IT WAS the stuff of dreams when Liverpool born and bred Jimmy Melia saw his underdog Seagulls side beat the mighty Merseyside giants en route to Brighton’s one and only FA Cup Final appearance.
In fact, it wasn’t the first time Melia had taken a side to Anfield to play in the competition. On 2 January 1971, as player-manager of lowly Aldershot, he returned to the ground where he’d been an inside forward under Bill Shankly and gave them a scare in the third round, the Fourth Division side only losing 1-0.
Even Liverpool’s wideman, Steve Heighway, admitted: “I suppose we were lucky to win. It was a frosty day and the ball was playing quite a few tricks. I don’t think we were in any danger of losing. But Aldershot were playing well that day. They could have sneaked a draw.”
How satisfying, then, to return in 1983 and pilot Albion’s unlikely 2-1 win, with a winning goal courtesy of that other former Anfield favourite, Jimmy Case.
In the run-up to the game, Melia, raised in Liverpool’s Scotland Road, told the Daily Mail: “I’ve got 11 brothers and sisters in the Liverpool area and they’ll all want to be there.”
He clearly didn’t fear the game, pointing out that Brighton had been the last team to win at Anfield, and telling the Argus: “It is a great tie for us. When I was manager at Aldershot we lost 1-0 to them and I think we will do better this time. Remember, the Cup is full of all sorts of upsets. It wouldn’t be the Cup otherwise.”
After the famous victory, Melia told Alex Montgomery of The Sun: “I’ve been involved in some great Liverpool victories but this is without doubt the greatest win.
“The great thing about it is that we didn’t just nick a win. We deserved what we got.
“A lot of people said that if we attacked them we would just set ourselves up for a hiding. That is not the way it worked out.”
It emerged after the game that John Manning, an old footballing friend of Melia’s, had been key to plotting the victory. Former Crewe, Bolton and Tranmere striker Manning, Albion’s scout in the north at the time, gave the players a pre-match rundown on what to expect.
“Best team talk we’ve ever had,” defender Gary Stevens told the Daily Mail. “Liverpool played exactly the way he said they would and he was even right about which side (Phil) Neal would send his penalty (which went wide of goalkeeper Perry Digweed’s post).”
Born in Liverpool on 1 November 1937, Melia was a talented schoolboy international footballer discovered as a 15-year-old by former Brighton manager Don Welsh, who took over as Liverpool boss in 1951.
Melia joined Liverpool straight from St Anthony’s School and signed as a pro on his 17th birthday in 1954 when manager-to-be Bob Paisley was in charge of the reserve team.
Between the 1955-56 and 1963-64 seasons, Melia played 287 games for the Reds, scoring 78 goals.
One of them came in a home game against Brighton on 10 October 1959. Phil Taylor’s Liverpool were 2-1 down to the Albion that Saturday afternoon and, in the 85th minute, Melia stepped up to take a penalty…and missed. Nevertheless, he atoned for the mistake by slotting home a last-gasp equaliser. A month later, Shankly took over as manager.
In a series of profiles of the leading Liverpool players of the era, journalist Ivan Ponting said: “Jimmy Melia was the principal midfield ideas man as Liverpool rose from the second tier in 1961-62 and he was capped twice in 1963 ahead of sparkling creatively in the opening half of the Reds’ first title campaign under Bill Shankly.”
In only the second game of Alf Ramsey’s reign as England manager, he selected Melia to play for the national side in a 2-1 defeat to Scotland at Wembley on 6 April 1963.
Then on 5 June 1963, in Basle, he was one of the goalscorers in the side that hammered Switzerland 8-1; Bobby Charlton scored a hat-trick but remarkably Jimmy Greaves didn’t get on the scoresheet.
Back at Liverpool the following season, when Melia was sidelined by a minor ankle injury, Shankly reshuffled his line-up, moved centre-forward Ian St John into a more deep lying role and put Alf Arrowsmith up top. The change worked so well that Melia never did regain his regular place in the team.
“It was a stunning blow and a surprise to the balding Merseysider whose flair, industry and intelligence had been so productive, with his through-passing an exquisite speciality, even if some fans disliked what they saw as over-elaboration on the ball,” Ponting wrote for Back Pass magazine.
Melia was sold to Wolves for a then record fee of £48,000 in March 1964, but because he had played a certain number of games for Liverpool earlier in the season, was awarded a medal when the Reds were crowned champions.
It was the legendary Stan Cullis who had taken him to Molineux and, Melia told Charlie Bamforth for wolvesheroes.com, it was with the intention of him subsequently moving into a coaching role. But, when Cullis was sacked before the end of the year, his replacement, Andy Beattie, swiftly dispensed with Melia’s services, offloading him to Southampton in December 1964 for £30,000.
At The Dell, Melia joined forces with the likes of Terry Paine and Martin Chivers and, in 1965, helped Ted Bates’ side to promotion to the top division.
He was an ever present in the side during their first top division campaign, notable as a provider of crosses for Ron Davies and Chivers.
Eventually, the emerging Mike Channon took his place and, in 1968, after making 152 Saints appearances, on the strength of a recommendation from his old boss Cullis (by then manager of Birmingham), Aldershot paid £9,000 for him to become player-coach. The following April he became player-manager.
When he was sacked in January 1972, having made 134 league appearances for the Shots, he moved back to the north west as player-manager of lowly Crewe Alexandra but finally hung up his boots in May that year to concentrate on the manager’s job.
As a lowly league manager, Melia seldom came to the wider public’s attention, but when the opportunity arose, he was quick to seize it. Before another FA Cup third round match, this time against Huddersfield, he told Goal magazine any success he’d had as a manager could be put down to the influence of Shankly and his managers at Wolves and Southampton, Cullis and Bates.
“I was lucky,” said Jimmy. “You can’t help but learn from men such as these and I consider myself very fortunate to have served under them.”
In his first season as manager of Crewe Alexandra, his inexperienced team finished bottom and had to seek re-election to the league (in those days relegation was not automatic).
“I believe some of the youngsters we have here are destined for great futures. But perhaps you need a little more than just skill and enthusiasm to be successful,” he told Goal in July 1973.
Melia was clearly scarred by his treatment at Crewe. He told Ian Jarrett of The Sun: “We finished in the bottom four and were in danger of getting kicked out of the league so I spent days ringing around all my mates to get the votes to save us at the annual (league) meeting.
“I succeeded and went away feeling pretty happy until a phone call from the chairman warned me that I had only narrowly survived a vote of confidence.
“The following September I was made manager of the month but the club called an extraordinary meeting, got rid of the chairman, and soon after that I was out on my ear.
“The experience taught me a lesson.”
In 1975, Melia had three months as manager of Southport, before ending the same year coaching in the Middle East.
He then moved to the USA and linked up with a former Wolves teammate, Laurie Calloway to become his assistant coach at NSL side Southern California Lazers. In 1979, Melia moved to Ohio to become coach of Cleveland Cobras.
A window back into the English game opened in April 1980 when Brighton boss Alan Mullery appointed him as the club’s chief scout.
Looking back now, it seems a tad ironic that Albion chairman Mike Bamber was all for sacking him and other members of Mullery’s backroom staff in the summer of 1981 to save money. Mullery refused – and subsequently left the club himself.
Melia retained his position under Mullery’s successor, Mike Bailey, who, despite taking the Albion to their highest ever finishing position (13th) in 1982, failed to win over fans with a style of football that saw them stay away in their thousands.
A concerned Bamber finally brought down the curtain on the Bailey era in December 1982, handing the first team managerial reins on a caretaker basis jointly to Melia and loyal backroom ‘boy’ George Aitken (himself a former manager who, like Melia, had been a player under Bill Shankly, during his time at Workington).
From the outset, it was Melia who put himself forward to handle interviews with the press, TV and radio, and, as the club progressed in the FA Cup, so the spotlight began to shine brighter on the Liverpudlian, especially with that tie at Anfield.
Inevitably, the question kept arising as to whether Melia would land the manager’s job on a permanent basis and, in one of many interviews, he somewhat tellingly said: “I’d love the job and, if we stay up, that will improve my chances. But I’m not going to attempt to survive by playing boring, safety-first football.”
In a comment that was something of an oxymoron, Melia told Paul Weaver of the News of the World: “I don’t want to say anything against my predecessor, Mike Bailey, but I wouldn’t have paid money to watch Brighton in the first half of the season.”
Perhaps not surprising, then, that in a veterans’ charity match played at Selhurst Park just before the semi-final, Bailey refused a request to be photographed with Melia, albeit he was happy to pose alongside Mullery.
By then, Melia had indeed finally been given the manager’s role on a permanent basis (once Norwich had been defeated in the quarter final). On 16 March 1983, Bamber took him out to lunch at a Hove hotel to break the news.
In a front-page splash on the Argus, Melia said: “This is the happiest day of my life. It is a dream to be manager of a First Division club with also the possibility of taking them to Wembley.
“I am just pleased the chairman has given me the opportunity, and I hope to stay at the club for the next 20 years.” It would, of course, turn out to be closer to 20 weeks!
As excitement built in the run-up to the Cup Final, Bamber told Argus reporter Phil Mills: “Jimmy knows the game from A to Z but what I particularly like is that he’s always bubbling. He’s lively and looks on the positive side of things – even when we lose.
“The Jimmy Melia story is a fairy tale – three months ago he was our chief scout. Now he’s leading the Albion to Wembley for the FA Cup Final.
“You couldn’t get a better fairy tale than that.”
There’s no doubting Melia milked the moment, but who could blame him?
He told Ian Jarrett in The Sun: “I must make this situation count because I might never be involved in anything like it again.
“I have felt like the President of the United States in the past couple of weeks. Everyone has wanted to shake my hand and cars have beeped me in the street. It’s heaven to be in this position and I think everyone in the club should make the most of it.”
The Daily Mail even went as far as describing the opposing managers for the 1983 final as “Liberace meets Max Wall”, rather playing on the fact United’s Ron Atkinson had a penchant for bling and the follicly-challenged Melia bore something of a resemblance to the comedian and actor renowned for a silly walk. John Roberts wrote: “Little Jim has given his usual 110 per cent in the discos, a chest-revealing Tom Jones shirt, black leather trousers, white dancing shoes and glamourous girlfriend offsetting a glistening dome that is just made for the Seagulls.”
The writer continued: “Brighton’s progress to Wembley for the first time in their history has made a relegation season tolerable and enabled the 46-year-old Melia to recapture a measure of the prestige he enjoyed as a player.
“As a nimble, intelligent inside forward he won Second and First Division championship medals with Liverpool and played for England. Some of his friends consider that he suffered to a degree for being a home-produced player rather than a fashionable big-money signing.”
Roberts even quoted comedian Jimmy Tarbuck, a boyhood friend of Melia’s, who said: “To use an old showbusiness saying, Jimmy’s been there and back.”
Who knows what might have happened had Albion actually won that Cup Final?
Melia will forever be associated with taking the club to what was then a globally-watched event and raising their profile to heights never previously achieved.
The cold, hard reality, though, was that Brighton’s brief stay among the elite of English football was over. Melia’s open, expansive style of play had been punished in the league, resulting in relegation and a loss of status that took 33 years to restore.
Melia had designs on boosting his coaching staff in the summer of 1983 with the introduction of his old pal Laurie Calloway, but Bamber had other ideas and, without consulting his manager, instead installed former Albion defender Chris Cattlin as first team coach.
From the outset, it was evident the two were not going to see eye to eye and it wasn’t long into the new season before it emerged publicly that Cattlin was actually picking the team.
Eventually Melia couldn’t continue with what was clearly an untenable position and resigned, but, in a rather tawdry denouement, appeared being carried shoulder-high on the north stand terrace at the next home game amid cries of ‘Bamber out, Melia in’.
At the time, there were rumblings of an Albion takeover from businessman Jeffrey Kruger and Bamber described Melia as “a disgrace” and claimed he had been operating as a mole for Kruger.
Nothing came of the takeover and the dust had not long settled on the end of Melia’s Albion association when he moved to Portugal and spent three years as boss of Belenenses, taking them to a top five finish.
Former Argus Albion reporter John Vinicombe reflected on Melia’s career in a wistful piece for the newspaper in 2001, and recalled: “Back in England Jimmy had a brief spell in charge at Stockport, then it was time to move on to Kuwait and Dubai, San Francisco, San Jose and Dallas.”
He subsequently settled in Dallas and became technical director for Liverpool’s academy in Texas.
Pictures from various sources including the Argus, The Sun, The News of the World, Shoot! and Goal magazines.