Thursday, July 18, 2024

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A New Year and new opportunity for the underdogs

As the Christmas holidays end the New Year begins in the footballing calendar with the third round of the FA Cup on Saturday. It is traditionally when firm interests begin in the World's oldest football knockout competition.



With no disrespect to the teams from below the Premiership, there is a greater media and overall focus on the FA Cup when the larger division teams begin their own attempts to reach Wembley in May. In fact a lot of the fascination with the third round of the FA Cup is to do with watching the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United play teams that ply their trade in the lower leagues. Unless a fixture involves your own club, it is most likely that you will find yourself cheering on the underdog. Fans are keen to see any possible future opponents that may stand in their way being removed in an upset.

It shouldn't sound patronising but we do enjoy the successes of the underdog in sport as well as football. This is enforced by the fact that interest is so great as to warrant the act of televising each round being drawn throughout the competition. The FA Cup is spoken of each year with fondness and it almost always with reference to past upsets and surprising cup runs. There is never a year when one of the broadcasters or their commentators fails to mention or show footage of 1972, and Newcastle Utd's 2-1 defeat to non-league Hereford in the third round replay. I know I have just inadvertently continued the tradition, but it will be mentioned in FA Cup coverage at some other time this weekend!

There are many more recent examples of famous shocks in the FA Cup, and like the aforementioned they each become a part of the underdog's folklore. Being an Arsenal fan I won't dwell too much on their shock defeat in 1992 at Wrexham, but the gap between league teams may never have been greater. Arsenal were second in the old First Division at the time whilst Wrexham were battling relegation from the old Third Division, their 2-1 win was decisive proof that any team could win against the odds however unlikely it first seemed.

With the onset of the Premier League and the ongoing arguments about the consistent dominance of the top four clubs in the last ten years, it is perhaps all the more satisfying that the FA Cup still continues to deliver surprising results each season. So much so that in the last ten or so years there has been a semi-regular occurrence of at least one non-Premiership team making it to the semi-final stage, with Millwall and Cardiff having won theirs. The tail end of last season bore witness to an FA Cup semi-final line up that included Portsmouth as the only Premiership team. They won the trophy nonetheless but it is still a very surprising statistic.

In the whole of the history of the FA Cup there have only been 8 winners who were not in the top division - three of them occurred in the seven years from 1973- 1980 when West Ham became the last to do so. Whilst there have consistently been many surprise results over the years, it is inescapable to see that since 1992 there have been just two seasons when Arsenal, Manchester Utd, Liverpool or Chelsea failed to take home the silverware. This could be seen as an indictment of a competition that is even more predictable in its outcome than the Premier League, but in this case the FA Cup has always been of a similar nature. Coinciding with this period of time teams such as Chesterfield, Wycombe and Barnsley have given their fans unimaginable trips to savour at the FA Cup semi-final.


It seems unlikely that any other competition can have provided as many upsets as the FA Cup, and whilst the top teams may still come out on top in the end, it would be a little unjustified to claim that it has lost any of its lustre. It has provided many, many occasions when the lower opposition have caused a singular upset or had a run of some kind, but perhaps the ultimate failure of the underdog demonstrates how when it comes to the final stages there are few tournaments in football that can induce as much pressure and tantalising glory as the FA Cup.



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