It was 25 years ago today that Des Walker’s extra-time own goal at Wembley saw Brian Clough denied the one trophy he failed to win in his glittering career as Nottingham Forest lost the 1991 FA Cup final 2-1 to Tottenham Hotspur.
But it could have all been very different if referee Roger Milford had shown any guts or professionalism on the day.
I was there covering the game with the team from the Nottingham Post and I sat astonished as ‘national treasure’ Paul Gascoigne was allowed to get away with two automatic red card tackles in the early stages, the second of which wrecked his own knee ligaments.
Click HERE to see the video highlights
But, crucially, no cards were shown and Spurs kept the 11 men they should not have had.
I can understand a referee’s reluctance to spoil a showpiece occasion by showing an early red. And after his tears in the previous summer’s Italia 90 World Cup, Gascoigne was certainly in the hearts of the nation.
But neither of those facts should stop a referee from doing his job and Gascoigne’s studs flying into the chest of Garry Parker in the opening exchanges was a red card all the way.
Gascoigne even admitted afterwards that he’d been looking for a chance to get Parker back for a tackle on him two years previously.
That went unpunished. So when the overly pumped-up Gascoigne then flew in with disgusting challenge on Gary Charles so late that the rest of his side might have been in the showers after the game, it was incredible that Milford again kept his cards to himself.
In the light of today’s players rolling around in agony at the touch of a feather, it’s worth watching the video of that awful challenge as Charles gets up almost immediately to show Spurs he would not be hurt that easily - a different era.
Forest’s only sense of justice was that Gascoigne was stretchered off after just 17 minutes to spend his 24th birthday in hospital and Stuart Pearce stepped up to bury the resulting free kick – yes, Milford did at least award a free kick.
One commentator said afterwards that Gascoigne would have had to have pulled out a revolver and shot Stuart Pearce before he was even shown a yellow card!
It took Milford seven more years to reveal in the press that he felt he should have sent Gascoigne off. Far too late for Forest who saw Paul Stewart level the match before that injury time tragedy for one of Forest’s all-time greats as Des Walker scored an own goal.
Forest had only ever lost one of 10 major finals before this and, as we trundled down the M1 amid a sea of cars decked in red and white, you had the sense that Clough’s name was already on the trophy.
Although Gascoigne and Gary Lineker were national heroes, much of the country’s neutrals wanted to see Clough win the one trophy that had eluded him.
But the day turned very sour after Pearce’s opener and within two years Clough’s magical reign on Trentside was over. The final was almost the beginning of the end for Clough’s seemingly magical powers.
The 1991 final was Nottingham Forest’s first appearance in the FA Cup final since their triumph 32 years earlier and they have not reached the final since.
Gascoigne later looked back on his wreckless tackles that day and said: “I wish I’d got sent off for the first tackle on Parker.
“I remember he’d clattered me in one game, but I waited two years to get him back.
“He was one of their play-makers and what you try to do is injure his legs. If you’re going to challenge him, make sure he can’t kick a ball as well as he can if you hurt his feet or legs.
“But I nearly took his windpipe out! It was a terrible tackle I suppose.”
On his second tackle he said: “I tried to get a good challenge on him to let him know he was in a game. I just mistimed it. It was daft and I’m gutted about that.
“When I see the challenge I cringe myself. It’s the biggest regret of my career.’”
Sadly, Gascoigne continued on a road to self-destruction from then on, descending in retirement with mental illness while, ironically, his victim, Charles, served two prison terms for crimes caused partly by alcoholism.
On the day, Spurs made use of their luck at keeping 11 men with a stirring fightback and, after Lineker had a goal controversially disallowed for off-side and a penalty saved after being pulled down, Paul Stewart levelled soon after the break from Nayim’s pass to take the game into extra-time.
The final kick in the teeth for Forest was that star defender Walker, so often the hero down the years, turned villain as, knowing he had to get something on a Nayim corner, with Gary Mabbutt lurking to pounce behind him, he sent the ball flying past Mark Crossley into his own goal as Spurs set a new record with their eighth FA Cup win.
It had been an incredible, action-packed emotional roller-coaster of a final in front of an enthralled crowd of 80,000, but ultimately ended in misery.
From there our day didn’t get much better as the warm weather, lack of food and heavy traffic caused a few disagreements in our car heading home. I wanted to eat. The driver didn’t and no one would back me up which started a hunger-induced sulk in me.
We decided to try to get back up the motorway to the office as fast as possible to start work on the Monday Post special, having sent copy back to the office from Wembley for the day’s Football Post.
But agonisingly the M1 came to an abrupt halt not too far out of London as it seemed most of Nottingham was ahead of us on the road.
People were even getting out their cars on the motorway for a smoke and one or two were kicking a ball for a while before we started moving again.
I still have the programme and press pack from the day and the Post also presented us all with a metal impression from the front page of the Football Post to thank us for our work, though the Walker’s agony headline hardly seemed like something worth celebrating.
FOREST: Crossley, Charles, Pearce, Walker, Chettle, Keane, Crosby, Parker, Clough, Glover, Woan. Subs used: Laws, Hodge.