There are few better sights in football than a team, against all the odds, toppling a far more illustrious foe. The FA Cup makes these so called ‘giant killings’ possible and it’s what has long made the competition such a cherished part of English football. Every season there are surprise results but occasionally there is a scoreline you can scarcely believe. Here we take a look back at some of the FA Cup’s most unbelievable upsets, the rare times where David has been able to conquer Goliath.
Birmingham City 1 – 2 Altrincham: 3rd Round (1985/86)
Although Birmingham were three months without a win at St Andrew’s you still had to back them beating the only amateur side left in the competition. Their home woe continued however as they became the second First Division side to lose at home to non-league opponents. It was an embarrassing introduction to the history books for the Midlands club, almost as embarrassing as the nature of the decisive goal. Robert Hopkins, the man who had put his side on level terms, steamed into his own box and rolled the ball past a despairing David Seaman.
The result cemented Altringham’s reputation of being cup lovers having drawn to Everton and Tottenham during the 1970s. Their manager, Josh King, had no sympathy for his defeated counterpart, saying that on a contract worth £150,000, he would happily swap places with him. It was a contract that lasted only two days more though as Blues boss Rob Saunders, frustrated with the board, opted to resign.
Hereford 2 – 1 Newcastle: 3rd Round (1971/72)
Drawing 2-2 away at Newcastle was a surprising enough result for non-league Hereford and very much an FA “Cupset” in its own right. However, most people saw it as a mere delay to their inevitable elimination, as there seemed to be no chance of them beating top flight Newcastle who would surely take the return fixture more seriously. There was quite a delay between the matches, as three postponements saw this third round replay played alongside the fourth round fixtures. When it eventually did get underway, fans crammed themselves into every gap at Edgar Street to get a view of the action.
For those not able to get a seat, they had to make do with the radio commentary which was provided by a young trialist by the name of John Motson. The boggy conditions in the West Midlands didn’t suit Newcastle but they were able to take the lead through Malcolm Macdonald. From there it surely seemed there could only be one winner but the Magpies advantage last just three minutes, as Ronnie Radford smashed a bobbling ball into the top corner from all of 30 yards. The strike sparked a pitch invasion and another followed in extra time when substitute Ricky George put the hosts ahead, a goal that ultimately proved to be the winner.
Sutton 2 – 1 Coventry: 3rd Round (1988/89)
Coventry had claimed glory in the 1987 FA Cup final, with an upset of their own as they overcame much-fancied Spurs in the Wembley showpiece. Oh how different their fortunes were just two seasons later. Lowly Sutton were in the Conference when hosting their First Division visitors. For 24 years this match stood as the last time a non-league outfit knocked out a club from the English top flight. Tony Rains gave the minnows the lead but David Phillips, the longstanding Welsh international, levelled the scores. Just seven minutes later, Matthew Hanlan netted from close range inside a penalty area that was sandier than a Caribbean island, albeit not quite as appealing.
The Sky Blues did everything they could to tie the game up but lady luck shunned their cries for help. On one occasion John Sillett’s men hit the woodwork three times in the space of two seconds but still the ball somehow stayed out.
Wrexham 2 – 1 Arsenal: 3rd Round (1992)
Arsenal were the reigning First Division champions but they found out the hard way that nobody is immune to a huge upset. Manager George Graham certainly cannot be accused of taking the match lightly. He named a strong side featuring the likes of Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Tony Adams, among many other of his first choice XI. The match was going according to plan when Alan Smith put the visitors ahead against a side languishing at the bottom of the fourth tier of the football pyramid and, once more, the result looked a formality.
A goal from nothing put Wrexham back on level terms. The 37-year-old Mickey Thomas unleashed a powerful free-kick from over 20 yards out that stung the fingertips of David Seaman on its way in. Roused by this stunning set-piece, the home team grabbed another just two minutes later when Steve Watkins rolled home from close range. Arsenal thought they had spared the tie in the dying moments but were denied when the assistant referee (or linesman!) raised his flag for offside. After the match a sorry looking Graham said the result marked his “lowest moment in football”.
Chelsea 2 – 4 Bradford: 4th Round (2014/15)
Unlike several matches on this list, this was not a case of the underdogs defending for their lives and nicking a goal. Bradford needed much more than that after falling behind at Stamford Bridge against the Premier League leaders. You’d have been forgiven for thinking the tie was over when Ramires put the hosts two ahead 38 minutes in. Even when Jon Stead pulled one back a few minutes it looked like being little more than a consolation.
To everyone’s surprise, the visiting League One side turned up the heat in the second half and ended up knocking out one of the early cup favourites. Filipe Morais got Bradford back on level terms and Andy Halliday sent his teammates into dreamland when blasting in another. Chelsea had time to equalise after this point but hopes of doing so were dashed when Mark Yates slotted home a fourth. Speaking after the match, Jose Mourinho did not regret making nine changes to his starting line-up but did brand his men’s performance ‘disgraceful’.
Norwich 0 – 1 Luton: 4th Round (2012/13)
For the first time ever, a Premier League side was eliminated from the FA Cup at the hands of non-league opposition. A huge 85 places separated the two sides on the footballing ladder and it did rather show for much of the match. Norwich launched attack after attack but a combination of fine goalkeeping and unfortunate finishing ensured the scoreline remained goalless. Not even future England skipper Harry Kane, on loan from Tottenham, was able to break the deadlock.
Having ridden their luck, Luton began to grow into the match and gave Norwich a real scare when Alex Lawless fired just wide. Continuing to press, they got their reward when Scott Rendell nipped in at the front post and fired into the roof of the net. With only 10 minutes left to play, the hosts launched men forward in a desperate attempt to avoid an embarrassing loss. A reprieve almost came there way when Lathaniel Rowe-Turner’s handled inside the box but the incident was missed by the referee and Luton earned their place on our list.
Burnley 0 – 1 Lincoln: 5th Round (2016/17)
Lincoln made history in this match, becoming the first non-league side in over 103 years to reach the quarter finals of the FA Cup. The Imps had beaten Oldham, Ipswich and Brighton to reach this far in the competition, all shocks in their own right but nothing quite compared to beating a Premier League side on their own patch. They began the game 81 places behind the Clarets in the football pyramid but were fully up for the physical challenge that awaited them.
Lincoln manager Danny Cowley described it as “football miracle” and it’s hard to argue with his assessment. Defender Sean Raggett made the miracle possible as he rose highest to head in a corner late on. Tom Heaton almost hooked the ball out but goal-line technology, something unfamiliar to non-league sides, showed the ball had crossed the line. The goal sent the 3,210 travelling fans into raptures and handed the Imps a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals for the first time ever.
Sunderland 1 – 0 Leeds: Final (1972/73)
Leeds were the overwhelming favourites to retain the FA Cup against Second Division outfit Sunderland. There seemed to be no way that the Black Cats could deny Don Revie’s ‘Mighty Whites’, at this time one of the very best sides in Europe, but they did just that during an incredible final. In front of 100,000 people at Wembley, Ian Porterfield smashed the underdogs ahead after Leeds failed to clear a corner. Incidentally, the Scot would later become the first ever Premier League manager to face the sack when fired by Chelsea in 1993 – one for the trivia fans!
It took a monumental effort for Sunderland to defend their lead and at one moment it looked as though they had conceded an equaliser. Goalkeeper Jimmy Montgomery went full stretch to deny Trevor Cherry heading in but could only push the ball towards the feet of the onrushing Peter Lorimer. The goal was at the forward’s mercy but somehow Montgomery was able to fling himself across his goal and divert the ball onto the crossbar and post. To this day it remains as one of the greatest saves in the history of the competition.
Wigan 1 – 0 Manchester City: Final (2012/13)
Although they only had one match left to win, you could get odds of around 10/1 on Wigan being crowned FA Cup champions. Although both sides were in the Premier League, the Latics were on the brink of relegation while City had confirmed their place in the next year’s Champions League and were very much on the up. Despite their contrasting fortunes, Roberto Martinez’s men played without fear and were arguably the better side on the day. Ben Watson scored the winner from a corner late on, handing Wigan their first ever major trophy during their 81 year history.
Five years later the clubs met again in the fifth round of the cup. A formidable Man City were still in the hunt of a quadruple but their hopes were dashed by the then League One side. Wigan’s victory, courtesy of Will Grigg’s strike, was an upset of similar proportions especially as it was only Pep Guardiola’s second domestic defeat in almost 10 months.
Wimbledon 1 – 0 Liverpool: Final (1987/88)
The last ever FA Cup final broadcast by both ITV and the BBC turned out to be one of the great finals of the competition and is the third final to make our list of major upsets in this venerable competition. Liverpool, the giants of English football in the 1980s, had been crowned league champions and were victorious in the FA Cup just two seasons earlier. Although Wimbledon were also plying their trade in the First Division by this point, amazingly they had only entered the Football League 11 years earlier. Their rise was nothing short of remarkable, much like their only FA Cup victory.
The “crazy gang” and their long ball approach was dismissed by critics but it worked wonderfully well against the Reds. Powerful in the air, the underdogs claimed the opening goal through a set piece swung into the box. Lawrie Sanchez nipped ahead of his marker to head past the stranded Bruce Grobbelaar. The Merseysiders were handed a lifeline through the awarding of a controversial penalty but Dave Beasant heroically denied John Aldridge from 12 yards out, the first penalty to be saved in a final.