|Woking's Tim Buzaglo grabbed a hat-trick at the Hawthorns in 1991|
The FA Cup is part of our heritage; it’s in our genetic make-up. Over the years winners have paraded the trophy in open-top buses to adoring crowds. When Manchester United withdrew from the competition in 2000 to compete in the Club World Championship in Brazil it caused a national outrage. It just wasn’t the done thing. It’s the FA Cup; you can’t just decide not to take part. It is an honour to compete.
As a nation, we collectively love the Third Round for its sense of David against Goliath; the chance that you might see the mighty fall at the hands of a motley crew of call-centre workers and pipe welders from Leatherhead or Blyth. And if this drama is played out on a muddy quagmire of a pitch on a freezing cold day then so much the better. If the ball is struggling to roll properly and star South American centre forwards’ teeth chatter as they pull their hands up inside their sleeves to keep warm, you can almost taste the giant killing before it actually happens. Sometimes you can just see it in the players' eyes as the opposition captain shouts: “They don’t fancy this today, lads!”
Giant killing has been a proud English pastime for as long as the FA Cup has been around. Perhaps the most impressive upsets of the ‘black-and-white’ era of football were Walsall’s 2-0 triumph over Herbert Chapman’s star-studded Arsenal side in 1933, and Worcester City of the Southern League beating Liverpool 2-1 in 1959. The Reds would go on to appoint Bill Shankly in the aftermath of that shocking defeat, and thankfully for the red half of the city they wouldn’t taste such embarrassment again until 1994 when Bristol City went to Anfield and beat Liverpool 1-0 on their own turf. That defeat also did for another Liverpool manager in Graeme Souness. They take a dim view of humiliation up on Merseyside.
The advent of colour television brought with it a gritty realism that transformed televised football. Firstly, you could tell the teams apart – generally considered a plus. Furthermore, when a poorly irrigated pitch was muddy and puddle-covered, it got beamed into millions of homes in glorious technicolour – allowing viewers at home to saviour every moment as some highly paid internationals got chased all over the pitch at a packed lower league ground so full that supporters were practically spilling onto the pitch.
The most famous such occasion – and it is here that we welcome the excitable voice of John Motson into the world of FA Cup Third Round upsets – was when Hereford United welcomed Newcastle to their Edgar Street ground in 1972. Motty summed it all up with suitably flabbergasted commentary to a television audience of 14 million captivated viewers as Hereford beat the Magpies 2-1, thanks in part to an absolute screamer of a goal from Ronnie Radford. For the tiny minority of you not familiar with the goal, it’s well worth watching it on Youtube just to soak up the moment – and delight in the sight of fans running onto the pitch, so giddy with delight that they don’t know which way to turn. The televised cup upset was born and the nation lapped it up gleefully.
Three years later and non-league Wimbledon would knock out (then First Division) Burnley 1-0 in 1975. Wimbledon then proceeded to march up the divisions and take their place as underdogs in the top flight. Despite surviving there for over a decade, Wimbledon were always viewed as ‘little Wimbledon’ or ‘plucky Wimbledon’ due to their small attendances and their direct brand of football. That changed in 1988 when Wimbledon overcame all the odds and won the FA Cup at Wembley, beating the mighty Liverpool in the final by a single goal.
Skip forward nine years from 1975 and Liverpool had well and truly got their ship in order and were enjoying an unprecedented spell of domestic dominance. Less so their great rivals Manchester United, for whom the days of Matt Busby and George Best were beginning to feel like a long time ago. This was a United team lacking in flair and lacking in trophies. But they must have thought a cup run was on the cards when they got drawn against Bournemouth in the Third Round in 1984. But they didn’t even manage a goal as the Cherries won 2-0 and secured their place in giant-killing history.
So what are the ingredients that we can look for when trying to spot a potential Third Round upset? In truth, there are many. What you’re looking for is the magic combination of: a famous name, away from home to little team, having been in wretched form in the league, with a manager who is under pressure to keep his job.
Many eyebrows were raised when Coventry City beat Tottenham Hotspur 3-2 in a classic 1987 FA Cup Final. Two seasons later, Coventry took their newfound reputation as cup thoroughbreds to tiny non-league Sutton United. Eight-thousand fans crammed into Sutton’s diminutive Gander Green Lane to watch the drama unfold. Sutton manager Barrie Williams felt that Coventry were vulnerable to set pieces and sent his team out with instructions to exploit this perceived achilles heel. It worked a treat as they scored two goals from corner kicks, sending their fans into raptures and delighting a huge television audience. The 1987 Cup winners had been humbled.
Two years later came that even more scarce of occasions—little team beats famous name in their own backyard. West Bromwich Albion had an illustrious FA Cup history, lifting the trophy five times over the decades. And when part-timers Woking made the trip to the Hawthorns, most people were expecting a whitewash in favour of the home team. But it proved to be a black day in the Black Country when, despite West Brom taking an early lead, Woking stormed back to win 4-2, with unknown striker Tim Buzaglo grabbing a dramatic hat-trick that dominated the newspaper back pages the following morning. But if Buzaglo’s antics really warmed the hearts of neutral football lovers everywhere, there was even better to come the following season.
In the early 1990s, nobody liked Arsenal, apart from Arsenal fans. They were defence-minded, and a far cry from the elaborate brand of football they’ve played during Arsene Wenger’s tenure – more famous for a well-worked offside trap than the intricate passing of today.
Top of the league table and looking strong, Arsenal journeyed to north Wales to play Wrexham, who were Arsenal’s polar opposite. While Arsenal flew the flag at the top of the Football League, Wrexham were propping it up at the bottom – they sat in last place in the old Fourth Division. The two teams were essentially the bookends between which all other league clubs could be found. And so there was surely only going to be one winner as Arsenal entered the closing stages of the game with their customary 1-0 lead. But with eight minutes to go, wily veteran Mickey Thomas – once of Manchester United – hammered in a free-kick, before youngster Steve Watkin slid in a winner past David Seaman in the Arsenal goal, to the collective cheers of a nation weary of ‘boring, boring Arsenal’.
Recent years have been a little short on memorable Third Round upsets so far – Shrewsbury’s 2-1 victory over Everton in 2003 standing out as perhaps the best – so maybe this is the season when we get a really big one. Premier League sides are so strong these days that upsets are getting fewer. But we’ve still had some classic Third Round moments, even if the big guns have not been sent packing as often as we might have liked.
Cardiff City’s then-owner Sam Hammam’s controversial dancing around the pitch as they beat Premier League Leeds stands out as one such memorable (albeit ill-advised) moment – but the finest advert for the Third Round in recent times came at Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road in 2006, when the home team stormed into a 3-1 lead, only to have their hearts broken as Liverpool came storming back to win 5-3, including a stunning lobbed goal scored by Xabi Alonso from inside his own half of the field.
Of course, sometimes an upset doesn’t necessarily involve a victory. Just holding a footballing giant to a draw still constitutes a mammoth achievement for a comparative minnow. That’s just what Burton Albion did in the same weekend as Liverpool’s exciting comeback at Luton. Burton, managed by Nigel Clough, welcomed Manchester United to their Pirelli Stadium. Against a United side featuring Rooney and Ronaldo, Burton clung on for a resolute 0-0 draw, earning them a money-spinning replay at Old Trafford in front of a 53,000 crowd. With gate receipts shared equally for FA Cup ties, Burton long felt the benefit of their day in the spotlight. That they lost 5-0 was academic – the point is, they got there.
Modified from a piece I originally wrote a few years ago when this blog was merely a glint in the internet milkman’s eye
UPDATE: Some of the big boys have done their own Third Round reminiscing ahead of the weekend too. So if you're hungry for more, here's links to the Independent, the Telegraph, MSN and ITV.