Sunday, January 25, 2015

I Love the FA Cup


To paraphrase the former opening sequence of my favorite TV show, Castle:

There are two kinds of folks who don't love the FA Cup: Psychopaths, and people who've never heard of it.

I freakin' LOVE the FA Cup.

Though that doesn't necessarily keep one out of the first category, that of "psychopath."

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For those of you who fall into the second category:

The FA Cup is the Football Association Cup, an annual tournament run by The Football Association, the governing body for soccer in England -- with a few teams in Wales participating. (There is also a Football Association of Wales, FAW, that runs the Welsh Cup, in which 2 English teams, close to the England-Wales "border," participate. Are you following me so far?) No teams from Scotland or either of the Irelands are eligible. Teams from the Channel Islands, the Isle of Wight, and the Isle of Man are.

This season, 736 soccer teams -- sorry, forgot to speak English there, football clubs -- participated. England's soccer structure is as follows:

1. Premier League, 20 teams (until 1992, named the Football League Division One)
2. The Championship, 24 teams (formerly the Football League Division Two)
3. Football League One, 24 teams (formerly the Football League Division Three)
4. Football League Two, 24 teams (formerly the Football League Division Four)
5. Conference Premier, 24 teams
6. Conference North and Conference South, 22 teams each
7. Three separate leagues of 24 teams each: Northern Premier League Premier Division, Southern Football League Premier Division, Isthmian League Premier Division
8. Six separate leagues: Northern Premier League Division One North (22 teams), Northern Premier League Division One South, Southern Football League Division One Central, Southern Football League Division One South & West, Isthmian League Division One North, and Isthmian League Division One South (24 teams in the two Isthmian divisions, 22 in each of the others)
9. Fourteen separate leagues, averaging 22 teams per
10. Seventeen separate leagues, averaging 20 teams per

And so on, down to a 24th division. Based on performance, teams can move up a division (unless they're already in the Premier League) or down one.

(In England, going to games at the grounds of all 92 teams in the Football League -- the top 4 divisions, even though the Premier League is considered separate from the Football League -- a.k.a. "Doing the 92," is the equivalent of Americans seeing games at all 30 Major League Baseball parks. It is possible to do all 92 in one season, given enough money, due to the length of the season, from mid-August to mid-May. But, for most people, "Doing the 92" is a lifetime goal.)

Teams in the Premier League (1st division) get an automatic bye to the 3rd Round Proper. Teams in the Championship get an automatic bye to the 2nd Round Proper. Teams in League One and League Two get an automatic by to the 1st Round Proper.

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Before the start of every round -- usually, the day after the end of the previous round -- balls are pulled out of a hopper, lottery style, to determine who plays who, and where. If a game ends in a draw after the requisite 90 minutes plus stoppage time, a replay is held a few days later at the other team's ground. Until 1993, replays could be endless: In 1979, Arsenal, the North London club I support, and Sheffield Wednesday had to play 5 times, going to a 4th Replay, in the 3rd Round, before Arsenal finally won. (Arsenal also won last season -- that's their manager, Arsene Wenger, hoisting the trophy in the photo above.) Now, if the replay also ends in a draw, it goes to extra time. If the score is still level, a penalty shootout is held.

The first round of any kind, held this past weekend of August 16, was the Extra Preliminary Round, reducing the number of participating teams from 736 to 552. The Preliminary Round, held on the weekend of August 30, dropped it to 392. The 1st Round Qualifying, held the weekend of September 13, dropped it to 276. The 2nd Round Qualifying, held the weekend of September 27, dropped it to 196. The 3rd Round Qualifying, held the weekend of October 11, dropped it to 156. The 4th Round Qualifying, held the weekend of October 25, dropped it to 124.

The 1st Round Proper was held on the weekend of November 8, leaving 80 teams still eligible at the end. Norton United and Warrington Town were the lowest remaining teams, both in the 8th division. The 2nd Round was played on the weekend of December 6, dropping the total of remaining eligible teams to 64. Warrington Town had survived the 1st Round, and were now the lowest-ranking team still in it.

Then comes the big day, the 1st Saturday in January (unless New Year's Day falls on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday): FA Cup Third Round Day (or, rather, weekend). The Premier League teams are now in it, and it becomes like the opening weekend of the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament, a.k.a. "March Madness" -- except this English madness goes on all year long (except in the summer, and the men who play the games actually get paid.

"It comes again and again. There's always another season. You lose the Cup Final in May? Well, there's the 3rd Round to look forward to in January. What's wrong with that? It's actually rather comforting, when you think of it."
-- Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch

The 3rd Round Proper was played on the weekend of January 3. Blyth Spartans, a club from Blyth, Northumberland, in England's North-East (never one word, "Northeast"), competing in the 7th division, were the lowest-ranked remaining team. Only 4 of the 32 games featured a team from a lower division beating a team from a higher one, and only 1 of those featured a team beating a team 2 or more divisions higher: Queens Park Rangers (QPR for short), a West London side in the Premier League, fell to Yorkshire-based League One side Sheffield United. (To be fair, Sheff U did reach the Semifinals last season.)

The most talked-about 3rd Round tie (and I don't mean "game ending with the scores equal," although that was also a factor) was between West Ham United and Everton. The match was at Everton's Goodison Park, northeast of downtown Liverpool (but don't call them "a Liverpool side," as Liverpool Football Club are their arch-rivals), and ended 1-1. The replay was held at Upton Park, West Ham's home in London's East End, and that ended 2-2 after extra time. It went to a penalty shootout, and after the usual 5 rounds, it was still tied. Eventually, even each side's goalkeeper (not "goaltender" like in hockey) had to take his turn, and West Ham's keeper Adrian San Miguel both scored his and stopped his opponent's, and West Ham won the penalty shootout 9-8.

Everton had "crashed out of the cup." West Ham had experiencd "the Magic of the FA Cup."

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The 4th Round began on Friday, with 32 teams left. The lowest-ranked remaining team, League Two (4th division) side Cambridge United of Cambridgeshire, played the 1st game of the weekend, home to Manchester United, the most successful club in English history, but in a down period since the 2013 retirement of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Ironically, Man U's manager before the gum-chomping Scot was Ron Atkinson, who had gotten Cambridge (a.k.a. the U's) to their highest point ever, the old 2nd Division, in the late 1970s. The U's held Man U to a 0-0 draw. Only a few years ago, Cambridge U was in danger of going out of business. Now, they will play a 4th Round replay against Manchester United at Old Trafford, in front of 75,000 fans. Their own Abbey Stadium seats 8,127. Since the visiting team takes 40 percent of the gate receipts from FA Cup ties, Cambridge U will make £1.7 million -- roughly the same as their operating budget for an entire season.

But "the Magic of the FA Cup" was just getting warmed up. Yesterday, Premier League leaders Chelsea, playing at home at Stamford Bridge in West London, blew a 2-0 lead over 3rd division side Bradford City, and lost, 3-2 thanks to 2 late goals. (To be fair, Bradford did make it to the Final of the League Cup 2 seasons ago.)

Second-place Manchester City, playing at home at the Etihad Stadium, lost 2-0 to North-East-based Championship side Middlesbrough. Third-place Southampton, playing at home at St. Mary's Stadium on the Hampshire coast, lost 3-2 to Southeast London side Crystal Palace.

Tottenham Hotspur, "the other club in North London," playing at home at White Hart Lane, blew a 1-0 lead and lost 2-1 on a stoppage-time (92nd minute) goal to Leicester City, a side newly promoted this season and in danger of relegation. And Liverpool, next to Man United the most successful British club, playing at home at Anfield, could only muster a 0-0 draw against Manchester-area Championship side Bolton Wanderers.

If you don't love the FA Cup, check your pulse, because you might well be dead.

Arsenal play tomorrow, away to Championship side Brighton & Hove Albion. Three other games will be played tomorrow, with at least 4 replays to be played in early February.

The remaining 16 teams will play in the 5th Round, on the weekend of February 14. That will get it down to 8, for the 6th Round (usually not called "the Quarterfinals") on the weekend of March 7. The Semifinals have traditionally been held at neutral sites, and since the 2007 opening of the new Wembley Stadium in London, they've been held there, and will be again on April 18 and 19. The Final will be held at Wembley on May 30 (which is unusually late).

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Higher-ranked teams are known as "giants," lower-ranked teams as "minnow," and upsets as "cup shocks."

Top 10 FA Cup Shocks, 1871 to 2014

Honorable Mention: 2007-08, pretty much the entire tournament. Hampshire-based Havant & Waterlooville got into the 3rd Round Proper, despite being in the 6th division. They beat 2nd-division Swansea City. In the 4th Round, they gave Liverpool a scare by leading twice, before losing 5-2. Staffordshire club Chasetown reachd the 3rd Round Proper, despite being in the 8th division, the lowest club ever to get that far. But they lost to Cardiff City.

Barnsley, in the 3rd division, upset 2nd division Blackpool in the 3rd Round, the Southend United away in the 4th, went to Anfield and beat Liverpool in the 5th, and defeated mighty Chelsea at home in the Quarterfinal, before falling to Cardiff in the Semifinal.

Cardiff, in the 2nd division, beat top-flight Wolverhampton Wanderers in the 5th Round, and top-flight Middlesbrough in the Quarterfinal, before beating Barnsley, to become the 1st Welsh club, the 1st club from outside England, to reach the Final since Cardiff themselves in 1927.

And Hampshire-based Portsmouth stunned Manchester United at Old Trafford in the Quarterfinal, and beat West Bromswich Albion in the Semifinal, to set up the unlikeliest Final in perhaps the history of the tournament. Portsmouth won, 1-0, on Nwankwo Kanu's goal in the 37th minute.

Honorable Mention. March 31, 1894, Final: Notts County over Bolton Wanderers, 4-1. County, from Nottingham, were the 1st club from outside Division One to win the Cup, beating the Manchester-area Wanderers. Of all the English clubs that have won at least 1 major trophy, County have the longest drought: That Cup win, 121 years ago, remains their last.

Honorable Mention. April 20, 1901, Final: Tottenham Hotspur over Sheffield United. "Spurs," then in the Southern League, won the Final in a replay, and were the 1st team from outside the Football League to win the Cup, as their fans never cease to remind everyone else. The Southern League was, then, roughly equivalent to the 3rd division.

Honorable Mention. April 25, 1908, Final: Wolverhampton Wanderers over Newcastle United, 3-1. "Wolves," from the West Midlands, were in the middle of the 2nd division, while Newcastle finished 4th in the 1st, had won the League the year before, and were in their 3rd Final in 4 years -- losing them all.

Honorable Mention. April 24, 1912, Final: Barnsley over West Bromwich Albion, 1-0. Truly the latest goal in FA Cup Final history: In the 118th minute of a replay, Harry Tufnell scores to lead the 2nd division Yorkshire side over the top-flight West Midlands club. (West Brom and Wolves, arch-rivals, both play in "the Black Country," and their games are known as "the Black Country Derby.") Barnsley have never won another major trophy, 103 years later.

Honorable Mention. April 23, 1927, Final: Cardiff City over Arsenal, 1-0. This wasn't a huge upset: Both clubs were in the 1st division, and each had finished 2nd recently: Arsenal the season before, 3 years before. Just 2 years before, Cardiff became the 1st Welsh club to reach the Final -- with a couple of Scottish exceptions in the 1880s, they'd otherwise been all English teams.

In the 74th minute, Hughie Ferguson shot for the Bluebirds, and Arsenal keeper Dan Lewis corralled it, but it squeezed under his elbow and into the net. Cardiff remain the only club from outside England ever to win the FA Cup -- and, unless you count the subesequent Charity Shield, have never won another major trophy.

Honorable Mention. April 25, 1931, Final: West Bromwich Albion over Birmingham City, 2-1. After being the top-flight shocked in the 1912 Final, this time, the "Baggies" were the 2nd-division shockers.

Honorable Mention. January 29, 1949, 4th Round: Yeovil Town over Sunderland, 2-1. Yeovil may be the biggest club in Somerset in the West Country, but they were then in the 4th division. Sunderland, of the North-East, had been a power since the late 1920s. But, having already beaten Bury in the 3rd Round, Yeovil had no fear, and beat the "Mackems." In the 5th Round, Cup holders Manchester United put a crushing 8-0 end to their dream.

Honorable Mention. May 1, 1976, Final: Southampton over Manchester United, 1-0. The Hampshire "Saints," then in the 2nd division, won their 1st major trophy when Bobby Stokes scored in the 83rd minute to beat the Cup holders. In 40 years, they have never won another.

Honorable Mention. May 10, 1980, Final: West Ham United over Arsenal, 1-0. This all-London match was supposed to be a mismatch: The Hammers were in the 2nd division, while Arsenal were in their 3rd straight FA Cup Final (having lost to Ipswich Town in 1978 and dramatically beaten Manchester United in 1979), and were about to play the European Cup Winners' Cup Final in 4 days. But Trevor Brooking scored for West Ham, and they took the Cup.

They remain the last team from outside the top flight to win it. Arsenal would lose their European final on penalties to Spanish club Valencia. But they have won several major trophies since. West Ham have won none, unless you count the 1999 Intertoto Cup.

Honorable Mention. January 7, 1984, 3rd Round: AFC Bournemouth over Manchester United, 2-0. If Man U were the club that they would become in the 1990s, this would have been a much bigger upset. As it was, United were the Cup holders. But Bournemouth, the biggest club in Dorset but only a 3rd division side, knocked them out. It was the first big win for Bournemouth's manager, whose career would be filled with amazing highs and disgraceful lows: Harry Redknapp.

Honorable Mention. January 7, 1989, 3rd Round: Sutton United over Coventry City, 2-1. Sutton is in Southwest London, Coventry in the West Midlands. This remains the last time a non-league side (5th division or lower) knocked out a top-flight team. This would be in the Top 10 if Coventry had been a more successful club.

Honorable Mention. January 27, 2001, 4th Round: West Ham United over Manchester United, 1-0. Just a couple of weeks earlier, Man U, dominant in English football since 1993, had hosted the Hammers in League play, and clobbered them. Now, the Eastenders, managed by the aforementioned Redknapp (who had played for them in the 1960s and '70s), had to go back to Old Trafford and play the most-loved, and most-hated, sports team on planet Earth. (Yes, more loved and more hated than the Yankees.)

But the game jas still scoreless in the 2nd half, when West Ham's insane Italian striker, Paolo Di Canio, took a pass, and charged toward the goal. Fabien Barthez, keeper for the France team that was the current holders of both the World Cup and the European Championship, stuck his hand up, to signal to the linesmen that Di Canio was offside. So did several other United players. But the linesmen's flags stayed up, and Di Canio just plainly booted it past Barthez.

West Ham hung on for the 1-0 win, and the game became known as "Taxi for Barthez!" (While "Taxi for... " is a common phrase for a player who's been made to look like a fool, with that hand in the air, he really did look like he was hailing a cab.)

Now for the Top 10. I'll list these in chronological order.

1. January 14, 1933, 3rd Round: Walsall over Arsenal, 2-0. Arsenal were top of the League, had finished runners-up in both League and Cup the season before, won the League the season before that, and won the Cup the season before that. Walsall were in the 3rd division.

But when Herbert Chapman, the manager who revolutionized English football, took his team to Fellows Park in the West Midlands, he rested some of his key players, to keep them fresh for the League season. He paid for that in the short term, as Walsall pulled off the biggest upset in FA Cup history to that point. But it worked in the long run, as Arsenal won the next 3 League titles.

Half a century later, in the fall of 1983, Walsall shocked Arsenal again, this time in the League Cup.

2. February 15, 1964, 5th Round: Oxford United over Blackburn Rovers, 3-1. Oxford were struggling to avoid relegation from the 4th division, and thus out of the League entirely. Yet they beat Folkestone in the 1st Round, Kettering Town in the 2nd, Chesterfield in the 3rd, then beat Brentford away in a replay in the 4th. Lancashire club Blackburn finished 7th in the 1st division, but Oxford beat them, too.

Another Lancashire club, 2nd division Preston North End, eliminated them in the Quarterfinals, going on their own unlikely run, beat Welsh club Swansea Town (now Swansea City) in the Semifinal, before losing to West Ham United in the Final.

3. February 13, 1971, 5th Round: Colchester United. over Leeds United. Leeds rose out of the 2nd division under manager Don Revie, and were runners-up in both the League and the FA Cup Final in 1965, won the League Cup in 1968, won the League in 1969, and lost the Cup Final in 1970. In 1971, they were dueling with Arsenal for the League title. Colchester, out of Essex? They were in the 4th division. No way were they going to take down Billy Bremner, Johnny Giles and Norman "Bites Yer Legs" Hunter. Yet they did.

Everton beat them in the next round. Leeds blew the League title to Arsenal, who won the Cup to "do The Double." Leeds beat Arsenal in the next season's Final, but blew the League again. The next year...

Honorable Mention. May 5, 1973, Final: Sunderland over Leeds United, 1-0. Ian Porterfield scored the goal in the 31st, and the Mackems became the 1st club from the 2nd division to win the Cup since West Brom in 1931. Cup holders Leeds were "nearly men" again. They would win the League in 1974, but lose the European Cup Final in 1975. Sunderland haven't won a major trophy in the 42 years since.

Earlier, I compared the FA Cup to "March Madness." Well, 10 years before North Carolina State won the National Championship and coach Jim Valvano ran around the court "looking for somebody to hug," Mackem manager Bob Stokoe did much the same thing.

4. February 5, 1972, 3rd Round Replay: Hereford United over Newcastle United, 2-1. This shouldn't have even gotten to a replay. North-East club Newcastle, led by striker Malcolm Macdonald, a.k.a. Supermac, were top-flight perennials. Hereford, in the West Country hard by the border with Wales, were in the 5th division. Yet they worked a draw against the "Geordies," setting up a replay at their ground, Edgar Street, which could hold only 14,313, about one-third of what Newcastle's St. James Park could then hold.

"The Toon" took a 1-0 lead, but a couple of familiar names -- well, surnames -- did the business for the Bulls. Ronnie Radford scored the equaliser, and Ricky George the winner. It was noted that they had the same names as Arsenal's strikers, John Radford (who had assisted the Cup-winning goal the season before) and Charlie George (who had scored it). Hereford then took West Ham to a replay in the 4th Round, before bowing out against Bobby Moore and the "Irons." But, due to its constant replaying in the opening sequence of BBC's Match of the Day, Ricky George's goal remains iconic.

Sadly, due to financial irregularities, Hereford United, in League One (the 3rd division) as recently as 2009, were kicked out of the Conference (5th Division) last season, and then went out of business. Newcastle reached the Final again in 1974, but lost to Liverpool. They lost the Final in back-to-back seasons, 1998 and '99, and haven't won the Cup since 1955.

5. January 4, 1975, 3rd Round: Wimbledon over Burnley, 1-0. The Southwest London club were in the 5th division, yet they won away to the 1st division side from Lancashire. It was the 1st time in 55 years that a non-league side beat a top-flight team away. Then, in the 4th Round, they went to Elland Road, and played Leeds to a draw, before falling at home in the replay. They were elected to the League 2 years later.

Honorable Mention. May 14, 1988, Final: Wimbledon over Liverpool, 1-0. In just 13 years, the "Wombles" had gone from non-league shockers to a 1st division side producing perhaps the most shocking FA Cup Final of all. Lawrie Sanchez stunned newly-crowned League Champions Liverpool in the 37th. But on the hour, Liverpool were awarded what replays showed was a bogus penalty, and from Southampton on up to Newcastle, English footy fans were saying, "Liverpool get all the breaks, bloody typical!"

Except Dave Beasant stopped John Aldridge's spot-kick, making him the 1st goalkeeper ever to deny a penalty kick in an FA Cup Final. When it was over, Beasant had also become the 1st goalie who was also the Captain of an FA Cup-winning side, and BBC broadcaster John Motson, noting Wimbledon's aggressive attitude, exemplified by eventual tough-guy actor Vinny Jones, "The Crazy Gang have defeated the Culture Club!" Motty made up the name, but Wimbledon were the Crazy Gang for years to come.

6. January 8, 1980, 3rd Round Replay: Harlow Town over Leicester City, 1-0. Harlow were in Essex, and in the 6th division, but beat Southend United in the 2nd Round, before going to Filbert Street and playing Leicester to a draw, and then winning the replay at home. The dream ended the next round, away to Elton John-owned Hertfordshire club Watford.

7. January 4, 1992, 3rd Round: Wrexham over Arsenal, 2-1. To fans of The Arsenal, a.k.a. the Gunners -- the fans are called Gooners -- this trip to the Racecourse Ground in North Wales is known as The Wrexham Disaster. Always Capital T, Capital W, Capital D.

They blew a 1-0 lead, and the winning goal was scored late for 4th division Wrexham by 37-year-old Welsh thug (and soon-to-be convicted felon) Micky Thomas -- not to be confused with the Michael "Mickey" Thomas who scored the goal that won Arsenal the League in 1989. Gooners who want Wenger out forget that he's never lost in the 3rd Round -- in fact, this was the last time it's happened, and it happened under their golden boy, George Graham.

8. January 4, 2003, 3rd Round: Shrewsbury Town over Everton, 2-1. Everton have spent more seasons in the 1st division than any other club. Shrewsbury were then in the 4th division, 80 places below the "Toffees." Yet they pulled off the victory -- managed by Kevin Ratcliffe, a former Everton captain. But they were mauled by Chelsea in the 4th Round, and were relegated out of the League, following their greatest achievement with their greatest shame, just 4 months later.

9. April 10, 2010, Semifinal: Portsmouth over Tottenham Hotspur, 2-0. "Pompey" had won the Cup in 2008, managed by, yes, Harry Redknapp. But, as he had done to Portsmouth before, as he had done to their arch-rivals Southampton, and as he had done to West Ham, left for what seemed like a better job, leaving a financial wreck behind. Only in Pompey's case, "wreck" was every bit as literal as it was figurative: He had bought the club its 1st major trophy since the 1950 League title, the only top-flight trophy he has ever won in 30 years as a manager, at the cost of a financial meltdown that saw them put into administration, docked points, and relegated in 2010, '11 and '12, all the way from the Premier League to League Two. Twice in that period, they came within mere hours of going out of business, before the cash necessary to keep them afloat was found.

Yet in the 2010 FA Cup, they beat Coventry City away in a 3rd Round Replay, beat Sunderland in the 4th Round, then beat hated Southampton away in the 5th Round, and stunned Birmingham City in the Quarterfinal. In the Semifinal, their first trip to Wembley (old or new) since the 1939 FA Cup Final (which they won), who did they face? Tottenham, who were about to finish 4th in the League, and clinch their 1st berth in the European Cup/Champions League in 49 years. The manager who took perennially underachieving "Spurs" to this point? None other than Redknapp himself. And Wembley is only across town from Tottenham, while it's over 100 miles from Portsmouth.

But Pompey held Spurs to a scoreless draw, and scored 2 extra time goals, starting Redknapp's infamous twitching, and showing Spurs to be a choking team as usual: They haven't won a major trophy since the 1991 FA Cup, and haven't even been to an FA Cup Final since then, 0-3 in Semifinals in those 24 years. Against all odds, they were in their 2nd FA Cup Final in 3 seasons. But they lost to Chelsea, and their freefall was underway.

Redknapp left Spurs in a mess in 2012, but not like he did to Pompey, who remain in League Two -- but at least now they have stable ownership, and won't be relegated out of the League entirely.

10. May 11, 2013, Final: Wigan Athletic over Manchester City, 1-0. Wigan, from outside Manchester, had reached the Premier League in 2004, and had just barely avoided relegation a few times. This time, they didn't. And Man City were the defending Premier League Champions, and had won the Cup 2 years earlier. So they were heavily favored. But Ben Watson, who came on in the 81st minute, scored in stoppage time to produce the biggest Final upset since Wimbledon 25 years earlier.

The following season, the same clubs met in the Quarterfinal, and Wigan beat Man City again, and nearly beat Arsenal in the Semifinal, taking a 1-0 lead on a penalty before allowing an equaliser and losing on penalties.

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