Wembley's forgotten wonder goal: Remembering MacKenzie's 1981 strike

Wembley’s forgotten wonder goal: Manchester City’s Steve MacKenzie scored a cracker in the 1981 FA Cup final replay against Tottenham… but was it better than Ricky Villa’s iconic matchwinner?

  • The 1981 FA Cup final is regarded as one of the greatest finals to ever be played 
  • Man City and Tottenham met and played the contest three times that season 
  • Ricky Villa scored the winner for Spurs but Steve MacKenzie’s strike is forgotten
  • The City youngster scored an incredible wondergoal with a thunderous volley 

The controversy which preceded the greatest Wembley encounter between Tottenham and Manchester City is a salutary reminder of how domestic football once meant everything to the owners of this nation’s great clubs.

When it was announced that the 1981 FA Cup final replay — the last time these sides met in a final — would be decided on penalties, managers Keith Burkinshaw and John Bond were incandescent, insisting that there must be a second replay if the second game was tied. Burkinshaw called FA secretary Ted Croker personally.

‘The most important game of the season could hang on one strike of the ball, one goalkeeping mistake or save,’ fumed Bond.

Tottenham’s FA Cup final win over Man City in 1981 is remembered for Ricky Villa’s winner

There was another point of contention. The FA, determined to stage the replay at Wembley for the first time because they wanted the trophy lifted there in the competition’s centenary year, put tickets on general sale in London.

It allowed 70,000 Spurs fans to hoover them up and dominate Wembley on that chilly Thursday night (the stadium had been occupied by England playing Brazil on the Wednesday).

But perhaps the great iniquity of all is that the match’s moment of supreme genius is so rarely remembered. The sweet, strong, sublime 11th-minute volleyed goal by City’s 19-year-old midfielder Steve MacKenzie has been obscured from legend by Ricky Villa’s late dribbled winner for Spurs. Many feel MacKenzie’s goal was the better.

The City players that year knew that MacKenzie had ice in his veins from the minute Malcolm Allison signed him from Crystal Palace for £250,000. At 17 he had never even played a Football League game.

‘He was under so much pressure when he arrived with us,’ recalls team-mate Joe Corrigan. ‘But it was clear from the training ground that he had an extraordinary ability to strike and pass the ball.’

Paul Power, captain of the side at Wembley, was slightly surprised Allison had bought MacKenzie.

‘He was one of the few players in that team of ours who was not a runner and yet Mal favoured runners and athletes,’ Power says. ‘But Steve had this incredible touch. If you played the ball into him, you knew he would look after it. He had this fabulous range of diagonal passes, too. He believed he could do anything. And he could.’

The striker found the net to clinch a famous victory in front of 70,000 Spurs fans at Wembley

The man in question has not been well recently, so others are telling the story of that night and his goal. They remember Allison encouraging him to switch play in a way the Eastern Europeans, who fascinated him, often did and also to look for chances to shoot from range.

‘We saw him shoot like this in training,’ says Ray Ranson, another team-mate. ‘We knew the devastation he could cause.’

Ahead of the replay, the papers were full of talk about City having already blown their chance by failing to win the first game — despite a vast improvement in form since Bond had replaced Allison the previous autumn. They dominated that first match — the Tommy Hutchison Final in which City’s Scot scored in both teams’ nets — and, as the far fitter side, had Spurs on their knees by the finish.

‘We had given so much in the first game,’ says Power. ‘Once our energy levels had dropped that would be us done with. They had higher skill levels to fall back on.’

But the teenagers in the team — Ranson, Nicky Reid and MacKenzie — possessed the supreme vitality of youth. Though Villa scored on eight minutes for Spurs, an early MacKenzie volley revealed his own intent.

However, the thunderous effort of Steve MacKenzie at Wembley Stadium is often forgotten. The 19-year-old scored a sensational goal from the D, thundering into the back of the net

The ball fell in front of him from a Power corner, as Corrigan remembers it from his position, 60 feet back. ‘Someone on the post cleared off the line,’ he recalls.

Three minutes after Spurs’ opener, Ranson drove a free-kick into the Tottenham area from a distance of 45 yards. It reached Spurs’ Graham Roberts.

‘I did get up and head it,’ he recalls. ‘But my header only reached Paul Miller in our area and his header only reached Tommy Hutchison. That was poor defensive work from us, as a back four.’

It was unfortunate from a Spurs perspective that Hutchison, bought by Allison at the age of 32 to add guile to a young side, was the player the ball fell to. He spotted MacKenzie standing just inside him and navigated a header left, into his path. ‘It was visionary from Hutch in that moment,’ says Corrigan. ‘The way he nudged that little header out.’

MacKenzie, standing on the arc of the ‘D’, had time to watch the ball on to his right foot. There was no Tottenham player within several feet of him. The back-lift of his right foot was minimal. Timing was everything as he sent his volley into the top left-hand corner of the net.

MacKenzie was regarded as a huge talent and justified his hefty transfer fee in the ’81 final

Ranson, deliverer of the initial free-kick, was standing directly behind MacKenzie, 30 yards back when the volley was executed.

‘From the minute it left his boot it was heading into the top corner, Ranson says. ‘Time seemed to stand still the moment he struck it.’

Roberts was standing in the centre of the area as the ball flew over his head. ‘I just thought, Wow!’ he says. ‘As a defender, you can live with a goal like that. There’s not a lot you can do.’

Power saw the strike at far closer quarters. ‘It’s a very difficult technique,’ he says. ‘The ball was coming across his body. To keep it down was a tremendous technical skill.’

The game ebbed and flowed. City went 2-1 ahead on 50 minutes. Spurs equalised on 70 minutes.

And then came Argentine Villa’s match-winning goal that would obliterate memories of MacKenzie’s strike and which Ranson — the first man the Argentine came up against on his mazy run — has had to live with until this day.

MacKenzie’s City team-mate Ray Ranson expressed regret over not stopping Ricky Villa

‘It’s my biggest regret,’ Ranson says. ‘I didn’t tackle him. He ran across me and I just put my leg out. The reason I didn’t tackle him was he was going away from goal. My challenge was half-hearted because I was frightened of conceding a penalty. I should have taken my chance and cleaned him out. I would say I’ve thought about that once a week for the rest of my life.’

Some newspapers described the replay as the greatest final of all time — eclipsing the ‘Matthews Final’ of 1953 and the 1948 edition between Manchester United and Blackpool, previously considered the greatest exposition of attacking football. FA Cup final replays were always held at Wembley after that extraordinary night.

It would be City’s last FA Cup final for three decades. Corrigan, named BBC man of the match across the two games, left the club in 1983, Ranson in 1984 and Power, for Everton, in 1986. Mackenzie had left for West Brom, where he spent six seasons, before 1981 was out. But the teenager’s strike will always be remembered by players of both sides.

‘City didn’t win the Cup so nobody talks about it,’ Roberts says. ‘They should do. It was one of the greatest goals in an FA Cup final.’

And better than Ricky Villa’s, insists Ranson. ‘He hit it clean. Clean as a whistle. Straight off his laces. It went in like an atom.’

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