By Richard D J J Bowdery.
This is the week that lower league and non-league footballers dream about; the opportunity to go toe to toe with their more illustrious cousins.
However, for those clubs in England’s top division facing opposition further down the pecking order it was either a stroll to the fourth round or a banana skin upset, resulting in ignominy. Rarely was there any middle ground.
Certainly the press, the pundits, the chairman, the manager and, most importantly, the supporters expected the First Division side to come out on top. But a trip down memory lane is littered with examples of teams from the apex of football’s pyramid falling prey to the minnows in the third round.
Who can forget the ‘mighty’ Sutton United’s humbling of Coventry City who, back in 1989, were playing in the top flight?
On 7 January 1989 the non-league Conference side, with home advantage, took on the side who less than two years earlier had lifted the Cup after beating Spurs 3-2 at Wembley.
Sutton took the lead through their captain Tony Rains. As news of the underdog’s lead trickled out the shock echoed across the footballing world with people asking if the unthinkable could really happen?
It seemed not when Coventry’s David Phillips equalized. Normal service was resumed. Or so most neutrals thought. That was until Matthew Hanlon stole into the box and fired home a sensational goal that sent the home fans into raptures.
Who can forget Hanlon ripping off his shirt and using it to impersonate a windmill?
Despite a concerted effort by Coventry to draw level – denied by the woodwork on several occasions and some last-ditch defending – Sutton held on to record one of the greatest upsets in FA Cup history.
At the final whistle the crowd were delirious. And Coventry City were sent to…eh Coventry.
Another milestone in FA Cup giant killing came at Edgar Street, home to Hereford United in February 1972. In some people’s eyes this upset surpassed even that of Sutton, because it was the first time a non-league club had beaten a top-flight team in the Cup since Yeovil Town overcame Sunderland 2-1 in 1949.
What is remarkable about Hereford’s route to FA Cup glory was that as they played in the Southern League their cup campaign started in the 4th qualifying round. Their match against Newcastle United in the 3rd round proper, therefore, was their 7th.
First Division Newcastle, with several international players in their side including England’s Malcolm McDonald, looked odds on to swat these non-league upstarts out of the competition.
In the first match at St. James’ Park the game ended 2-2, the result taking everyone by surprise; not least United’s thoroughbreds. Perhaps a replay should have had the Geordie fans a little worried. But lightning doesn’t strike twice, does it?
At Edgar Street first blood went to Newcastle thanks to a late goal from McDonald. The fourth round was within touching distance. But they reckoned without Ronnie Radford.
With time running out for the minnows Radford picked up a loose ball and from 30 yards fired in the equaliser.
Even now I can hear the excited, stunned, and at the same time, elated voice of John Motson, commentating for Match of the Day.
If memory serves me correctly the home fans with unabated joy flooded onto the pitch. Soon afterwards the whistle blew for full-time.
So to extra-time. Though the pitch was cut-up and boggy the semi-pros managed to find the strength to take the game to Newcastle United, probably carried along more by adrenalin than by stamina and fitness.
It fell to Hereford’s Ricky George to hole Newcastle below the waterline and sink the First Division outfit with the deciding goal of the game. The minnows were through to the fourth round and, in the process, became the stuff of FA Cup folklore.
Could it happen today? Probably not.
The Premier League, with the money to buy the best in the world, is head and shoulders above the old First Division. The fitness levels required of today’s superstars far surpasses the days of yesteryear when a player having a fag in the toilet at half-time was not unheard of.
What was once a more level playing field is now tilted very much in the big boys favour. Could anyone seriously imagine say Salisbury City of the Conference Premier Division beating Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium?
But then again this is the FA Cup. And as James Bond once famously quipped: “Never say never again.”
Finally, I would like to wish all the readers of this column and of Bobby FC a very happy New Year.