Rewind to a match few recall, and even fewer seem to want to remember…

On March 2, 1974, City walked out at Wembley to take on Wolverhampton Wanderers in the League Cup final. It’s a game that, while not exactly airbrushed from our history, has certainly been tucked out of view. The question is: why?

Obviously, the fact that we lost 2-1 plays a major part, but we also lost the 1981 FA Cup final and that is often recalled, written about, and remembered as an occasion and not without some affection.

The ’74 showpiece was our third trip to the Twin Towers in five years having won the FA Cup in 1969 and the League Cup a year later.

Upwards of 40,000 City fans travelled south for the game and, they perhaps did so feeling the Blues’ name was already written on the trophy.

The final would be the 11th League Cup tie for City on what had been an epic journey to Wembley – three more games than Wolves had taken to reach that stage.

Replays had been needed against Walsal (twice)l, York City and Coventry, with Carlisle and Plymouth also proving dogged opposition for the Blues.

And then there was the managerial upheaval that an ageing City squad had endured around that period.

Johnny Hart had been in charge for seven months but had been forced to step down due to poor health and Tony Book had stepped into the hot-seat in a caretaker role.

Former skipper Book was the players’ choice to take over from Hart, but chairman Peter Swales felt a more experienced man was needed and when Ron Saunders resigned as Norwich City boss, Swales acted quickly and within five days of quitting Carrow Road, Saunders was installed as City’s new manager.

Saunders was very different to predecessors Hart, Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison and was something of a disciplinarian figure, put in charge of a team full of strong personalities, many of whom had their best years behind them.

Joe Corrigan, Denis Law, Mike Doyle, Franny Lee, Mike Summerbee, Rodney Marsh, and Tommy Booth - all big characters in the dressing room and not used to being barked at – demanded respect yet received little from the new man.

Yet Saunders had helped continue the League Cup run the team had been on and had a chance of winning a trophy in his first few months in charge.

In fact, just a year earlier, Saunders had guided Norwich to the final of the same competition, only to get beaten by Spurs, so now, he had an immediate shot at redemption.

Summerbee had the captain’s armband and would lead City out at Wembley against Wolves – a proud moment for a player in his ninth year at the Club.

“Ron Saunders was a different personality to what we’d had before,” said Buzzer.

“In fairness, it wasn’t an easy situation because we were an ageing side, but I thought that overall, he was a good manager. I’d played against him when he was a Portsmouth player, and he was a very good, prolific striker. A real handful.”

In his autobiography ‘Blue Blood’, Mike Doyle recalled the new manager’s arrival and admits he felt the Club had chosen the wrong man.

“Saunders had done well whilst boss of Norwich, but he was regarded by some players as a strict disciplinarian,” said Doyle.

“Some people described him as being like a sergeant major, although later on, I heard him express some surprise that folk should look upon him like that.  All I knew about Saunders was what I had heard and the only judgement I could make about him was from having played against Norwich. I found them well-drilled and unimaginative. They seemed to lack real flair and the accent was more on the defensive than on the offensive.

“When he first arrived, we had expected some plain speaking, but I still think that the way he spoke to players such as Mike Summerbee, Denis Law and Franny Lee was out of order. It became plain that he was determined to do things his way and that, in the process, there were going to be some changes among the playing personnel.

He would come in and be very sarcastic. He began calling Denis Law ‘the old man’ and he referred to Franny Lee as ‘Fatty’ when there wasn't an ounce of fat on him. Denis may have been past his best, but he deserved more respect than he was being given.
Mike Doyle

“We eventually got to Wembley in the League Cup final, where we met Wolves. We went down to our headquarters on the outskirts of London, but there was no party spirit and we trained on pitches at the back of the hotel that had more slopes on them than the Alps. All we were allowed to drink was orange juice, not even a glass of wine with our meal.

“We felt that we were not being treated as men, but as children who might get sick at the party if they ate too much. Frankly, I don’t believe any of the players were in the right frame of mind to go out and do their stuff in a Wembley final. I think we had lost that final before we even went on the park.”

Joe Corrigan initially had high hopes of working with Saunders.

The City keeper had lost his place to Keith MacRae, but his first meeting with the new boss had suggested better times could be ahead.

“The first time I saw Saunders was at the top of the stairs inside Maine Road," recalled Corrigan. "He stopped me and asked, ‘What are you doing in the reserves? I’ve always wanted to work with you.’ I told him I’d been injured and was just regaining my fitness and he then told me he thought I was one of the best goalkeepers in the country and he was looking forward to me proving as much.

“It was the boost I’d be looking for. I felt ten feet tall because I knew that Saunders would give me a chance. In fact, I’d been recalled for the New Year’s Day clash with Stoke City and kept a clean sheet, but in-between I played against Manchester United at reserve level and got a whack on the jaw.

Fortunately I didn’t break it this time, but I did break a few teeth and was out for a fortnight or so which took a little bit of the wind out of my sails.
Joe Corrigan

"Keith resumed his place in the first-team and played out of his skin in the next six games, conceding just two goals and that ensured he retained his spot for the 1974 League Cup final and deservedly so."

Tony Book had accepted Saunders’ offer to become his No.2 but felt his management style ruffled a number of feathers up the wrong way.

“His downfall was many of the lads just didn’t take to his ways and personality traits and that filtered through on a Saturday afternoon, too,” recalled Book.

“The league form suffered, and we went on a bad run but had still managed to find our way to the League Cup Final against Wolves.”

Going into the game on 2 March 1974, there was little between the two teams who were both languishing in midtable. City were the bookies' favourites, but that meant little on the day.

The earlier league meeting between the two teams back in November had ended 0-0 at Molineux and it’s fair to say nobody was predicting a classic.

Wolves had a number of issues, not least goalkeeper Phil Parkes was injured and the relatively inexperienced Gary Pierce was pitched in at the deep end. Top scorer John Richards hadn't played for three weeks.

Despite the stellar attacking talents in City’s line-up that day, the game mirrored the dour goalless clash in the Black Country from four months before - until the 44th minute when a cross from the right was spectacularly volleyed - in fact, mis-hit - past Keith MacRae by Kenny Hibbitt to make it 1-0 for Wolves.

City had offered little in the way of an attacking threat up to that point, but in the time that remained in the first-half, Rodney Marsh’s 25-yard free-kick was brilliantly saved by keeper Pierce and then Summerbee saw his close range header saved by the Wolves stopper.

The Blues continued to press after the break with Marsh wasting a good opportunity from inside the box – but the mercurial winger made amends just before the hour-mark, jinking down the left before scooping a cross into the box that evaded the Wolves defenders and fell to the unmarked Colin Bell who stopped the ball dead before drilling it past Pierce to make it 1-1.

Then Glyn Pardoe saw a header brilliantly tipped over by the outstanding Pierce as City pressed for a second. But with four minutes remaining, Wolves snatched victory.

A smart move down the right saw the ball crossed into the box by Alan Sunderland and an attempted clearance fell invitingly for John Richards - who was about to be subbed moments before - to sweep home what would be the decisive goal.

Tony Book: “We lost the game 2-1, despite a number of good chances, and it was a disappointment to lose because we’d become accustomed to winning those big matches. Plus we had a forward line of Summerbee, Bell, Lee, Law, and Marsh and should have been too much for a workmanlike Wolves side on the day. Ultimately, that led to questions being asked about team spirit.”

And it is evident that the simmering resentment didn’t just end at the manager’s feet.

Mike Doyle was unimpressed with Rodney Marsh’s post-match behaviour, believing he was amplifying the lone wolf persona that was at odds with the team spirit that had been built up by Mercer and Allison.

In fact as far as Doyle was concerned, the 1974 League Cup final was also the beginning of the end for the mercurial City winger.

“The one thing that really turned most of the lads against him – me in particular – was after that game against Wolves,” said Doyle. “We’d been beaten fair and square and had Tony Towers played for us instead of making way - again - for Marsh, I think it would have been a different result.

“After the final whistle we went to collect our tankards with Mike Summerbee the captain. We stood in a line when Wolves went to lift the trophy and clapped them when they came down and we shook hands with each player. As he approached, Mark Bailey, the Wolves captain asked me “What’s up with him?”

I looked around and Marsh was sloping off towards the dressing rooms. He hadn’t collected his tankard or applauded the winners and that wasn’t what we as a team were about.
Mike Doyle

Joe Corrigan had been a bystander at Wembley that day - along with another disgruntled team-mate.

“I sat in the stand watching the final impassively alongside Alan Oakes,” recalled Corrigan. “On the coach home, Oakey said that he’d thought it was wrong that two of the most influential City players – him and me - had been sat watching rather than on the pitch playing.

“The next game, away to Leeds, I found myself back in the team again. I then played against United at Maine Road and then against Sheffield United, where my bad luck struck again as I conceded a goal straight from a corner – the only goal of the game – and I admit it was totally my fault.

Saunders said after the game, ‘Now I understand why the directors don’t want you in the team.’ He’d gone from one extreme to the other in a matter of weeks and it was clear that he would bow under the pressure he was getting from upstairs.
Joe Corrigan

As it was, Saunders lasted just one more month and after a miserable 3-0 defeat away to QPR – he was sacked with several influential first team players now insisting the chairman act quickly and employ Tony Book instead – a view that this time, Peter Swales agreed with.

Saunders was far from finished, however, incredibly returning with new club Aston Villa the following campaign to manage in the League Cup final with his third different club in three years - and winning on that occasion.

He would later guide Villa to the 1980/81 top flight title, too - it had just maybe been the wrong time to manage Manchester City when he had.

The fact is, City lost the 1974 League Cup final for many reasons.

Managerial turmoil, player unrest and Wolves playing out of their skin all contributed to our loss and left us with a game nobody remembers with any affection outside of Wolverhampton.

No wonder it has become the forgotten final… 

Words: David Clayton/Design: Simon Thorley