A TV Transformation: The 1990 FA Cup Semi-Finals were the Original Super Sunday

A TV Transformation: The 1990 FA Cup Semi-Finals were the Original Super Sunday
14:47, 19 Apr 2018

In an era of round the clock broadcasting and blanket football coverage it’s hard to imagine just how momentous the FA Cup semi-finals of 1990 were as the BBC broadcast two, live, back-to-back games, on the same afternoon for the first time in history; what’s more they produced 13 goals in one of the greatest helpings of Sunday football ever seen.

Prior to 1990 FA Cup semi-finals usually took place on the same day and at the same time as every other top-flight league game in the country with the odd exception of a live match on terrestrial TV; but in the spring of 1990 that was all about to change for good.

That season the BBC announced they would be showing not just both fixtures live but also on the same day one after the other, initially there was scepticism among a public which was largely suspicious of any increase in the pitiful amount of football which currently graced our screens.

"It is a poor and unimaginative idea," wrote Peter Corrigan in the Observer. "The danger of the entire exercise being a drag is not all that slim." Maybe to appease such sceptics the BBC revealed that Crystal Palace against Liverpool was to kick-off at midday and Manchester United’s clash with Oldham at 3.30 pm and were to be split by the regular Sunday omnibus episode of EastEnders.

“Pete and the market traders rally to protect their future while Diane finds that the past won't go away,” is how the Radio Times described the goings on in Albert Square that particular week; but the greatest drama didn’t occur in the Queen Vic or Pete’s market stall but at Villa Park and Maine Road…

12.00pm: Crystal Palace v Liverpool, Villa Park

After an 11.40am start for Match of the Day the first serving on this Sunday lunchtime would be Steve Coppell’s struggling Eagles against Kenny Dalglish’s seemingly all-conquering Liverpool side who were marching towards their 18th league title and perhaps the BBC could have been forgiven for treating this as an Hors d'oeuvre to EastEnders as to most people the game looked like a complete miss match.

Palace were not only struggling at the wrong end of the table but had been thrashed 9-0 by Liverpool at Anfield the previous October leading many to believe history could repeat itself and when Liverpool took a 1-0 lead through Ian Rush on 14 minutes many armchair viewers could have been forgiven for flicking through the other three channels while waiting for their weekly trip to Albert Square.

However, in a plot twist that Dirty Den would have been proud of Palace came back from the dead like Nick Cotton thanks to an equalizer from right-back Mark Bright just 16 seconds into the second half following a surging run from John Pemberton. Incredibly Liverpool were now on the ropes after dominating the game for so long and on the 70th minute Gary O'Reilly put Palace ahead to set up an astonishing last 20 minutes.

Within 10 minutes the tie was turned on its head once more when Steve McMahon smashed Liverpool level after a smart free-kick routine and just 60 seconds later John Barnes appeared to settle the tie when he made no mistake from the spot.

But Palace weren’t done yet and with two minutes remaining they equalised out of nothing once more when Andy Gray pounced on a bobbling ball to head it past a glut of Liverpool defenders and send the tie into extra-time with anyone tuning in for the start of EastEnders witnessing a marvellous 30 minutes of football instead.

Struggling with Palace’s well-drilled set-pieces all afternoon Liverpool were creaking when the Eagles won a corner at the Holt End and Alan Pardew saw his opportunity, arriving late at the far post after a near post flick-on to send the Palace fans into raptures and send the South Londoners and not the men from Merseyside to Wembley.

3.30pm: Manchester United v Oldham Athletic, Maine Road

As these two North West neighbours, separated by barely 10 miles, took the field in the Manchester sunshine an hour or so later Second Division Oldham might well have been inspired by what they had inevitably watched while waiting to take their turn in this TV extravaganza.

Like Palace, Manchester United had spent much of the campaign at the wrong end of the table but the FA Cup had given them and their beleaguered manager something of a lifeline, leading many to think their name was on the trophy; but when Earl Barrett put Joe Royle’s swashbuckling Latics, who were already Wembley-bound in the League Cup, ahead after three minutes the nation held its breath once more with a second shock very much on the cards.

However, United would, not for the first time, call on their very own “Captain Marvel,” Bryan Robson, who had only played a handful of games all season, to rescue them when he burst through to score in his fourth consecutive FA Cup semi-final after 29 minutes; before Neil Webb seemingly settled United’s nerves with a header to put them 2-1 up in the second half and restore normality.

But there was nothing normal about this day and barely three minutes later Ian Marshall struck at the other end to bring Oldham level once more. “What an unbelievable day this has been,” cried BBC commentator Barry Davies - he wasn’t wrong.

So for the second time in one day a semi-final had gone to extra-time, leaving players exhausted, supporters exasperated and BBC schedulers pulling their hair out.

True to form on this craziest of days just two minutes into the extra 30 minutes Danny Wallace latched onto a Brian McClair through ball and scuffed United ahead for the second time only for Roger Palmer, a  former ball boy at Old Trafford and ex-Manchester City player, to score a thoroughly deserved equaliser. "This is the stuff of schoolboy comics!" yelled Davies.

So, after 240 minutes of gripping football,13 goals, upsets, heartache, drama and numerous programming changes the nation was still unsure who it would be meeting Crystal Palace at Wembley in May as Countryfile was about to start.

Four days later, at 7.30pm on a Wednesday night, back at Maine Road and live on the BBC, United finally edged past Oldham at the second attempt after another 120 minutes of high-octane action to secure their place in the final; to the delight of Alex Ferguson and no doubt EastEnders fans everywhere, which only aired twice a week back then – Tuesday and Thursday nights.

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