THIRTY ONE years ago today. The 1985 FA Cup semi-final. Probably the most raw, intense atmosphere and drama I have ever experienced.
I doubt it will ever be beaten. I’m not sure I even want it surpassed for it belongs in a different age when, pre-Heysel and pre-Hillsborough, we were allowed to revel somewhat in the madness football brought to a generation.
It was the ultimate melting pot — the FA Cup at the height of its prestige and importance, Liverpool yearning for a first final since 1977, and a sour rivalry with United at its most acute.
Ron Atkinson, the Liverpool-born United boss, a figure of hate for the Reds had taken the loathing for United to new levels.
Big Ron from Old Swan’s flash appearance, perma-tan, jewellery and outspoken high profile were the epitome of Manchester United in the 80s — lacking in substance and style but always in the news.
Liverpool, relentlessly successful, existed, somewhat frustrated by the media shadow cast by the latent might of the nations “best supported” club. The hatred though was mutual, for Liverpool swept all before them while United fed on scraps.
Goodison Park was the perfect venue in more ways than one; a vehicle for violence and unrivalled, uninhibited terrace passion.
The surrounds of Stanley Park and the narrow roads of Walton were a battleground for mobs of young Liverpool and United to engage.
It kicked off again and again in the streets before and after the game. In the ground, too, missiles were traded throughout; the infamous golf balls embedded with nails, described as “Missiles Of Hate” by the tabloids, an expression of the sheer lunacy at work.
Liverpool filled the Gwladys Street and Main Stand sides, while United occupied the Park End and Bullens Road. The respective corners where the two tribes met were in ferment all afternoon.
Insults traded, objects thrown, bile exchanged between gangs of lads who would have gladly kicked each others’ heads in. Not nice, not pretty, and certainly not for the old or faint hearted but the very real by-product of a social backdrop that engineered and fostered exciting, fascinating tribalism. In this case, it was the Scouse “scalls” v United’s Lancastrian “wools”.
Liverpool’s end had a continental look. All part of the show. Liverpool the seasoned, all-conquering European travellers, the Gwladys Street terrace behind one goal awash with the favours not just of Liverpool red and white, but the gold and yellow of AS Roma, and the recently vanquished Panathinaikos.
An insane wind, that never abated all day, stiffened the array of Liverpool flags. It was the quite the show; standing on the end normally inhabited by our local rivals and in the face — literally — of our most bitter rivals.
Sartorial standards were high, too — a stylish consequence of a unique and strong Liverpool sub-culture, but imitated by young football followers all over the country. Replica shirts were rare as hens’ teeth, only for gauche children or the fashion-blind. Partisanship was expressed through guts and vocals, and if colours were worn, a discreet pin badge and the vogue bobble or sun-hat was the limit.
The teams entered separately, the ultimate, yet ferocious pantomime with United and Liverpool roundly roared and whistled on to a sparsely covered Goodison pitch by the respective hordes.
A throbbing, tempestuous, blustery bear pit welcoming Liverpool in yellow with red trim and United in traditional red, white and black; the colour of their socks a nod to the Munich tragedy of 1958.
The game itself was a classic. Prior to kick-off there wouldn’t be much between the sides in the eyes of the bookies. Liverpool, struggling a little to find form during Joe Fagan’s difficult, Souness-less, second season perhaps only marginal favourites. Atkinson’s upstarts, full of quality but yet to fully impose in the league, well capable of outplaying the Reds on the day and with something of an Indian sign over us despite Liverpool’s overall period of domestic and European dominance.
United largely held sway during a tense first half. Midway through the second period, Bryan Robson connected well from a corner, his shot clipping Mark Hughes on the heel to divert the ball past Bruce Grobbelaar. Liverpool toiled; the semi-final jinx about to write another chapter, or so it seemed.
Then, with the clock ticking down ever more rapidly, came a goal fit to grace any game of football — its beauty out of place in this ugly, unruly affair. Ronnie Whelan, called to play a cushioned one-two by an advanced Phil Neal, takes the return and whips a curling, scientific masterpiece, accounting for the viscous gale, beyond the flailing arms of Gary Bailey.
Absolute fucking pandemonium.
Take a look at those scenes on the Gwladys Street and elsewhere. Never has a Liverpool end ever gone off its barnet like that since.
For good measure, as the swaying mass of bodies settles down to berate and taunt the startled United contingent, a distress flare rockets from The Enclosure terrace, its fiery-red glow briefly illuminating the Goodison gloom, before crashing fiercely into the scoreboard at the Park End.
A defiant, aggressive, You’ll Never Walk Alone is reflective of the moment’s aggressive magnitude.
Liverpool rally still further in the closing seconds but can’t force a winner and extra time ensues. The break and resuscitation of aching muscles on the field is an almost invisible backdrop to the riotous celebrations that still continue in the Liverpool sections. War rages between the corner of the Enclosure and Park End terracing.
In the first period, United catch Liverpool on the break and a tiring Frank Stapleton takes a pot shot which deflects beyond the reach of Grobbelaar. Utter, utter deflation and now, 105 minutes through this sapping drama, exhaustion for all Reds on and off the pitch.
Again, it looks like the end and more FA Cup heartbreak at the hands of these United bastards.
Somehow the team, maybe more so than the dejected, knackered fans, raise themselves for one last herculean effort.
With literally seconds remaining, an ageing Kenny Dalglish, virtually anonymous all afternoon, wins a ball from Gordon Strachan wide of the left, his studs showing.
He then swings over an arrowed, peach of a left-footed cross which is met by Ian Rush’s head at the far post.
Bailey, miraculously claws his effort from under the crossbar only for the ball to drop and bounce dramatically in the goalmouth as time stands still.
For the first time all day, there’s a millisecond of silence — which is punctuated by another moment of insane celebration as little Paul Walsh scuttles in to the rescue and, in his own words, is on hand to “bundle it in”.
This time, the let off isn’t quite so intense. It’s the last act of the day but thousands go through another mad ritual of terrace gymnastics, this time tinged with disbelief.
A remarkable 2-2 draw, after extra-time. The most visceral meeting of two warring football factions. The battles recommenced outside and local publicans assessed their losses.
When the dust settled, we reconvened in Manchester, at City’s Maine Road four days later, where United prevailed and another night of insanity followed.
But Goodison, in April 1985, stands out. It will never be the same again, for good and bad.