Lou Macari says small screen had a big hand in Saints' day

It was a simpler time when Manchester United last met Southampton in a national final, as they will do in the League Cup decider this afternoon.

Lou Macari, right, looks on as another two Scots, Southamptons Jim McCalliog and Uniteds Martin Buchan battle for possession in the Wembley showpiece. Picture: Bob Thomas/Getty Images)
Lou Macari, right, looks on as another two Scots, Southamptons Jim McCalliog and Uniteds Martin Buchan battle for possession in the Wembley showpiece. Picture: Bob Thomas/Getty Images)

The shock of a then Second Division team without an honour to their name slaying the mighty Old Trafford club in the 1976 FA Cup final has been revisited at length this week.

All manner of explanations have been given for one of the greatest upsets in a Wembley showpiece. Lou Macari, a member of the United side that suffered ignominy that day, would venture one more.

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Four decades ago there were only three television channels. The FA Cup final was the only domestic football encounter screened live across them during an entire season. There were no such things as mobile phones, tablets or mp3 players. Macari believes the absence of this cornucopia technology which can be deployed as a buffer from the outside world played a part in creating a dynamic that proved dastardly for Tommy Docherty’s men.

“In 1976, FA Cup final coverage started on two channels at eight o’clock in the morning,” he said. “And as players sitting in a hotel you had been cooped up in for four days you would watch it, all of it, to fill in the hours before heading to the stadium.” That trip he remembers for the bus turning into Wembley way and there being nothing but a sea of red and white. Which Macari concedes might not have been entirely unrelated to the fact that those are the traditional colours of both clubs – Southampton wearing yellow for their greatest afternoon because of the clash. United arrived with telly having presented the contest as firmly black and white.

“That day I remember everyone – presenters, pundits, public – on those shows saying that we would win. There wasn’t a soul who thought we wouldn’t – and that included the Southampton players, which was why they could set about their day without pressure, play without pressure. There was an expectancy created for us that drilled into us we just could not entertain losing. And that can be a psychological burden because a 
top-flight team doesn’t automatically beat one from a lower division – whoever they are. Wembley throws up surprises, which is why Coventry City and Wimbledon have their names on the FA Cup.”

It is also forgotten that, despite finishing third in the upper tier of English football in a season that marked the third on the trot Macari ended the club’s top scorer, United were not any sort of force in English football.

They had only come up from the second tier that Southampton occupied the previous summer, and hadn’t won a trophy since their European Cup success in 1968 – which also marked their last major occasion at Wembley.

“I think it does tend to be overlooked that we were a team getting together after a season in the division below,” said Macari, whose instant scoring impact on joining from Celtic in January 1973 could not prevent the slide to the second tier as second bottom in the First Division. “We had the chances to win on the day, though. But we all know football. When you don’t take them, anything can happen. Anything like conceding an 83rd-minute goal to lose a cup final.”

A measured through-ball from Scot Jim McCalliog allowed Bobby Stokes to produce a glorious angled finish from 20 yards. It has often been debated since as to whether Stokes received the crucial pass in an offside position but, although he isn’t picked up on the couple of cameras then covering the action, it is seems that Martin Buchan played Stokes – who sported a then very 1970s paunch – on. “It wasn’t offside because the flag didn’t go up. That’s what counts,” said Macari.

The fact that Scots should be central players at the highest level of English football is one more example of how the 1970s is another lifetime ago. Across the two teams there were seven players from within these borders stripped – Alex Forsyth and Stewart Houston for United and Southampton’s Jim Steele and their one sub Hugh Fisher the others – with Docherty the losing manager, of course.

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“There wasn’t a big game played in England without half a dozen Scots on the pitch then,” said Macari, who recalls eight of the starting XI in his United debut hailing from within these borders. And it is Docherty’s Scottish defiance that resonates most when he recalls a grim day. “He said, ‘we’ll be back here next year and win it’. We thought he was mad because it is a long shot to reach any FA Cup final. But he was right. And we did what Southampton did to us against the best Liverpool team of the 1970s – a team that were going for the second trophy of a treble, with the European Cup final to come – the next midweek – and upset them by playing with nothing to lose. No-one fancied us.”

Macari, a MUTV pundit these past 14 years, will be at Wembley today for a final that is being presented in the same fashion. “Because of their stature, their personnel, and their finances, everyone expects United to win, even if Southampton are in the same league.” With his knowledge of final history, it might be wise to say that off camera today.