Wrexham AFC v Arsenal 25 years on: Fans remember 'biggest FA Cup upset of all time'


Jamie Bowman

A quarter of a century ago today, Wrexham pulled off one of the greatest FA Cup results of all time when they beat Football League champions Arsenal at The Racecourse.

James Bowman talks to two fans about their memories of a momentous day for the Dragons...

It's one of the most famous FA Cup upsets of all time.

Twenty-five years ago today, Brian Flynn’s Wrexham side were in the lower reaches of the Fourth Division when they hosted the reigning First Division champions Arsenal at The Racecourse Ground. 

No one envisaged anything other than a victory for George Graham’s Gunners.

It looked as though that would be the case too, when Alan Smith put Arsenal ahead in North Wales after converting a Paul Merson cross two minutes before half time.

But when Red Dragons captain and former Manchester United midfielder Mickey Thomas produced a stunning free-kick to drag Wrexham level in the 82nd minute, an upset was on the cards.

Wrexham took advantage and just two minutes after Thomas’ stunner, young striker Steve Watkin fired past David Seaman to give Wrexham one of their most famous moments.

Arsenal had a late goal disallowed and the Reds held out to win 2-1 and celebrate a famous giantkilling, with highlights shown on Match of the Day that night.

Video: YouTube / FATV

Over the years since, Thomas and Watkin have relived their moments many times with the clip of Thomas’ net-bursting shot a particular favourite of TV researchers.

But what was January 4, 1992 like for the 13,343 supporters who packed into The Racecourse that day and roared their team to victory?

“My parents played a joke on me, telling me they could not get a ticket,” remembered Marcus Devin, now 39 and living in Buckley.

 “I was gutted as I was 14 and wanted to go so much. I had been to a handful of games up to then but this was THE game.

“On the morning of the game I was given a ticket for the Yale paddock and told my dad’s mate was taking me. I was absolutely made up.”

For many younger fans flooding into The Racecourse it was the biggest crowd they had seen for a Reds match.

“We went to The Turf before kick-off,” recalled Marcus.

 “It was packed in there and the atmosphere was electric but no one thought we could win. We made our way to the Paddock and I remember thinking I’d never seen a crowd this big at The Racecourse.”

Graham Maloney, 47, of Hawarden, made sure the game was a family affair, but insisted on standing in his usual spot for such an important match.

“I recall standing on the Kop with my good friend Kevin and my dad,” he said. “It was busier than we’d been used to for a long while and I was standing around the same place as when Mark Hughes scored that wonder goal [for Wales] against Spain in 1985.

“My mum, Jane, my girlfriend – who is now my wife – and my sister all sat in the Yale stand.”

For the Arsenal fans who attended that day, a trip to Wrexham represented a journey into the unknown especially for a group of teenagers who had just started travelling to away games.

“We arrived at the ground around 1pm and were looking for a pub to drink in,” said Carl Jones, who was 19 when he travelled to North Wales from Kent.

 “There was a lot of excitement around the ground and you could tell this was Wrexham’s biggest game for a long, long time.

“There was a pub on the corner of the ground called The Turf, but we had no chance of getting in until miraculously I bumped into an old school teacher from Canterbury who had recently moved to Wrexham and his brother owned the pub – Arthur Hughes was his name, he was a Liverpool fan so we called him ‘Emlyn’.”

He got the three of us in and what I remember of the pub was all the Wrexham fans saying to us they would be lucky to get one, so at this point I was extremely confident of a win.”

Arsenal fielded a strong side and despite the absence of Ian Wright, Steve Bould and Anders Limpar, they began the game well and were soon controlling the play.

“Arsenal should have been out of sight and when Smith scored I just hoped the floodgates wouldn’t open,” said Marcus.

“I was relieved to see Wright not starting, but when Smith scuffed his shot and they scored I feared the worst,” added Graham.

“The Arsenal fans and players celebrated like it was going to be a stroll in the park and the inevitable would happen.”

In the second half Arsenal struggled to kill the tie off as the Reds closed players down quickly.

But long ball tactics from Arsenal still saw chances created with Nigel Winterburn hitting the bar and Kevin Campbell having a shot blocked by Vince O’Keefe.

“I remember Winterburn’s cross shot hitting the bar in the second half and I thought that was about it,” said Graham.

“I could hear Joey Jones from the dugout giving our players some and that famous fist was raised a few times,” laughed Marcus.

“You could sense we had a chance as Arsenal were getting nowhere and our fans were getting louder.”

In the 82nd minute Wrexham were awarded a free kick 25 yards out. 

Thomas lined up the shot which arrowed into the top corner past Seaman. The 37-year-old set off in celebration while being described by BBC commentator Tony Gubba as a “magic little man”.

“It was a real wow moment,” said Graham. “I just remember a scrawny guy with long hair running like crazy to hug his pal Joey Jones after he’d scored.

“If you watch back now you’ll notice Gordon Davies feigning to take a quick free kick and I’m glad he didn’t. I was in the Paddock and had a good view, but I never thought for one minute he would shoot,” remembered Marcus.

“Then it went mental. I ended up about 30 metres from where I was. Jumping, singing, shouts of ‘get in’. It was a total goose bump experience and it’s all a bit blurry after that until Watkin slid in with big Tony Adams after him to make it 2-1.”

Within two minutes of the equaliser, Wrexham went ahead when a poor clearance by Winterburn resulted in Davies latching onto the ball over the top and, instead of volleying an effort on goal, he squared it for Watkin. 

Adams went across the midfielder in an attempt to intervene, but fumbled and an outstretching Watkin poked the ball past Seaman with the ball squeezing underneath the goalkeeper.

“It went absolutely nuts in the Paddock and it was fantastic when full-time came,” said Marcus. 

“Everyone was hugging and singing and shaking their heads. We had done it.”

Graham said: “I dropped my programme in the melee of the first goal and just as I had managed to calm down Watkin popped up and scored the winner after beating Adams to the cross.

“My mum used to sponsor Steve so it meant a lot to her – a season or two later, he called around for Sunday lunch.

“Arsenal pressed and had a goal disallowed. I kept thinking to myself in the final few minutes that a replay at Highbury would be a good trip out – just to temper my excitement at what might be.”

“You could not even hear yourself think when the second goal nestled in the corner,” added Carl.

“There were pitch invasions everywhere you looked.”

Cited as one of the greatest upsets in Cup history, BBC commentator John Motson described the Wrexham against Arsenal match as a “giantkilling which has stood the test of time”. In 2013, the match topped a list of greatest FA Cup upsets as voted for by ESPN viewers.

“I still have the ticket and the programme and cuttings from all the Sunday papers,” added Marcus.

“It still remains the biggest cup upset to my mind,” agreed Graham.

“We were bottom of the Football League the previous season and we beat the champions. What great memories.”

For the Arsenal fans there was a long trip home, but the side bounced back by winning the FA Cup and League Cup the following year.

“The second half is something I will never forget and something I never want to live through again,” added Carl. “I am still scarred by it to this day. 

“We had the biggest Welsh flag brought over to our end to rub it in and they kept us in to watch it all too. When we finally left the ground and arrived at Wrexham Railway Station it was the first time I had ever seen a grown man crying over a football result. I have to admit I was numb and can only compare it to how I felt when  Giggs scored that goal when we played Man United in a FA Cup semi-final replay at Villa Park in 1999.

“The journey home was one of silence and no one spoke until at least London. We were all just in our own little worlds trying to deal with what was going to be coming our way at work the next day.

“Mickey Thomas – I will never forget that name.”

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