West Ham's opponents in the 1972 League Cup semi-final were Stoke City, generally reckoned to be everyone's second favourite team; someone to support if you were a neutral.
The main reason for the bonhomie towards the men from the Potteries was the popularity of their manager, Tony Waddington, and his policy of picking up players who were assumed to be past their prime and giving them an opportunity to prove they were anything but. Waddington was also one of those bosses who liked to take a chance on skillful players who seemed to have lost their way or were seen as 'troublesome'. Jimmy Greenhoff, George Eastham and Peter Dobing were all first team members in 1972 and, along with Gordon Banks who was coming to the end of his glorious England career, they were seen as, depending on your view, a team of old men or experienced campaigners.
In fact, Stoke were neither and had proved themselves to be a good cup team in the early seventies, twice getting to the FA cup semi-final only to be beaten unluckily both times by Arsenal, a statistic which only seemed to confirm the suspicion that they were a bit of a bridesmaid side.
Stoke's journey to the semi-final hadn't be quite as spectacular as the Hammers', but a three match fourth round victory over Manchester United showed they meant business. But even so, West Ham were serious favourites in the two-legged semis and the first game played at Stoke's old Victoria ground just seemed to cement the odds.
It's not often you see the words 'formality' and 'West Ham' in the same sentence, but they appear in an old faded cutting I found from the Daily Express describing the first leg of what was to become a titanic struggle. Up until that time, no team that had won the first leg of a semi-final had failed to reach the final.
It was Bobby Moore who was the hero of the first leg, marshalling the defence and breaking up early Stoke pressure as the home side tried to gain an early advantage. So keen was Moore that night, the normally unflappable defender was even booked for what would now be deemed as a 'professional foul' on Jimmy Greenhoff. Elsewhere, Ferguson was defiant in goal and the whole West Ham rearguard were beating shots away in the opening quarter so it was probably no surprise when the Potters went ahead when the 33 year-old Dobing hit home unmarked after a Greenhoff shot came back to him off a post. But Stoke’s lead only lasted fourteen minutes, when the first of what was to become a number of the ties' significant penalties was given.
Eric Bloor was apparently the referee that night and he gave a spot kick when Clyde Best was adjudged to have been brought down, although there was more than a suggestion that the Bermudan had simply fallen over his own feet. Stoke protested vigorously but the decision was made. Geoff Hurst took the penalty and it is ironic that the match report made much of the fact that, 'Banks salvaged the dignity of getting his fingers to the ball'. In fact, Hurst's tactics at penalties were quite simple: hit them hard and fast into the top corner where the goalkeeper can't get them.
The England striker's premise was accurate -- like his kicking -- in that, even if the keeper guessed the right place, if the ball was hit at such a pace there was no way they could get to the shot unless they moved before the ball was struck. It was a tactic that had worked well to Hurst's advantage over the years and this time was no exception. Banks knew where the ball was going but there was little he could do to stop it.
After 67 minutes, West Ham made their 'progress towards the final a formality' (well, it was 1972!) when Harry Redknapp skipped down the wing that had been worn well by Stanley Matthews over the years and centred for Clyde Best to volley in for a 2-1 first-leg lead.
The second leg at Upton Park was played in front of the inevitable capacity crowd who expected to see the Hammers ensure a Wembley appearance. Again though, it was a tight game with the home side seemingly stuck in the grip of that age old problem when protecting a lead; push on and extend it to kill the game or keep it tight and let the chasers worry about it. There were chances at both ends but it was Stoke's centre-forward John Ritchie who struck late in the second half, after a defensive mix-up between Taylor and McDowell, to send the tie into extra-time.
West Ham at least now knew what they had to do though, and they laid siege to Stoke's goal. There were just minutes on the clock when Banks went out to claim the ball in a tussle between his team-mate, left back Mike Pejic, and Redknapp. The Hammers winger was pushed and the referee pointed to the spot. With barely a minute or so on the clock the situation was simple: Geoff Hurst v Gordon Banks for a Wembley final place.
Memories can play tricks on you. I've heard people over the years (and Sir Geoff himself is one of them!) claim that Hurst put the ball exactly where he wanted it, in exactly the same spot where he had placed it two weeks earlier, and Banks somehow clawed it away. But the advent of a You Tube video doesn't seem to support this. In fact, Hurst hit the ball lower and slightly closer to the keeper than usual, but it may be this that makes Banks' save even more memorable because the England keeper was going for the corner and somehow adjusted his body full-flight to push his arms up and divert the ball over. ITV commentator, the legendary Brian Moore, said, "Banks has saved it…miraculously.." Banks afterwards confirmed he thought the save was better than the one he made against Pele in Mexico in 1970. I'm not sure it was but it was still a wonderful -- if sickening -- stop.
So momentous was the tussle between Hurst and Banks that the match is usually encapsulated to that two minute incident but, just after the wonder save, it's normally forgotten that, from the corner resulting from the Banks save, Redknapp hit the post with the Stoke keeper well beaten. Perhaps, in another parallel universe…
When the whistle blew, the two-legged score was 2-2 on aggregate and a replay was needed to separate the teams. The venue was Hillsborough where an incredible crowd of almost 50,000 clogged up the local traffic so badly that both teams arrived late. The vast crowd watched the two teams slug out a 0-0 draw. It wasn't exactly forgettable -- it was just that both sides seemed to cancel each other out and produce that other football conundrum of neither side wanting to make a mistake leading to a stalemate. The combined cup minutes and corresponding crowd sizes of both clubs were now starting to meet Guinness Book of Record standards and it was going to take yet another match to end the deadlock.
In fact, by the time of the second replay, it would be almost two months since the first leg tie at Stoke. The two clubs couldn't decide on a neutral venue; the Hammers wanting a London ground to avoid their fans travelling north again while Stoke wanted Old Trafford. To decide the issue, they tossed a coin and Ron Greenwood called. Apparently, Ron wasn't in a particularly good mood at the time. The coach that had brought the West Ham team to Sheffield had been tampered with during the game, someone removing the petrol cap and tipping sand into the tank, and the team had to wait until replacement transport could be found to take them back to London. Greenwood’s mood wouldn't have improved by calling incorrectly and losing the toss for the venue. Tony Waddington made the decision of where to play. Manchester in January beckoned.