Each year, when ‘30 November’ flips over on Tony Gale’s calendar, the smile that seems to permanently be on the West Ham United legend’s face grows even wider.
For it was on that date in 1988, exactly 34 years ago, that Gale helped blow Liverpool out of the League Cup.
West Ham, in John Lyall’s final season as manager, were struggling mightily in the First Division, had won just two of their opening 14 matches as November came to a close, collected just nine points and were mired in the relegation zone. It was a situation that had not changed come May 1989.
In the League Cup, however, the Irons were a team transformed.
Second Division Sunderland had been beaten 5-1 on aggregate, then Lyall’s players belied their lowly League position to thump a Derby County side who would end the season fifth in the First Division 5-0.
Nobody expected them to beat Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool, though. Nobody.
The Reds had gone within a shock FA Cup final defeat by Wimbledon of winning the Double the previous season, were challenging to retain their First Division title again in 1988/89 – they would lose out to Michael Thomas’s last-gasp winner for Arsenal on the final day of the season – and would defeat Everton to win the FA Cup.
Back to 30 November 1988 and the Liverpool rolled into town with a star-studded side including the likes of Ronnie Whelan, Peter Beardsley, Steve Nicol, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge.
West Ham, in contrast, were without Phil Parkes, Ray Stewart, Stewart Robson and Mark Ward, although Lyall was able to field Alan Devonshire and Liam Brady together for the first time that season.
“Ravaged by injuries and down in 19th spot, we were destined to be relegated that year, while reigning champions Liverpool were the best around,” recalled Gale, who lined up alongside regular partner Alvin Martin in central defence. “Our 4-1 victory was one of the most unlikely results of my career.”
Ahead of them, 21-year-old Paul Ince had the game of his life, sending an unstoppable volley past Liverpool goalkeeper Mike Hooper, before heading in Devonshire’s corner to make it 2-0 inside 25 minutes.
“That cup-tie was the birth of Incey, who’d spectacularly announced his arrival on the footballing stage with two brilliant strikes that helped condemn Liverpool to their heaviest cup defeat since 1939,” Gale observed, showing a fine knowledge of the Reds’ 4-1 FA Cup fifth round defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers 49 years previously!
Aldridge pulled a goal back, before Steve Staunton put through his own net to restore West Ham’s two-goal advantage.
Then, to the delight of the home fans among the 26,971 fans present at the Boleyn Ground, Gale himself completed the scoring in stunning style.
“With a quarter-hour left, Nigel Spackman’s accidental high boot left Julian Dicks needing treatment for a cut eye,” he remembered. “And when it was finally time to get on with the game, everyone forgot that it was an indirect free-kick, rather than a direct one. So I curled the ball straight over the wall and beyond ‘Hooper to seal an incredible 4-1 victory.
“Out of all the goals that should never have been allowed to stand at the Boleyn Ground down the years, I still maintain my free-kick was the best one anyone had ever seen!”
Ince scored again in a 2-1 win over another First Division side, Aston Villa, in the fifth round, but were humbled 5-0 on aggregate by Ray Harford’s Luton Town in the semi-finals.