The Fourth Round of the FA Cup kicks off on Friday when Manchester United travel to Derby County. They two clubs haven’t found themselves in each other’s’ orbits for a few years, ever since Derby’s brief flirtation with the Premier League in the mid-aughts came to an end. Yet there was a time when they were duking it out on the regular, fighting to come out on top in the old First Division. And this year marks the 40th anniversary of one of their most high-profile, high-stakes clashes.
This week we look back at their meeting in the FA Cup semifinals— Hillsborough, April 3rd, 1976.
The 1975-76 season marked Manchester United’s return to the top flight, as Tommy Docherty led his team to the Second Division title and an exorcism to the shame brought on by the Red Devils’ first relegation since the 1930s. Derby came into the season as defending champions, with Dave Mackay having thoroughly quieted critics who insisted he couldn’t build on Brian Clough’s success.
While Derby struggled to defend their league title, their run in the Cup and in Europe kept the fans at the Baseball Ground thumping. They were already out of Europe after a disappointing second leg performance against Real Madrid, but Wembley still beckoned down the stretch. After dispatching the likes of Everton, Liverpool, Southend United, and Newcastle, Derby booked themselves a place in the semifinals at Hillsborough in Sheffield.
Their opponents were having a blistering 75-76 campaign, forcing themselves into the conversation for the league title and making their own run for a trip to Wembley, having defeated Oxford United, Peterborough United, Leicester City, and then Wolverhampton Wanderers after a replay.
If you like football from the 1970s, this game pretty much has it all. You have an even contest with hard tackles and meticulously executed set pieces. You have packed crowds groaning and swaying like a coral reef. You see no corporate sponsors on the front of the shirt or player names on the back. You have plenty of close calls and near-misses. You have bushy hair and very, very short shorts. United and Derby seemed evenly match for most of the game, and on the strength of play both deserved a place in the Final.
As it is, the hero of the day was left winger Gordon Hill. The former Millwall player, who spent part of 1975 on loan with the Chicago Sting, fired United in front with a gorgeous curler in the 12th minute. His teammates held the slim lead just long enough for Hill to double the lead in the 83rd minute with a thunderous free kick. Whatever hope Derby had of heading to Wembley and salvaging their season was crushed.
United went on to the Final but lost 1-0 to Southampton, thanks to a late winner from Bobby Stokes. They still had a tremendously successful season, both in the Cup and in the First Division, where they cemented their place in the top flight by finishing third their first season back. They finished behind champions Liverpool and runners-up Queens Park Rangers, but three points ahead of Derby County in fourth. The Rams’ season petered out in disappointment, and just a few months into their rough start to the 1976-77 campaign, Dave Mackay was sacked.
When both teams meet again tomorrow, they’ll do so knowing the Cup isn’t their main priority. United are desperately trying to shake off the cobwebs and nail down a Top 4 spot, while Derby is in a vicious scrap to earn at least a playoff spot and, hopefully, a return to the Premier League. Their Fourth Round tie kicks off at Pride Park Stadium at 2:55pm EST on Fox Sports 1.