The FA Cup is the Holy Grail for non-league clubs. There, they can make their mark amidst a pack of lions in clubs from Championship and the Premier League. When tier-five club Sutton United got matched with Arsenal on Monday, their boss Paul Doswell said it was like ‘the World Cup final’. For a non-league club, playing against one Europe’s biggest teams is a treat by itself. On top of that, they will receive around £100k for TV rights. But for a non-league club to beat some of the highest-paid professionals in football is an entirely different matter. It’s like a small kid fighting an SAS veteran, or to use Jeremy Clarkson’s war musings about the Falkland war, it’s like ‘fighting against a midget’, from Arsenal’s perspective at least.
Still, a few hiccups from major clubs adorn the history of the FA cup. Here are the best five I could find:
5. Sutton United – Coventry, 1989
Sutton are no strangers to big upsets. In 1989, they squared against the winners of from two years before, Coventry City, whose side remained relatively unchanged since the success.
Unfazed by the huge crowd and their amused faces, the bunch of Sutton players walked out together on the pitch. Three minutes from half-time break, Sutton’s captain Tony Rains headed the ball in after a corner for 1-0. There was something endearing to the whole-hearted celebration and the subsequent gesture of encouragement by Rains afterwards. It seemed they wanted more.
Coventry responded in the 52th minute when defender David Philips converted after having been released in one on one against Sutton’s keeper. It is then, when people in the stadium expected Coventry to build on that, when Sutton received another corner: a short pass, a cross and another goal, this time by Mathew Hanlan, who ran towards Sutton fans as if the pitch was water.
Coventry pressed on but two posts and bar denied them the equaliser, so amazing scenes occurred after the final whistle. Sutton had beaten a top-echelon side for the first time in their history.
Next round, Norwich thrashed them 8-0.
4. Manchester United – Exeter City, 2005
Non-league team Exeter did not win their match at Old Trafford in 2005, but the positives of what they did brought fundamental changes to their club.
In front of 67,000 people at the Theater of Dreams they battled United and came close on opening the score on several occasions. Seeing his struggling reserve side, Ferguson brought out the big guns, Christiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes, but even they were incapable of breaking a terrific Exeter City.
The draw was a feat on its own, but the income from the replay’s gate receipts and the TV rights wiped out Exeter’s debt, just like that.
3. Norwich City – Luton Town, 2013
This one is from the 2013 FA Cup fourth round fixture between Norwich City and non-league side Luton Town. On the way, Luton had beaten championship side Wolverhapmton, but in the Canaries they faced a Premier League side, and no non-league club had beaten a top tier club in 24 years.
Nothing in this match hinted that it might be otherwise. From the start, Norwich barraged the amateurs with chances, one of the other, but it seemed luck was on Luton’s side this day. Not even Harry Kane could break the deadlock. The boring 0-0 carved on the score board mocked the Canaries until Scott Rendell converted a clinical break from the left ten minutes from the final whistle to give the hosts a surprising one-goal advantage. When the match finished, Luton players gathered together to celebrate in a cup-winning fashion. They had made history.
2. Birmingham City – Altrincham, 1986
A warning of the intoxicating power of the potential attention non-league clubs could receive with a successful FA climb shone through back in 1986 in a third round FA Cup meeting between top flight side Birmingham City and Altrincham.
For the amateurs, it was not the match per se, but the prize that mattered. Altrincham won 2-1 courtesy of an own goal in the 75th minute. They had become only the second non-club to slay a Premier League side, and for that, they expected the cameras pointed at them. When this didn’t happen to the desired degree, it became counterproductive as they slipped from the promotion spot in their league soon after, to stay an ‘amateur club’ for another decade.
1. Hereford United – Newcastle, 1972
This match had it all, a dramatic script, pitch invasions, dazzling runs, a beautiful goal, Benny Hill vibe, David vs Goliath and a pitch muddy beyond belief. Some 9,000 people had gathered, climbed trees, house roofs and floodlight pylons, just to witness non-league side Hereford play Newcastle at their 5000-capacity Edgar Street Ground.
The elevated intensity in the muddy bath provided lots of open spaces and chances for both teams. Unsurprisingly, it was the Premier League side that scored first in the 82th minute in what seemed like the winning touch.
Hereford’s Ronnie Redford rebuffed that three minutes later with a goal which even Dennis Bergkamp would’ve cherished. The ensuring pitch invasion by hundreds of fans made the situation even more ridiculous. Hereford had reached extra time. Then, Ricky George, who had been brought in for Roger Girifiths in the minutes after Newcastle’s goal, scored the winner and ensured another pandemonium. It was one the finest games ever, by any standards, on a muddy pitch.
Arsenal – Lincoln City, March, 2017
Watch this space.