Published: 10:24 | 4/1/21

FA Cup Stories: We Could Be Heroes

The FA Cup third round is the stuff of dreams for lower and non-league clubs as they get the chance to become heroes, to upset the big boys and write their names into footballing folklore forever.

In footballing terms, the FA Cup third round is the great leveller. It’s the time when two teams battle it out on the same pitch as equals for 90 minutes, regardless of status. 

It pays scant regard to history or to reputation. The little clubs long for it, the big ones fear it. Who will it be this time? There is always one - who will fall victim to the giant killers?

It’s all part of the charm of the oldest association football competition in the world.

The FA Cup was first played back in 1872 when Wanderers, a team of former public schoolboys from London, beat Royal Engineers in the first final at the Kennington Oval, now the home to Surrey County Cricket Club. They went on to win it five times over the course of seven years. They were the dominant team of the day, but that is no guarantee of success as so many have found out since.

Anything can happen in the FA Cup. That is why we love it so much. Here are some of the most memorable giant killing feats down through the years.

Colchester v Leeds United (1971)

They were once the mightiest team in the land – that’s Leeds, not Colchester! Under manager Don Revie they won the league twice and finished runners-up on five occasions between 1965-74. They also won the Fairs Cup, later the UEFA Cup and now the Europa League, twice over the same period and appeared in four FA Cup finals, winning in 1972. They had lost out to Chelsea following a replay the previous year and were one of the favourites for the cup when they visited Fourth Division Colchester in the fifth round on a cold February afternoon in 1971.

Colchester manager Dick Graham ordered chairs and other obstacles to be placed close to the sidelines to create the impression for the visitors that the pitch wasn’t wide enough for their usual expansive game. It worked and the home side raced into a 3-0 interval lead following two Ray Crawford strikes and another from Dave Simmons after a goalkeeping error saw the ball land at his feet in front of an open goal.

Leeds fought back through Norman Hunter and Johnny Giles after the break, but couldn’t find an equaliser as Colchester held out for a famous 3-2 win. They were thrashed 5-0 by Everton at Goodison Park in the quarter-final, but their place in FA Cup history was already assured.

Hereford v Newcastle (1972)

After a 2-2 draw at St James’ Park, Ronnie Radford’s goal which sent this third round replay into extra time has become the stuff of legend and is still talked about to this day. His 30-yard screamer on a mud-bath pitch at Edgar Street is considered one of the greatest goals in the history of the tournament. It cancelled out Malcolm MacDonald’s early opener for the high-flying Division One side and sparked a massive pitch invasion as what looked like the entirety of the border town joined in the celebrations.

Substitute Ricky George sealed a 2-1 victory for the Southern League outfit in extra time to spark a second pitch invasion and seal what is arguably the greatest giant killing of all time. They almost repeated the success in the following round before going out to another First Division side, West Ham, 2-1 in a replay at Upton Park.

Sutton United v Coventry (1989)

Another famous giant killing as Conference side Sutton United defeated First Division Coventry City 2-1 in the less than illustrious surrounds of the Borough Sports Ground. Coventry had won the cup for the first time in their history just 18 months previously, but goals from Tony Rains and Matt Hanlan ensured that Sutton remained the last non-league club to knock-out a top flight side until Luton Town beat Norwich City 1-0 in the fourth round at Carrow Round some 24 years later.

Wrexham v Arsenal (1992)

This giant killing is remembered as much for Mickey Thomas’s cheeky wink and superb free-kick as anything else as the reigning league champions were dumped out of the cup in the third round at a damp and dreary Racecourse Ground by the team who had finished 92 places below them the previous season and only remained in the league by virtue of the fact that there was no relegation to the Conference that year.

Former Manchester United favourite and Welsh international Thomas, then 37 and very much in the twilight of his playing career, wrote his name into the history books by earning a soft free-kick just outside the Arsenal box (cue the cheeky wink!). He then proceeded to curl a superb 25-yarder beyond David Seaman to cancel out Alan Smith’s opener.

The writing was on the wall for George Graham’s side after that as they had failed to take advantage of their early dominance and Steve Wadkin duly hooked in an ungainly winner to secure a remarkable 2-1 win for the Welsh club.

Liverpool v Barnsley (2008)

The 2008 FA Cup is one that will live long in the memory of Barnsley fans as the Yorkshire outfit defeated two Premier League sides en route to the semi-final. Then doing little more than treading water in the Championship, they were a team transformed for their cup run. Their finest moment came with skipper Brian Howard’s dramatic injury time winner against Liverpool at Anfield in the fifth round.

The home side had played in the Champions League final just six months previously and were ahead early on through Dirk Kuyt. But Steven Foster levelled matters before Howard stole all the headlines with a late winner.

Their reward was a home tie with star-studded Chelsea at Oakwell in the quarter-final whom they duly despatched courtesy of Kayode Odejayi's solitary goal before going out to Cardiff City in the semi-final.

Manchester United v Leeds (2010)

The fall of Leeds from Premier League high-flyers to League One journeymen within the space of three years is well known. It is a sordid tale of how an unhealthy cocktail of grasping ambition and financial profligacy can make fools of us all.

They were top of League One and seemingly on the long road to recovery when they faced bitter rivals Manchester United in the FA Cup third round at Old Trafford. It looked a foregone conclusion for Alex Ferguson’s side, but striker Jermaine Beckford put Leeds ahead early on. The home side pushed hard for an equaliser, but Leeds goalkeeper Casper Ankergren produced a string of fine saves to deny United and secure a memorable victory.

Final upsets

Giant killings are not just the preserve of the earlier rounds – there have been more than one or two shock results in the final too.

Sunderland v Leeds (1973)

Sunderland’s defeat of holders Leeds in 1973 remains perhaps the biggest final shock of all. Leeds had beaten Arsenal in the final the previous year and were set to play the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup final just a few days after their date with the Black Cats (they lost that one too!). Don Revie’s side were overwhelming favourites for the Wembley encounter – they had internationals in every position on the pitch while Sunderland were struggling in the lower reaches of the old Second Division.

Once again, the result appeared a foregone conclusion, but that’s not how things turned out as the game turned on two crucial moments. The first came just after the half hour mark as Ian Porterfield, who was later to manage Chelsea, volleyed home from 12 yards through a crowded penalty area after Leeds had failed to clear a corner.

The Yorkshire outfit hit back and Sunderland goalkeeper Jim Montgomery was forced to make several fine saves to preserve their lead. His finest moment came midway through the second half as he first palmed away a close range Trevor Cherry header before somehow diverting Peter Lorimer’s rasping shot onto the underside of the crossbar and away to safety. It was enough to win the cup for Bob Stokoe’s side, the first time that a team from outside the top division had won the trophy since West Brom back in 1931.

Southampton v Manchester United (1976)

Tommy Docherty’s Manchester United were expected to claim their first trophy since the 1968 European Cup when they lined out against Second Division Southampton in the 1976 FA Cup final. But they were forced to wait another 12 months before tasting cup glory (they went on to beat Liverpool 2-1 in the 1977 final) as a Bobby Stokes goal seven minutes from time was enough to give Lawrie McMenemy’s side a memorable victory in a tight encounter.

Wimbledon v Liverpool (1988)

Wimbledon’s 1-0 win over Liverpool in 1988 has gone down in the annals as a major shock even though both clubs were in the top division at the time. The Merseysiders had just won the league and were looking to become the first team to secure a second domestic double, while the ‘Crazy Gang’, as Wimbledon’s cohort of misfits was known, had just completed their second season in the top flight. With a team that included the likes of Vinnie Jones, Lawrie Sanchez, Dave Beasant, Alan Cork, Terry Phelan, John Fashanu and Dennis Wise, the club had enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top echelons of English football, having been playing non-league football just eleven years earlier.

Northern Ireland international Sanchez scored what turned out to be the only goal of the game on 37 minutes with a looping near-post header. Liverpool were awarded a penalty on the hour, but Beasant got down well to save John Aldridge’s effort – it was the first time a penalty had been missed in a cup final. Peter Beardsley later had a goal disallowed as Wimbledon held on for a famous victory and their only major trophy to date.

Wigan v Manchester City (2013)

Substitute Ben Watson’s injury time goal secured a narrow 1-0 victory for Wigan. It compounded a miserable campaign for big spending Manchester City who fired manager Roberto Martinez just two days later as, despite a promising start in the league, they ended the season without silverware.  

Things weren’t much better for Wigan. Following defeat to Arsenal four days later, they were relegated after eight seasons in the Premier League, thus becoming the only club to win the cup and be relegated in the same season.  

Images: Getty

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