This Sunday’s quarter final against Millwall may be White Hart Lane’s last ever hosting of an FA Cup game in its present incarnation but the famous old ground’s spiritual farewell took place six weeks ago.
On a chilly Saturday afternoon in late January Spurs traded a succession of blows with a Wycombe side 76 places below them in the league before ultimately staging a late, late revival to complete a headline-grabbing 4-3 victory. It was a humdinger of a tie chock-full of every magical ingredient that continues to make the FA Cup an unmissable spectacle: an underdog surpassing their limitations before succumbing to cruel fate; last-gasp drama; and fans jubilant on the pitch.
When the cup is this good it makes Christmas episodes of Eastenders look tame by comparison and it was a fitting send-off for a ground that has seen more than its fair share of memorable tournament clashes in its 118 years. They merge to a montage in our memories bookended by the double-winning side’s battering of Sunderland in ’61 to Gazza dancing through the Oxford defence several generations later.
If the seven-goal thriller against Wycombe was a love-letter from four stands to a football institution then it is entirely apt – or ironic depending on your perception – that the Lane’s most incredible FA Cup game was also a 4-3, only this time it was Spurs traipsing off dejected and wondering what on earth just happened. So unbelievable was the outcome there are probably some who were present that evening still wondering even now.
When Kevin Keegan’s Manchester City travelled to the capital in February 2004 for a fourth round replay they had the added motivation of knowing a trip to Old Trafford lay in store for the victors. Due to a stuttering campaign in the league, a League Cup exit at the hands of Spurs back in October, and a UEFA Cup loss to a side in Groclin Dyskobolia who sounded more like a stomach complaint this also represented the Blues’ last hope of silverware. Better still Spurs – at least by the usual high standards – were there for the taking, still righting themselves after a disastrous opening to the season that saw Glenn Hoddle sacked, and not doing a particularly great job of it either. Even so, with a strike force containing Robbie Keane there were always goals, always hope.
A second minute head-start courtesy of Ledley King was followed soon after by a typically nonchalant Keane finish, and the commentator on the night was moved to declare the contest over with most of the first half still to play. He seemed to be proven correct just before the break when Christian Zeige floated home a fabulous free-kick with City’s capitulation complete moments later when Joey Barton’s DNA kicked in and he saw red. After the half time whistle.
Three goals down and a man short with 45 still to go. That cup derby at Old Trafford waiting in the next round seemed a parallel universe away.
For Spurs this was a half of football that could have a profound effect on their immediate future. Still in transition, and always as likely to haemorrhage goals as score them by the bountiful, this was a poor side in desperate need of a fillip. Languishing in mid-table there could be no better boost than a successful cup run.
A Sylvain Distin ‘consolation’ on 48 minutes subdued the party mood while sparking the away supporters into life. They knew a miracle couldn’t be achieved but at least wanted their team to strive for one and suddenly all the noise came from the south west corner.
It grew to feverish excitement when a deflected effort spooned into the Spurs net and with twenty minutes still on the clock the belief was all City’s. Spurs were in humiliation-avoidance mode.
A Shaun Wright-Phillips equaliser on 80 minutes confirmed a very special night was on the cards but surely with a man advantage, David Pleat’s side would still prevail. If nothing else the leg-sapping energy City had used up to claw themselves back into the game would ultimately tell?
It did not. In added-on time a lingering cross was steered home by substitute Jon Macken and all hell broke loose.
These 92 surreal and crazy minutes have consequently gone down as the greatest cup comeback of them all but even that diminishes its achievement. It was no comeback: it was a resurrection from the dead.
Only a Keegan side could come up with something as ridiculous and schizophrenic as this and the City boss perfectly summed up the madness in his post-match interview: “They’ll talk about this game long after we’ve all gone.” It’s hard to disagree.
As for Tottenham they were back in action a mere matter of days later, resuming a league campaign that had largely disappointed. Playing host to Portsmouth it would have been entirely understandable if shell-shock led to a flat display, maybe a 0-1 reverse. Instead they won. They won 4-3. Fair play.