This week has seen the culmination of the FA Cup third round and with it, a degree of the annual navel-gazing and (mostly rhetorical) pondering of ‘where did it all go wrong for the FA Cup?’.
As is now almost compulsory at this time of year, when and how the competition lost its lustre over the years has been debated and examined at length in certain quarters.
This article does not intend to dwell too much on the reasons for the decline in importance of the tournament as such, but rather to look at the concept of ‘Cup Shocks’ in general. It will examine the very definition of what constitutes a ‘Cup Shock’, whilst contending that they seem to be largely a thing of the past.
Ask people of a certain age for their opinion on the greatest FA Cup shocks of all time, and it is a safe bet that the same half-dozen or so chestnuts will be regurgitated. Fourth Division Colchester United’s 1971 victory over Don Revie’s all-conquering Leeds United will no doubt feature high on this list, as will non-league Hereford United’s 2-1 victory over Newcastle a year later.
There will be shout-outs for Sutton United’s 2-1 victory over top-flight Coventry City in 1989, less than two years after Coventry had won the trophy at Wembley. In addition, no doubt Wrexham’s famous 1992 victory over reigning league champions Arsenal will at least be mentioned in dispatches.
The last of these matches took place 27 years ago now, and although that statistic is a frightening reminder of one’s mortality, that is not the only consideration. Since the onset of the Premier League, the very being of an FA Cup shock seems to have diminished.
Nowadays, it is not at all unusual to see a top-flight team knocked out by a club from not just the Championship, but also League One and further below. When this happens, only a marginal flicker of a collective raised eyebrow is given, rather than the whole of the footballing fraternity going into shock and potential meltdown as in days gone by.
As long-in-the-tooth as I may be, I do not recall the shocks of the early seventies personally, but I do well remember the reaction to the Coventry and Arsenal defeats, and if these reactions are contrasted to those given following recent shocks, then the difference is startling.
In 2017 for the first time ever, two non-league sides made it all the way to the fifth round of the tournament, and one, Lincoln, made history by becoming the first ever non-league side in the modern game to make the last eight before losing 5-0 to Arsenal at the Emirates.
Although both Sutton United, who lost to Arsenal in the fifth round, and Lincoln City’s exploits were not met exactly with apathy, there was a definite absence of the feeling that the whole country was actually gripped by their exploits.
Despite the fact that Lincoln’s victory over Burnley at Turf Moor in the fifth round constituted one of the only times a non-league side had won a cup game at the home of top-flight opponents, there would be very few takers who would go back to my initial question and rate this as one of the greatest shocks of all time.
This is a pity.
To illustrate this point, how many people reading this article know (without googling it or supporting one of the sides involved) which side prior to Lincoln was the last non-league team to win at the home of top-flight opposition?
Would it surprise most people to know that it was relatively recently, in 2013, and involved two sides that used to meet regularly in the top two divisions in the league derbies just a couple of decades ago?
Another match that really should be held up as one of the all-time shocks but rarely gets a mention as such, is Bradford City’s fantastic 4-2 victory at Chelsea in 2015. (That I had to research the year of this match and not those of Colchester, Hereford, Wrexham and Sutton, either speaks volumes about my advancing years and decline in facilities, or that of the importance of the cup).
At Stamford Bridge, Jose Mourinho’s side were sitting atop of the Premier League, and raced into a 2-0 lead courtesy of goals from Cahill and Ramires, before the League One side hit back with four goals for a truly remarkable win. One would think that this result deserves to be in the annals of the Greatest Shocks Ever.
The fact that it is not really considered so is, of course, due to the dulling light of the competition in general. When progress or survival in whichever division the protagonists happen to find themselves in is so much more important than cup progress, much less prestige and consideration is naturally awarded such results.
Although Chelsea’s side that day included such luminaries as Cech, Cahill, Oscar, Drogba, and a certain Salah, it was perhaps still seen as a weakened side and so Bradford’s victory is not placed upon the same pedestal as, say, Colchester’s victory over a full-strength Leeds is.
Other examples of ‘forgotten’ cup shocks in recent times could include Liverpool’s 2008 home defeat by Barnsley, or Manchester United being taken to a replay by non-league teams in successive seasons in 2005 and 2006. Again, without googling, can any non-United-supporting readers recall the teams involved in causing Sir Alex a smidgen of embarrassment?
Within the FA Cup the final itself is another bone of contention with regards what constitutes an upset or a shock. Commonly understood to be major happenings are Sunderland’s 1973 victory over (almost) perennial bridesmaids, Leeds United, as well as Southampton beating Tommy Doc and his 1976 Manchester United team. A case for West Ham beating Arsenal in 1980 could also be made.
These are considered surprises not only because top-flight opposition was overcome by a second tier team each time, but also because of the calibre of the vanquished. Leeds, United and Arsenal were all seen as being amongst the top sides in the country at the time, while none of their victors were even especially strong second division teams during the respective seasons.
An unlikely victory that is often put forward as being one of the great upsets in FA Cup final history is that of Wimbledon’s frankly ridiculous defeat of all-conquering Liverpool in 1988. John Motson’s famous (and obviously pre-prepared) quote of ‘the crazy gang have beaten the culture club’ seemed to hit the nail on the head at the time.
Liverpool fans may grumble that this was not really a real upset given that the two teams were in the same division and finished a mere six places apart in the table that season, but this would be to ignore certain other factors such as the recent history and relative financial clout of the two clubs at the time.
Liverpool’s 1987-88 season had been an extraordinary one with only three prior defeats in all competitions, and with a multi-million-pound line-up, they were expected to blow the Dons away.
History relates the extent to which things did not go to plan, however, and Liverpool fans will forever have to bear the cross of being on the receiving end of one of the biggest upsets of all time.
Perhaps Manchester City’s last-minute defeat to an already-relegated Wigan Athletic in 2013 could run the 1988 final close in the shock stakes. However, by the second decade of the new millennium the shine of the FA Cup had well and truly passed and so attention and interest in Wigan’s achievement have not been recorded with the same intensity.
To close, what of perhaps the greatest FA Cup shock ever? This game took place not on the plush open spaces of Wembley, nor even in the competition proper.
Instead, it occurred in 1979 on a ploughed field in Cambridgeshire in a first-round qualifying match and probably highlights the fact that what truly constitutes a shock is the context in which it occurs.
Southern League Chelmsford City, who themselves had appeared in the FA Cup fourth round in the 1930s, had fallen somewhat from the dizzy heights when they were considered as one of the best non-league teams in the country, yet were still expected to have too much in the locker for their opponents from the Peterborough and District League league, Parsons Drove.
What happened on that warm September afternoon is still whispered about by those old enough to remember. With no changing facilities available, players changed in their cars before literally stepping onto a roped-off pitch.
Supporters paid an entrance fee to a club volunteer sat behind a single table and were, in turn, handed a single sheet programme.
Quite how Parson’s facilities were deemed acceptable for entrance into the flagship tournament of English football is perhaps a moot point, but the fact that Parsons Drove triumphed by two goals to nil over a side seven divisions higher than themselves must run Vinnie Jones and his mates’ achievements close in the ‘giant-killing’ stakes.