After a distinguished season in which they had come to expect victory even on their poorer days, Liverpool suffered the rare irony of playing well and losing in Saturday's excellent FA Cup Final at Wembley. With their 2-1 defeat by Manchester United went the hopes of an illustrious treble, also embracing the championship and European Cup. Too much was expected of them and when the moment came to draw on the strength that had previously been so reliably summoned, there was not enough left.
Yet this was not a day when sympathy ranked high among the emotions. Liverpool had already enjoyed one prize-giving when retaining the championship title and on Wednesday in Rome they may revive their spirits in time to lift the European Cup in another final against Borussia Moenchengladbach. Such is their proven resilience that the tears of disappointment can quickly turn to those of pleasure. The treble would have been the fully ripened fruit of a decade but perhaps it was too perfect, too tidy for the ever unpredictable game of football.
Similarly, it would have been a less interesting Cup final had the majority of predictions been satisfied. On the day little went according to preconceptions except the fulfilment of hopes for a match to restore the full value of the occasion. Although Liverpol set off in character, carefully preparing their ground, they expanded into an attacking style far earlier than was expected. Manchester United began by looking better than at any time in their defeat by Southampton a year before but, surprisingly, it was doing what came unnaturally, defending, that formed a foundation for victory. Near the end of a first half of quite sufficient interest the feeling was that United were ill-equipped for the second when Liverpool could hardly fail to take the chances they were making. United had conceded midfield and were magnificently saved from a slaughter by the composure of Brian Greenhoff, Buchan and Albiston, the young replacement for Houston.
The proposal that Liverpool would do no more than absorb United's attacks until well into the second half was clearly not their own.
Kennedy's header down towards the near corner of United's goal was instantly thrust away by Stepney's foot or else they would have received rightful reward for unquestionable superiority, but as the half ended Jimmy Greenhoff was almost able to score as a direct result of a careless interception by Hughes. It was the loudest whisper of encouragement for United since Hill made Clemence turn his menacing centre onto the crossbar after a quarter of an hour.
Five minutes into the second half the match seemed to breast the hill and suddenly there was a new horizon, totally different to the one we had expected. Hughes and Smith failed to hold Jimmy Greenhoff, who had always troubled them. His back header dropped under Pearson's control but he was moving too wide. Clemence would surely cover the angle. The shot was too late, too close to Clemence and aimed at the remnants of a target at the near post. But the ball was well struck. Clemence was still moving too quickly to turn on his side and it hit the net before he fell.
As the "Stretford End" at Wembley celebrated, one wondered whether this goal was not also the invitation to United's downfall. Liverpool's counter-punch is their speciality and, sure enough, within three minutes Case was allowed time to control a centre, turn and shoot past Stepney for another goal plucked from the eye of a crisis. It was at this moment that Liverpool would normally have begun to stride out. Here, though, their powers failed. In another two minutes Smith was caught out by the speed of Macari and Jimmy Greenhoff and his own advancing years. Macari came alongside in support of Greenhoff and took over. His shot hit Greenhof sufficiently hard to deflect wide of Clemence and into the Liverpool goal.
Tension, too often the enemy of such occasions, now held the game in a fascinating grip. There was still plenty of time for Liverpool and too much for United. Buchan had the responsibility for planning Manchester's long defence. Liverpool planned their long attack from the bench. They withdrew Johnson and sent Callaghan into the field, but it was Fairclough, the unpredictable youngster being saved for Rome, who really needed to challenge Greenhoff's command in the penalty area. They missed more chances and so United survived. If Liverpool's dream was finished in five minutes, the day and domestic season was completed with perfection by the generosity of their players and supporters in defeat and the delight of United's manager, Tommy Docherty, at last a winner after eight visits to Wembley.
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