BY IAN CASTLE
April 1980 proved to be the most exhausting month in the club’s history. In the 30 days between 2 April and 1 May Arsenal played 11 games – five in the league and six cup ties. Incredibly, although we only won three of those games we still entered the history books.
I went up to Hillsborough for the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool on 12 April; it was not a memorable match. The game ended 0–0 prompting The Observer to report ‘that this was a match from which no one was due a victory. Rarely can so many gifted players have combined to produce so much scuffling mundanity’.
The replay at Villa Park followed four days later and provided a far more competitive game, but again it ended with the scores level. And so it went on. Three days after the replay, one of those oddities of the League calendar meant we played Liverpool in the League at Anfield – another 1-1 draw – then the Cup marathon continued at Villa Park with yet another 1–1 stalemate.
Finally, in the third replay three days later, at Coventry, when I’m sure the players must have hated the sight of each other, we won. A Brian Talbot goal early in the game secured a 1–0 victory. That series of four games, lasting seven hours, has entered the record books as the longest ever semi-final tie in history. With tied games now decided by penalty shoot-outs, it will remain there for all time. I must therefore take my hat off to my friend Steph and her father Gerry who demonstrated stamina equal to the players by attending every game. But as the tie had taken so long to resolve we now had only nine days to wait for the Final – this time our opponents were West Ham United of Division Two. Another FA Cup appeared within reach.
However, remarkable as it may seem, during the Liverpool marathon we also played a two-legged European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final against Juventus, the favourites to win the competition. I feel exhausted just thinking about it all.
The first leg at Highbury developed into one of those games that typified the British view of Italian football at the time; niggling fouls, outrageous challenges - ‘dirty tricks’ as one newspaper called it - and in-depth defending. In the end the game revolved around the Italian forward Roberto Bettega. Only eleven minutes into the game he latched on to a poor back pass and broke into the penalty area; a desperate attempt by Brian Talbot to save the situation saw Bettega tumble and the referee point to the spot. 1–0 to Juventus.
About ten minutes later Bettega’s over the top challenge on David O’Leary saw our Irish defender carried off on a stretcher. Then, a few minutes later, Marco Tardelli, booked in the melee that surrounded the challenge on O’Leary, hacked down Liam Brady and got his marching orders. The crowd was baying for blood. One man down but a goal ahead, the Italians withdrew into their shell.
There seemed no way through the solid 10-man defence, until, with just five minutes left on the clock, Brady took a free kick out on the right. In a crowded, anxious penalty area, the ball flicked off the shoulder of Bettega, past Dino Zoff and into the net. Final score 1–1. But Juventus, with an away goal, had the advantage, and having just witnessed their defensive qualities – well for 85 minutes anyway - I, like most other fans, could see our European dream coming to an end in two weeks’ time.
By the time the game came around I had convinced myself we’d lose. On top of everything else, no British club had ever won there before, nor, for that matter, had any other European team for the past ten years. I listened to the first half on the radio (no such thing as TV coverage of anything as unimportant as a European semi-final) with increasing fatalism. Juventus demonstrated little enthusiasm in pressing for another goal, preferring to rely on their solid defence to see them through on the away goals rule. At half time the score remained 0–0 and stayed like that into the second half. Depressed by the whole thing I retired to the bathroom with the radio and wallowed disconsolately in the bath as the clock ticked down.
Unexpected gifts remain long in the memory and so it was that night. With just two minutes to play, and with the sound of the already boisterously celebrating Juventus fans in Turin penetrating all the way to my bathroom in Hertfordshire, Graham Rix got the ball out on the left, just like he had done at Wembley a year earlier. He moved forward, noticed Dino Zoff at the near-post, and so floated a high cross into the penalty area. Advancing unmarked toward the far post, 18-year-old substitute Paul Vaesson leapt to meet it and head home. It silenced the Italian crowd in an instant – everyone knew what that goal meant. Sitting in my bath it probably took me a half second longer. Then, like Vaesson, I too leapt into the air - and screamed. And as we all learnt at school, for every action there is a reaction; in this instance my action caused a flood of tsunami magnitude to sweep unstoppably across the bathroom floor.
An historic moment in the history of Arsenal Football Club but also, sadly, the highpoint of Vaesson’s all too short injury-ravaged career. Forced to retire from football aged just 21, his life took a downward spiral, leading to his premature death in tragic circumstances eighteen years later. But in April 1980 his face shone out from the back page of every newspaper, hailed the Hero of Turin.
The above is an extract from a chapter in “Arsenal – The Agony and the Ecstasy”, a new book by Ian Castle.