention of United’s big Wembley clash. Claims that talk of the flu in United the camp were a tactical ploy had been denounced by manager Gordon Lee and this was front page news. That front page also showed a picture of fans waiting to catch a late night train to the capital from Newcastle’s Central Station the night before. 100,000 spectators would be in attendance at Wembley including a huge contingent from Tyneside.

Whilst much of the rest of the country might have had other things on their mind, and, indeed, “Is She Pregnant?” wondered the Daily Mirror after Princess Anne reportedly went into hospital for a check-up, in Newcastle a certain football match was all anyone could talk about and the local front pages only echoed this.

That Newcastle United reached the 1976 League Cup final was somewhat ironic considering that, according to centre forward Alan Gowling years later, their manager considered cups ‘tin-pot trophies’. Gowling added that his boss was far more interested in the league campaigns and attempting to challenge for the First Division title.

Gordon Lee had taken charge of United in the summer before the 1975-76 season started and in his first season behind the wheel only managed what was for United a third successive 15th-placed finish in the First Division and instead has better luck in the cups. If the league was king you wouldn’t have guessed it!

That season United reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup but, of course, it was the League Cup where they would really make a name for themselves. 

In that competition reserved only for the 92 league clubs it nearly went wrong early on, however, when after demolishing Southport 6-0 in their first match United were then forced into a replay by Bristol Rovers - a side who would finish the season just above the Second Division drop zone. Rovers were eventually beaten though before a 3-1 away win at Queens Park Rangers put United in the quarter-finals where Notts County were dispensed of 1-0 at home. One slight scare along the way but no matter as United were into the semi-finals. 

Despite losing 1-0 away at Tottenham Hotspur in the first leg of their semi-final, United reached the final after a 3-1 win at home where 49,902 saw an early Gowling goal set them on their way to a 3-0 lead with a late Spurs effort not enough for the visitors. 

A trip to the smoke for a date at Wembley Stadium awaited United where, of course, Manchester City would be their opponents. A comfortable second leg 4-0 home win had seen the Citizens defeat Middlesbrough 4-1 in their semi-final having beaten city rivals Manchester United, also 4-0, several rounds earlier.

Even with flu having struck the camp in the lead-up to the final, United still managed to field the same line-up as they had done for their previous match, a 2-1 win over Bolton Wanderers in an FA Cup fifth round second replay at Elland Road. David Craig who’d played in the first of those three fifth round games and their most recent league match, in which they’d lost 2-0 to Liverpool at Anfield, was in fact the only notable absentee.

Gowling was Lee’s preferred target man up front with star centre forward ‘Super Mac’ Malcolm MacDonald having mostly reverted to a wide role since the manager's arrival. Despite this, however, it was Super Mac who would finish the season overall top goalscorer for the club. At left back, Penshaw born Alan Kennedy would later go on to make a name for himself winning titles at Liverpool not to mention scoring the winning goal for them in a European Cup final. At right-back, also from the North East, Fishburn born Irving Natrass would go on to make over 300 appearances for the club before moving to Middlesbrough in 1979. Other players of note in the starting line-up at Wembley included Tommy Cassidy and Tommy Craig. Originally a right back but playing in midfield at the time, the ever-dependable Cassidy would appear in a black and white shirt some 239 times. Also playing in midfield, Glaswegian Tommy Craig, who’d signed from Sheffield Wednesday two years earlier, helped United on their way to the final by setting up Glenn Keeley for United’s second goal against Spurs in the second leg of the semi-finals.

Manchester City fielded an unchanged side from their last match, a 3–0 home league win against Everton. Colin Bell was absent injured, having suffered what would end up being a career-ending injury in the earlier Manchester derby tie, not that he yet knew it. Ex-Sunderland star Dave Watson had been an injury doubt due to a slipped disc but played from the start despite having not trained the week beforehand. 

Also on the field for Manchester City that day was Dennis Tueart who would be facing his hometown club having been born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and supported United as a child. However, the star striker had been signed two years earlier from, like Watson, United’s North East rivals Sunderland. Tueart would have a big impact in the final.

In and around Wembley Stadium fans had gathered from first thing on the morning of the final and the Geordie supporters in black and white were there in their droves to cheer on United, an invasion that Newcastle’s Evening Chronicle proudly celebrated the following Monday. “Who the hell are Newcastle playing? I don’t see any other supporters!” was one supposed quip outside the ground, or so the paper claimed.

By kick-off, the streets outside were empty, however. The famous old home of English football was at full capacity in time for the start and it didn't take those present long to see the ball in the net.  

In fact, it took just 11 minutes for the opening goal to be scored and it was Peter Barnes of Manchester City who claimed it. An Asa Hartford free-kick was hoisted into the box where it was headed across goal and past the heads of the United defence by Mike Doyle for 19-year-old Barnes to hook the ball home and give his side the lead. Could Peter emulate father Ken and help win a Wembley final for the Citizens? Barnes senior had starred in the City side that won the FA Cup final in 1956 - one year after Newcastle’s last Wembley triumph which came against none other than City themselves.

Newcastle had looked the better side up to that point with Super Mac forcing Joe Corrigan in the City goal into an important save but despite this, it was they who were now behind and it was suddenly City who were in the ascendency. 

As the half wore on those in sky blue looked more and more comfortable but when the game's next goal came it was actually Newcastle’s Alan Gowling who found the net. That equaliser came some 24 minutes after the opening goal. It was Cassidy onto the right foot of MacDonald and MacDonald hit the ball across goal for Gowling to slide in with a touch to knock it home. 

Those Newcastle fans who’d turned up in their masses were now jumping about widely waving their scarves and flags in delight as their side had drawn level in the tie.

Twice Dennis Tueart came close to putting Man City back in front before the break but his first effort was thwarted by the leg of Mick Maloney in the Newcastle goal whilst his second was a header that went over the bar. He’d have to wait until the second-half, but shortly after the break Tueart would make it third time lucky and do it in style.

Willie Donachie floated the ball to the head of Tommy Booth at the far post who in turn headed it across to Tueart who with his back to goal performed an audacious overhead kick that bounced beyond the ‘keeper into the bottom left corner of the net. It was a goal Tueart would later describe as the best of his career and one that the great Brian Moore of ITV described as “a really spectacular goal” during his commentary on the game for the television highlights - it was not until 1984 that the League Cup final was first televised live.

City then had further chances as did United. A Joe Royle header was saved whilst a beautiful chip of his caught out Maloney but was ruled offside. Then at the other Micky Burns fired wide for Newcastle before Gowling forced City ‘keeper Joe Corrigan into an excellent save. One last chance for those in sky blue saw a late Booth header touched over the bar before the full-time whistle ended the contest with Manchester City the victors by two goals to one. 

Newcastle had produced plenty of work rate but were perhaps at times a little cautious in possession and in the end it wasn’t to be. It would be runners-up medals only for those players in black and white.

It was yet more Wembley cup despair for Newcastle United coming, of course, just two years after their FA Cup final defeat at the hands of Liverpool. One man who featured in both finals for the Magpies probably felt it more than most and the headline on the back page of the following day’s Sunday Mirror read simply “Mac in Tears” in reference to forward Malcolm MacDonald. On a similar theme, The People went with “Cheers and Tears” for their back page.

Defeat may have hit Super Mac and some of the players hard but seemingly there was little in the way of disheartenment amongst the supporters who’d turned out to watch their heroes, however. Having, according to the following Monday’s Evening Chronicle, already “captured Wembley with pride and passion” those fans were supposedly still in a buoyant mood even after the despair of defeat. That same paper also reported that late into the evening after the game “In city’s West End chants of ‘Howay the Lads’ echoed from group to group”.

As well as describing the Toony Army faithful as still in good spirits the local press also seemed undismayed themselves and “Well Done the lads” were the sentiments exclaimed on the front page of the Chronicle whilst the back page headline read “We Are Not Downhearted”. They also looked forward to United’s upcoming FA Cup quarter-final tie with Derby County and the prospect of potentially returning to Wembley again at the end of the season. (United would sadly lose 4-2 to Derby)

United may have been courageous in defeat but there was definite room for improvement, however, and new signings were apparently the somewhat hurried answer from not just the Evening Chronicle but also morning rival The Journal. Amongst the hard luck story of the match, both newspapers also suggested that manager Lee might be keen to delve into the transfer market and bring in new faces with several potential names mentioned.

It would be 22 years before United next reached a Wembley cup final although the successive FA Cup final defeats in 1998 and 1999 did not heal any wounds. But finally back at Wembley again in 2023 will things be any different, who knows? Hopefully, however, as they return to the League Cup final for the first time since that City affair nearly five decades ago, the Geordie faithful can echo the spirit of 1976 and regardless of the outcome stay in full voice right across London well into the night!

Produced with the help of the British Newspaper Archive

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