Forty-one years have passed but the pain and disappointment of Manchester United’s shock defeat in the FA Cup final in 1976 are still etched deep in Macari’s memory banks.
Then, just as now, United went into the game as strong favourites with bookmakers offering 7-1 on an unlikely Saints victory, but Macari admits Tommy Docherty’s vibrant young side failed to handle the pressure of expectation.
They had finished third in the old First Division, pushing Liverpool and QPR all the way in a thrilling title race, while Southampton’s side of seasoned campaigners were sixth in the old Second Division.
United’s frustration was compounded by the fact Bobby Stokes was offside as he ran on to Jim McCalliog’s pass to fire the 83rd-minute winner past Alex Stepney, but Macari was more upset with their no-show.
“There wasn’t a pundit around who thought Southampton would win,” he said. “In fact, there weren’t many people in the whole country who thought they would win. Everyone just expected us to turn up and lift the trophy.
Lou Macari recalls that Manchester United were over-riding favourites for the 1976 FA Cup final
Southampton upset the odds by beating United in the 1976 FA Cup final
“Back in those days the Cup final really was the biggest game of the season and the build-up went on all week and it really stepped up on the day of the game.
“Remember, United hadn’t been in a cup final since 1963, we had had a good season in the League, were playing some exciting football and you could sense the expectations.
“I remember coming down Wembley Way on the bus and it was just a see of red. That might have been because both teams’ colours were red but when we went out for the warm-up you sensed three-quarters of the crowd were there to support United and there would be an awful lot of disappointment if we didn’t win the game.
“As we lined up in the tunnel you knew the pressure is on, and it can get to you and drain you. It can effect players’ games. And it did that day.
“Southampton had a lot of good, experienced players in their team like Mick Channon, Peter Osgood, Jim McCalliog, Jim Steele and their captain Peter Rodrigues – one of those players that you would love in your team.
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“They were far more relaxed on the day because they were the underdogs and there was no pressure on them. And as has been proved many times over the years, a little bit of luck can swing it either way for you on the day.
“I remember we missed a couple of early chances and if we had scored it might have settled us down. Bobby Stokes scored with six or seven minutes left and the talk ever since was that he was offside. But it didn’t leave us with much time to stage any sort of comeback and before we knew it we were climbing those famous steps to collect a losers’ medal.”
United’s limp performance that day is underlined by a story Saints boss Lawrie McMemeney tells.
“We had identified their chirpy winger Gordon Hill as their most dangerous player and then after 66 minutes Tommy Docherty took him off. I think it was the first time they had used substitute boards in the FA Cup final and apparently when Gordon sat down next to Tommy Doc he asked, ‘Why did you put 11 up?’ ‘Because I wanted to replace all f***ing 11 of you’, was supposedly the reply. Gordon Hill told me that himself.”
There was more pain to come for United’s crestfallen players because they still had to go through with the planned ‘victory parade’ in Manchester the following day.
Lou Macari remembers how it felt climbing the famous Wembley steps to collects a losers' medal
In a bid to lift the thousands of disappointed fans Docherty promised they would go back to Wembley and bring home the Cup the following season.
Macari said: “We really didn’t want to be there because we felt we had let everyone down. When the Doc said that we all looked at him as much to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute boss!’
“The road to Wembley is full of dangers no matter who you are, and they were the days when every team took it seriously and didn’t field weakened teams.”
But United kept Docherty’s promise and 12 months later they returned to Wembley – beating Saints in a fourth-round replay on the way – and wrecked Liverpool’s treble bid with Macari scoring what turned out to be the winner, via a deflection off Jimmy Greenhoff.
“We were the underdogs and I can remember the difference in the build-up. We were far more relaxed, got that little bit of luck we didn’t get the year before, and we lifted the Cup.”