Over the years, the semi-finals have served up some fascinating and memorable encounters. Jon Spurling recalls the cream of the crop...
1) By the bye
The FA Cup's inaugural season highlighted several of the vagaries in Victorian football. Firstly, the semis and final were played at the Kennington Oval, now better know as a cricket ground.
The second semi involved Glasgow outfit Queen's Park: the Scottish FA didn’t ban their members from participation south of the border until 1877. However, Queen’s Park reached the semi without actually playing a match, thanks to withdrawals and byes (several of the 15 entrants dropped out without playing).
When the Glaswegians finally faced the Wanderers, the 2,000 spectators witnessed a tight 0-0 draw which was testament to Queens Park's legendary tactical and defensive acumen.
However, unable to afford the train fare for the replay, the Scots then withdrew from the competition – meaning the Wanderers, whom as their name implies didn’t officially have a home ground (but tended to use Kennington), received their own bye to the Final.
2) Powers of recovery
"On reflection, it's a miracle that we were able to field a half-decent team in the the FA Cup that year at all," reflected Manchester United coach Jimmy Murphy. Just 44 days after the Munich air crash, a patched-up United side drew their semi-final against Fulham 2-2 at Villa Park; four days later at Highbury, they somehow summoned the willpower to win the replay 5-3.
The second game, at Highbury, was a titanic battle. United led 3-0 before the Johnny Haynes-inspired Cottagers fought back to level the scores, but the Red Devils prevailed.
"Of course, I'd have loved to have reached the final with Fulham," Haynes admitted, "but in light of what's happened, there can't be a football fan alive who can begrudge United getting to Wembley." "It's got to be one of football's most remarkable comebacks,” said Murphy, although in the final Bolton denied their neighbours a Hollywood ending. Steven Gerrard beware.
3) Super Spurs
"There are some in the game," seethed Tottenham boss Bill Nicholson, "who claim that we're a flash-in-the-pan side and that Jimmy Greaves – in some way – has disrupted our flow." The reigning Double-winners' 1962 FA Cup semi against a re-emerging Manchester United at Hillsborough presented the perfect chance to prove that they remained the main attraction in the early 1960s, despite being in the process of losing their league title (eventually won by Ipswich as Alf Ramsey’s top-flight debutants overtook spluttering Burnley).
Fittingly, Greaves opened the scoring after just four minutes, and Cliff Jones nodded in John White’s cross to put Spurs 2-0 up at the break. Although David Herd’s late strike gave United hope, Spurs soon settled the matter, as described by contemporary reporter Alan Hoby: “Moving the ball at strolling pace, time-wasting with nonchalance, they mounted a leisurely yet breathtaking attack down the right wing” – and Terry Medwin’s resultant header was “like the ferocious stab of a bayonet – a killer goal, and it heralded the end for this slow-thinking and unimaginative United side.” As Bill Nick put it rather more bluntly: "I think that we've proved our point," whose team went on to win the final – again 3-1, again with Greaves scoring in the opening five minutes.
4) Realism 1, Idealism 0
It took Don Revie's Leeds United three attempts to defeat a declining Manchester United in March 1970. The reigning league champions finally delivered the knockout blow in an ugly second replay at Bolton’s Burnden Park, as Leeds' midfield duo of Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner helped stop George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law.
Journalist Brian Glanville later described the quality of football on show as being "largely primitive and horrendous on the eye, with quality being eclipsed by brute force and total pragmatism".
Just for good measure, Bremner scored the winner, with journalist John Arlott noting that while "idealistic" managers would select George Best for their teams, "the realists, to a man, would have Bremner".
5) The marathon
In the FA Cup’s most drawn-out and evenly matched semi-final, Arsenal finally pipped Liverpool at Coventry's Highfield Road in the fourth match between the two sides in April 1980.
"There was barely a whisker in it," explained Gunners manager Terry Neill of the marathon series between the league champions and the FA Cup holders. "Liverpool were the finest team of the day, and we were the cup specialists. There hasn't been a tie like it – before or since."
After the first three games – a stalemate at Hillsborough and two 1-1s at Villa Park – each went to extra-time, the fourth clash was a defensive affair decided by Brian Talbot’s early header.
Liverpool went on to retain the league but never did the Double under Bob Paisley. A fatigued Arsenal lost at Wembley to West Ham, the last second-tier FA Cup winners to date: "We'd given everything we had to offer against Liverpool," lamented Neill.
6) Stop the clocks
At 3:06pm on April 15, 1989, the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough was halted when Liverpool supporters at the Leppings Lane End began climbing over the steel fences to escape the crush in the two central terracing pens. The ensuing tragedy, in which 96 fans lost their lives, was unquestionably the watershed moment in modern British football history.
Lord Justice Taylor’s Interim Report into the disaster compared football spectators to “prisoners of war being marched and detained under guard”, and his Final Report recommended all sports grounds with a capacity over 10,000 be made all-seater – with suggested help in the form of tax relief on pools income and stadium development. The subsequent regeneration and replacement of the country’s stadia, coupled with TV money largely retained by the newly-formed Premier League, changed the face of the game.
7) Saving Fergie
Conventional wisdom holds that Mark Robins saved Alex Ferguson's job seven days into the 1990s, with Manchester United’s FA Cup third-round winner at Nottingham Forest. Yet United's dramatic semi-final with Oldham Athletic was equally pivotal.
When they triumphed at the City Ground, United had sat 15th in the table; by the time of the semis in early April they were a place lower still, and they would end the season in 13th – their lowest finish since relegation in the mid-70s. Defeat against the plucky second-tier Latics might just have finished Fergie.
Defeat certainly looked an option in the Maine Road semi, in which Oldham threatened frequently and deserved their 3-3 draw. Returning the following Wednesday, Joe Royle’s underdogs seemed to have taken an early lead again when Nick Henry’s effort bounced off the bar and over the line, but the goal didn’t stand.
With Royle keen to avoid a second replay – the Latics were chasing a place in the new-fangled play-offs – he threw defender Andy Holden forward and a jittery United's nerves were only settled late in extra-time when Oldham’s depleted defence allowed that man Robins to slip home the winner. United were into the final and Fergie was on the way to making history.
8) The winds of change
It all seemed so simple for champions elect Liverpool when Ian Rush put his team 1-0 up against Crystal Palace, a team they'd thrashed 9-0 in the league a few months earlier, after 14 minutes of their Villa Park semi in April 1990. But Mark Bright and Gary O'Reilly put the Eagles 2-1 up, before Steve Barnes and Steve McMahon appeared to have put Liverpool in the final. Then, Andy Gray equalised with just minutes remaining, and in extra-time Palace got a highly unlikely 4-3 victory through one Alan Pardew.
The result sent shockwaves around football. Skipper Alan Hansen confessed: "I'd never seen us so disorganised in defence," and John Barnes admitted: "We never regained our full confidence after the Palace game." The winds of change were about to blow across the game, and Liverpool would soon be knocked off their perch by Ferguson's United.
Domestically at least, Gazzamania reached its height in April 1991 at the first-ever Wembley semi-final. Tottenham were underdogs against George Graham's Arsenal, who were already eight points clear at the top on their way to the title, but the Gunners were unable to cope with the mercurial (and only half-fit) Gascoigne. The genial Geordie gave his team the lead after just five minutes with an iconic semi-final goal, a blistering 30-yard free-kick which bent beyond David Seaman.
Soon after, Gazza’s intricate passing skills on the right forged a move from which Gary Lineker poked home a second after a goalmouth melee. Although Alan Smith’s header just before the break gave Arsenal hope, another Lineker goal clinched the win – Spurs’ last to date in the FA Cup semis.
"I'm off to get me suit MEASURED," screamed an almost rabid Gazza in the Wembley tunnel afterwards. His future never looked brighter than on that Wembley day against Arsenal; on the same pitch a month later Gascoigne would crash and burn.
10) The Sliding Doors moment
"If Bergkamp had scored," insists Manchester United keeper Peter Schmeichel, "we wouldn't have come back from it." In the second minute of injury-time, Phil Neville brought down Ray Parlour and the Dutchman was a spot-kick away from sending Arsenal to Wembley... but the Great Dane clawed away the penalty, and in extra-time Ryan Giggs intercepted Patrick Vieira's stray pass, ripped through Arsenal's rearguard and unleashed a coruscating shot past David Seaman.
Giggs’s shirt-twirling celebration is one of the most memorable seen in any FA Cup semi-final, and his winner gave United the impetus to push on and complete a historic season. They kept ahead of Double-holders Arsenal to snatch back the title, easily beat Newcastle at Wembley for a 10th FA Cup triumph (and their own third Double) and completed the Treble with an unforgettable Champions League win against Bayern Munich. Arsene Wenger finished empty-handed, Alex Ferguson was knighted – and each would look back at Bergkamp's penalty as one of football's Sliding Doors moments.