Close Up of Blue and Yellow Stadium Seats

Best Performances by Fourth-Tier Sides in the FA Cup

When Grimsby Town beat Southampton in the fifth round of the FA Cup on 1st March 2023, they became only the sixth side from the fourth tier or below to make the quarter finals in the history of the competition. Granted, the Fourth Division (as it was called then) was only introduced in the 1958/59 season, but for any side from the fourth tier (known as League Two these days) to make it to the quarters is viewed as something of a miracle. This is especially the case in recent times when the financial gulf between those at the top of the footballing pyramid and those from even the second tier appears almost insurmountable at times.

In this article, we’ll present summaries of the six occasions when fourth-tier teams (or lower…) have stunned all-comers to make it to the last eight of the FA Cup. We’ll also answer the question, will any ever go all the way?

Grimsby Town, 2022/23

Round Opponent Score
Quarter-Final Brighton TBC
Fifth Round Southampton Won 2-1
Fourth Round Replay Luton Town Won 3-0
Fourth Round Luton Town Drew 2-2
Third Round Burton Albion Won 1-0
Second Round Cambridge United Won 2-1
First Round Plymouth Argyle Won 5-1

Grimsby’s 2-1 victory over Southampton at St Mary’s on St David’s Day put the Mariners in the quarter finals for the first time since the 1938/39 season (when they lost in the semis to Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford).

Grimsby kicked off their cup run with a mighty fine 5-1 drubbing of Plymouth Argyle of League One, before adding another third-tier scalp in the next round when they won 2-1 at Cambridge United. League One sides clearly stoke no fear in the hearts of the Mariners as they put another to the sword in the third round, beating Burton Albion 1-0 at Blundell Park.

There came an altogether tougher test in the fourth round as Grimsby were drawn away to Championship outfit Luton Town. A hard-fought 2-2 draw on the road was followed by an almost unimaginable 3-0 home win in the replay in a match that saw the Mariners completely outplay their opponents.

Paul Hurst’s men faced their first Premier League opponents in the fifth round when they travelled to Southampton. And despite coming under some late pressure, Grimsby prevailed thanks to two penalties converted by Gavan Holohan. Grimsby were drawn away to Brighton in the quarters. Could they make it to the semis for the first time since the 1930s?

Lincoln City, 2016/17

Round Opponent Score
Quarter-Final Arsenal Lost 5-0
Fifth Round Burnley Won 1-0
Fourth Round Brighton Won 3-1
Third Round Replay Ipswich Town Won 1-0
Third Round Ipswich Town Drew 2-2
Second Round Oldham Athletic Won 3-2
First Round Altrincham Won 2-1

Not a million miles away from Grimsby (in fact, less than 40!) is the cathedral city of Lincoln, home to Lincoln City FC, three-time winners of the old Third Division North (the last time being in 1951/52). Although at the time of writing, Lincoln ply their trade in League One, the third tier of English football, when they went on their historic FA Cup run during the 2016/17 season, they were a non-league side playing in the National League (the fifth tier).

Since the four-tier league system of English football was introduced (1958/59), Lincoln City have been the only team playing outside the top four divisions to make it to the FA Cup quarter finals. Indeed they were the first non-league side to achieve the feat since 1914 (when Queens Park Rangers of the Southern League managed it, though the difference between league and non-league teams was less marked back then).

Lincoln began their FA Cup journey in the first round proper with a 2-1 home win over Altrincham and had a similarly close encounter, again at home, in the second round against Oldham Athletic, which the Imps won 3-2. They faced a tough away clash in the third round when they travelled to Ipswich Town, but they earned a 2-2 draw and then edged the 1-0 win on home soil in the replay.

Things started to get a little tougher in the fourth round when Lincoln hosted then-Championship leaders Brighton. But Danny Cowley’s Lincoln were clearly on a roll and maintained their unexpected momentum with a truly impressive 3-1 victory over the Seagulls. They faced Premier League side Burnley in the fifth round and few people really gave Lincoln much hope of progressing. But progress they did, thanks to Sean Raggett’s headed goal with barely a minute left on the clock.

By that point, Lincoln fans were daring to dream of the semi finals and even beyond, but they were drawn away to the side that has won the cup more than any other: Arsenal. It was great for the club’s coffers, but it would have been beyond ridiculous had Lincoln got a positive result at the Emirates. In the end, they lost 5-0, but they left the tournament with their heads held very high and they used their proceeds wisely, earning promotion to the Football League at the end of the season and then going up to the League One at the end of the 2018/19 campaign.

Cambridge United, 1989/90

Round Opponent Score
Quarter-Final Crystal Palace Lost 1-0
Fifth Round 2nd Replay Bristol City Won 5-1
Fifth Round Reply Bristol City Drew 1-1
Fifth Round Bristol City Drew 0-0
Fourth Round Reply Millwall Won 1-0
Fourth Round Millwall Drew 1-1
Third Round Replay Darlington Won 3-1
Third Round Darlington Drew 0-0
Second Round Woking Won 3-1
First Round Aldershot Won 1-0

Cambridge United went on a fantastic FA Cup run in 1989/90 when playing in the old Fourth Division (the fourth tier). After negotiating a tricky away day at Aldershot in the first round, Cambridge won 3-1 at home against Woking in the second round before requiring a replay to get the better of Darlington in the third. They faced a particularly tough draw in the fourth round when they had to travel to top-flight side Millwall. After earning a 1-1 at the Den, though, Cambridge did the business in front of their own fans with a narrow 1-0 victory.

In the fifth round things got even more interesting as it took two replays (which was how things were done back then!) to overcome Bristol City of the third tier. In the third game between the sides, Cambridge made no mistake, hammering the Robins 5-1. All good things must come to an end though and Cambridge’s cup run ended when they lost to another top-flight side, Crystal Palace.

Just to prove their cup heroics were no fluke, though, Cambridge repeated the trick by making it to the quarter finals the following season too! (By then, they were playing in the third tier, hence they only get one entry our list!)

Bradford City, 1975/76

Round Opponent Score
Quarter Final Southampton Lost 1-0
Fifth Round Norwich City Won 2-1
Fourth Round Tooting & Mitcham United Won 3-1
Third Round Shrewsbury Town Won 2-1
Second Round Rotherham United Won 3-0
First Round Chesterfield Won 1-0

We have to go back a bit to find the next most recent four-tier side to make the quarter: Bradford City. Early cup wins over Chesterfield, Rotherham and Shrewsbury set up an unlikely fourth-round match against non-league Tooting and Mitcham United. Bradford avoided any blushes by winning that 3-1, and were rewarded with an away draw against top-flight Norwich City. As is often the case with such mismatches, many neutrals want the underdogs to win but don’t really think they will. But Bradford did the business with a 2-1 triumph and made it through to the quarters to face Southampton, who were playing in the second tier at the time.

Although it seemed like a brilliant opportunity to make it to the semi-finals for the first time since they won the FA Cup way back in 1910/11, they fell short on the day and lost 1-0 to the Saints.

Colchester United, 1970/71

Round Opponent Score
Quarter Final Everton Lost 5-0
Fifth Round Leeds United Won 3-2
Fourth Round Replay Rochdale Won 5-0
Fourth Round Rochdale Drew 3-3
Third Round Barnet Won 1-0
Second Round Cambridge United Won 3-0
First Round Ringmer Won 3-0

Colchester’s historic 1970/71 cup run was most notable for one of the greatest giant-killing efforts in FA Cup history. After overcoming Ringmer (from East Sussex – nope we’d not heard of them either!), Cambridge United (whose FA Cup time would come!), Barnet and Rochdale, Colchester faced the mighty Leeds United. Don Revie’s Leeds had won the First Division title the season before and the League Cup the year before that and they were widely predicted to obliterate fourth-tier Colchester United. But the Essex side pulled off a fantastic performance and beat Leeds 3-2 on home soil. They couldn’t repeat the trick in the quarters, though, when they went down 5-0 to Everton.

Oxford United, 1963/64

Round Opponent Score
Quarter-Final Preston Lost 2-1
Fifth Round Blackburn Rovers Won 3-1
Fourth Round Replay Brentford Won 2-1
Fourth Round Brentford Drew 2-2
Third Round Chesterfield Won 1-0
Second Round Kettering Town Won 2-1
First Round Folkestone Won 2-0

Oxford United are the final team on our list because of their fabulous FA Cup run of 1963/64. They got the better of Folkstone and Kettering before a trickier encounter against Chesterfield in the third round (but they edged that 1-0). The U’s required a replay to overcome Brentford in the fourth round and were then drawn against top-flight side Blackburn Rovers, thankfully at home. Oxford played out of their skin (by all accounts) and won the match 3-1.

Their reward for that unlikely triumph was another home draw, this time against second-tier Preston. The match attracted what is still Oxford’s largest-ever home crowd (of almost 23,000), but even with the exceptional home support, Oxford were unable to get past Preston, who won the match 2-1 (on the way to the final, which they lost to West Ham).

Could A Fourth-Tier Team Ever Win the FA Cup?

In a word, yes! Of course, the likelihood of a fourth-tier or – even more so – a non-league side ever winning the FA Cup is slim. Very slim. Although, technically, a non-league has actually achieved that feat… a small team from north London who you might well recognise: Tottenham Hotspur.

When Spurs won their first FA Cup in the 1900/01 season, they played in the Southern League, which were not part of the Football League (and hence they were classified as non-league). Having said that, there were only two divisions in the Football League at the time, so the Southern League was effectively the third tier of English football (indeed it was brought under the Football League umbrella as the Third Division South in 1921).

So technically, although Spurs’ achievement was special, it was arguably not quite as impressive as a fourth-tier or non-league side winning the FA Cup in the modern game. And perhaps not even as remarkable as some of the cup runs detailed above.

Given the resources available to Premier League sides, the chances of a side outside the top flight – let alone one from the fourth tier or below – going all the way do not look good. Indeed, the last time a side outside of the Premier League (or equivalent) won the Cup was way back in 1980 when West Ham beat Arsenal 1-0 courtesy of a Trevor Brooking goal!

So while we would never say never, we would assert that we are more likely to see aliens invade the beaches of Cleethorpes than to witness a fourth-tier or non-league side winning the FA Cup any time soon. But then we’d have said the same about Leicester winning the league so who knows?!