As Arsenal’s players trudged off the pitch after losing the 1980 FA Cup final to second-tier West Ham, they knew they had one more chance to ensure their gruelling 67-match campaign did not end without a trophy. Four days after their nightmare at Wembley, they had an opportunity to save their season. The European Cup Winners’ Cup final at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels on 14 May 1980 – 40 years ago today – would either soothe their pain or add salt to their fresh wounds.
“I suppose it is true that last Saturday’s Cup defeat by West Ham has brought us to the edge of a situation we have dreaded for weeks,” said Arsenal manager Terry Neill as he contemplated ending the campaign empty-handed. “If I know anything about these players, they’ll be so determined to make up for it. When they are like that, they are a hell of a force to reckon with.” Neill had to put a brave face on things, but he must have been mightily concerned by his team’s tired performance at Wembley. Could his players somehow raise their game one more time and beat Valencia?
Valencia were hardly giants of European football – they finished sixth in La Liga that season – but Alfredo Di Stéfano was their manager at the time and they had players such as Rainer Bonhof and Mario Kempes in their ranks. After overcoming Rangers in the last-16, they beat Barcelona home and away in the quarter-finals before cruising past Nantes in the semis. The were perceived to be weak at the back but had scored 20 goals in their eight matches in the competition so obviously carried a threat in attack.
With this in mind, the fitness of David O’Leary – who had limped away from Wembley with a calf strain – became a major concern in the short lead-up to the final. Neill told the press that his centre-back would be fit, although O’Leary would need a painkilling injection to get through the match. Midfielder Brian Talbot, who collapsed on the team coach after the FA Cup final due to exhaustion, was also declared fit.
Arsenal had won away at Juventus in a memorable semi-final and were rightfully seen as favourites, but the danger signs were evident in the West Ham defeat. Beating a giant in the semi-final was no guarantee of success. After all, Arsenal had battled through four clashes with Liverpool in the FA Cup before losing to West Ham. Would history repeat itself in Belgium?
On a balmy day in the Belgian capital, it was reported that 29 Arsenal fans were arrested before the match. It was to be a frustrating night for the fans who did make it into the ground. In truth, the match was far from entertaining. Valencia seemed content to keep things tight, with a tired Arsenal team patiently probing for opportunities. It was hardly a surprise when the match – which was shown live on BBC1 – limped into extra-time. Those desperate for the 9.15pm news would have to wait.
The first chance fell to Kempes, the Argentinian thwarted by Pat Jennings as Arsenal somehow dozed off at a throw-in. Frank Stapleton almost gave Arsenal the lead midway through the first half, only to see his header cleared from the line by defender José Carrete. But in a scrappy and often tetchy first half, the same man who denied Stapleton was involved in confrontations with Sammy Nelson, Liam Brady and Graham Rix.
Both teams continued to huff and puff in the second half. In a moment that demonstrated the class that was attracting the scouts of top European clubs, Brady jinked in from the right and tested Carlos Periera with an effort from outside the box. At the other end, a surging run from Bonhof saw Jennings make a trademark stop with his feet.
Arsenal came closest to breaking the deadlock, Pereira saving superbly from Alan Sunderland’s downward header in the 78th minute. Inevitably the match drifted into an extra half hour, but neither team seriously threatened. Sunderland did find the net in the second half, but O’Leary was ruled offside in the build-up.
And so to the dreaded penalty shootout; not that it was that feared back in 1980, such was the freshness of the concept. This was the first club final in Europe to be decided on penalties and John Motson repeatedly explained the process in his commentary.
“And Pat’s saved it,” Motson shrieked as Kempes missed Valencia’s first spot kick. “What a start for Arsenal.” Brady walked forwards, socks around his ankles. “But don’t forget this is just the beginning of the competition,” Motson explained. Pereira then palmed away Brady’s attempt.
Two star men, two misses. This new approach was obviously no respecter of reputations. After the early blips, both teams found their way, with Valencia moving into a 4-3 lead. Substitute John Hollins stepped up, needing to score to keep Arsenal in it. “If he scores then other players have got to be recruited from the bench, to continue the competition in sudden death fashion,” said Motson.
Throughout the shootout, Motson rightfully pointed out that Pereira was leaving his line. Yet Hollins kept his nerve, meaning Motson had to describe at length the sudden death system that was about to take place.
Centre-back Ricardo Arias managed to squeeze his effort underneath Jennings. “So, Graham Rix has to score to keep Arsenal alive. If he misses, Valencia win. That’s why Arsenal, taking their penalties second, are under greater pressure until Valencia miss another one,” said Motson.
In time, football fans would assume the role of body language experts. How many times have you watched someone taking that walk from the halfway line and immediately decided that they are doomed to failure, due to the look in their eyes or the manner in which they approach the penalty spot? Graham Rix is surely an early example of this.
Understandably, Rix looked nervous. But there was something about his demeanour that raised doubts. Reserve keeper Paul Barron clenched his hands, almost praying as Rix prepared to level matters. But his prayers were not answered. Rix’s weak effort was saved by Pereira. Arsenal had lost their second final in four days.
Picking at his boots, Rix gave us an early insight into what it meant to miss in these circumstances. “One could feel only sympathy as the talented winger held his head in despair while the jubilant Spaniards mobbed their goalkeeper,” wrote Robert Armstrong in the Guardian. It would be a scene that many Englishmen would get used to.
A debate started as to whether penalties should be used to decide such contests. Some felt there was still room for replays; others advocated the 35-yard/five second shootout used in the US; Arsenal chairman Denis Hill-Wood suggested the corner count as a way of splitting teams, although this would not have helped in Brussels seeing as both teams earned five corners.
Penalty shootouts were here to stay. Just two days later, the Arsenal players somehow pushed the pain aside and beat Wolves 2-1 in the league. That victory kept them alive in the hunt for the final Uefa Cup spot. But, four days later on the final game of the season, they collapsed in a 5-0 defeat at Middlesbrough. In their 67th and final match of the campaign, it was confirmed they would not compete in Europe the following season. Football can be a cruel game.