Football: FA Cup shock: romance is dying

David Randall discovers that, despite Swansea's exploits, the giant-killer is now a rare breed

ONCE UPON a time there was, in English football, a place where fairy tales regularly happened. It was called the FA Cup; and the treacherous path to Wembley was strewn with the bodies of the fallen mighty, and the idle dreams of little people come to life.

"Day of shocks" was the great, and true, cliche, as every third or fourth round a couple of Bournemouths or Colchesters or even Sutton Uniteds, rose insolently above their station to tweak a famous nose. And when it came to the final, the double hardly ever occurred. The winners were invariably sides that scuffed around the middle of the table all season and then brought their year to a sudden and glorious conclusion one sunlit Saturday in May. For years, it seemed, the best way to win the Cup was to finish eighth or 14th in the First Division. And in the 1970s, sixth in the Second Division even had a vogue. Actually winning the league, or finishing second, was a virtual guarantee that you would not be at football's end-of-season party.

But recently we've had the feeling that shocks are not what they used to be; that the comforting notion of the Cup as "the great leveller" was taking on a decided sepia tinge. More specifically, we sensed that along with TV revenues and the players they could buy, the Premiership was bringing a harsh new loading of the cup dice in favour of the top sides.

The chief statistician at the FA, David Barber, shared our theory. Never ones to rely on hunch when statistics are available, we dusted off the record books, donned spectacles and anorak, and decided to build our own Shockometer. Armed with our definition of a shock (defeat of a top- flight side by one from at least two divisions below or a non-league one) and assorted other yardsticks, we set to work. This, given in detail in our graphic above, is what we found:

The Twenties and Thirties were the Cup at its most democratic. Shocks came at nearly two a year, up popped the first Third Division semi-finalists (Millwall in 1937), there were 16 different winners in 20 years and not one of them champions or runners-up. Indeed, it took 15 years for a side finishing higher than sixth to win the Cup; and, by some mysterious coincidence, the side finishing 14th in Division One won the cup five times in nine years.

By the Fifties this weird phenomenon disappeared, but shocks rose again and there were no fewer than three Third Division semi-finalists.

Then came the Sixties, a period when the ecology of the game was changed forever by the ending of the maximum wage and the advent of European football for the top clubs.

It was a decade which began with an amateur captain lifting the cup and ended with the dominance of Leeds United and all that they represented. (No Corinthians they.) The number of shocks receded, but there were 16 different finalists, the most ever.

The Seventies and Eighties saw shocks rising again, to a rate of two a year in the latter decade. Non-league clubs (their names - Stafford, Leatherhead, Blyth, Harlow, Telford and Kettering - like halts on a tour of stopping-train Britain) hit their modern-era peak, including notorious away wins by Wimbledon and Altrincham against First Division Burnley and Birmingham. And in these two decades there were three Second Division Cup winners, three times as many as in the previous 50 years. Today every single yardstick of romance is in retreat. Specifically, our findings show that:

l Shocks are now at their lowest level ever.

l In the last four years they have been coming at only half the rate of the 1980s.

l There have been no shocks at all in three of the seven seasons since the Premiership started - that has only happened three other times in the last 30 years.

l Only one side from the bottom league (Swansea, 1-0 replay victors against West Ham on Wednesday) has ever beaten a Premiership team. Shocks like this used to occur every other season. No non-league side has beaten a top-flight club since Sutton saw off Coventry 10 years ago.

l Non-league success is half what it was in the 1980s.

But it is in the nature of the sides reaching the final, and winning it, where change is most palpable. After the First World War it took 16 years for a side finishing in the first three to win the Cup, 34 for the runners-up to win, and 42 for the champions to do so. In the 1920s, the average position of the Cup winners was 11th; in the 1950s, nine of the 10 winners came from outside the top three.

How very different it is today. Since the Premiership started, the average league position of the winners has been cut to sixth, half the finals have been won by the champions, and no side from outside the top flight has reached the final. In the 1980s, five sides played in their first final; since the Premiership, none has done so.

Romance may not quite be dead but, as our survey shows, if the FA tried to sell serial rights in the Cup, it is unlikely Mills and Boon would be among the bidders. There will still be the odd shock, but the modern FA Cup seems a cut-throat competition where only the wealthiest survive.

Regular shocks are becoming part of the event's nostalgic imagery - along with rattles, rosettes and tales of crude provincials being fleeced in the capital's fleshpots when they were "Oop for t'Cup".

If the present trends continue, Cup fairy-tales will be as much a faded memory as that little man in the white jacket bustling out to the rostrum in the centre circle to lead the community singing. "All those from Lancashire, please wave your programmes!" he would cry. Lancashire indeed! There hasn't been a Blackburn, Preston, Burnley, Blackpool or Bolton victory for 41 years. Increasingly it looks like few clubs outside the elite of Manchester, Merseyside or London will get a look-in.

UPS AND DOWNS OF THE SHOCKOMETER: DECADE-BY-DECADE GUIDE TO THE GIANT-KILLERS

1920s

Wolves 1 Cardiff (NL) 2, 1920

Sheff Wed 0 Darlington (NL) 2, 1920

QPR (Div 3) 2 Arsenal 0, 1921

Crystal Palace (Div 3) 2 Man City 0, 1921

Brighton (Div 3) 4 Oldham 1, 1921

Bradford PA (Div 3N) 1 Everton 0, 1923

Brighton (Div 3S) 5 Everton 2, 1924

Corinthians (NL) 1 Blackburn 0, 1924

Southport (Div 3N) 2 Blackburn 0, 1927

Brentford (Div 3S) 2 West Ham 0, 1927

Derby 0 Millwall (Div 3S) 2, 1927

Millwall (Div 3S) 3 Huddersfield 1, 1927

Swindon (Div 3S) 3 Burnley 2, 1929

Swindon (Div 3S) 2 Newcastle 0, 1929

Two clubs in 4th rd: *Corinthians (three times), Mansfield

*Had bye to 3rd rd

10: *Huddersfield (1920); Cardiff, *Wolves (1921); Notts Co (1922); *West Ham, Derby (1923),

Southampton (1925); Swansea (1926); Southampton, Reading (1927)

*Finalists

1930s

Man Utd 0 Swindon (Div 3S) 2, 1930

Exeter (Div 3S) 3 Derby 2, 1931

Exeter (Div 3S) 3 Leeds 1, 1931

Southport (Div 3N) 2 Blackpool 1, 1931

Walsall (Div 3N) 2 Arsenal 0, 1933

Brighton (Div 3S) 2 Chelsea 1, 1933

Huddersfield 0 Northampton (Div 3S) 2, 1934

Millwall (Div 3S) 3 Chelsea 0, 1937

Millwall (Div 3S) 2 Man City 0, 1937

(Main photograph)

York (Div 3N) 1 Middlesborough 0, 1938

Two clubs in 4th rd: Workington, Chelmsford

10: Hull (1930); **West Brom,

Everton (1931); West Ham (1931); Bolton, Burnley (1935); Fulham, *Sheff Utd (1936); Millwall (Div 3, 1937); Aston Villa (1938)

*Finalists. **Winners

1950s

Norwich (Div 3S) 3 Liverpool 0, 1951

Huddersfield 1 Tranmere (Div 3N) 2, 1952

Bristol R (Div 3S) 2 Preston 0, 1952

Halifax (Div 3N) 1 Stoke 0, 1953

Gateshead (Div 3N) 1 Liverpool 0, 1953

Blackpool 0 York (Div 3N) 2, 1955

Wolves 0 Bournemouth (Div 3S) 1, 1957

Bournemouth (3S) 3 Tottenham 1, 1957

Northampton (Div 3S) 3 Arsenal 1, 1958

Scunthorpe (Div 3N) 3 Newcastle 1, 1958

York (Div 3N) 3 Birmingham 0, 1958

Darlington (Div 3N) 4 Chelsea 1, 1958

Norwich (Div 3) 3 Man Utd 0, 1959

Norwich (Div 3) 1 Tottenham 0, 1959

Seven clubs in 4th rd: Walthamstow (1953), Headington Utd (1954), Bishop Auckland (1955), Rhyl, New Brighton, Peterborough (1957), Worcester (1959)

8: Birmingham (1951); Blackburn (1952); Everton (1953); Port Vale (D3, 1954); York (D3, 1955); Blackburn, Fulham (1958); Norwich (1959)

No Finalists

1960s

Bradford C (Div 3) 3 Everton 0, 1960

Man City 1 Southampton (Div 3) 5, 1960

Chelsea 1 Crewe (Div 4) 2, 1961

Newport Co. (Div 4) 3 Sheff Wed 2, 1964

Aldershot (Div 4) 2 Aston Villa 1, 1964

Oxford Utd (Div 4) 3 Blackburn 1, 1964

Peterborough (Div 3) 2 Arsenal 1, 1965

Hull (Div 3) 2 Nottm Forest 0, 1966

Swindon (Div 3) 3 West Ham 1, 1967

Mansfield (Div 3) 3 West Ham 0, 1969

Five clubs in 4th rd: Peterborough (1960), Weymouth (1962), Gravesend (1963), Bedford (1964 & 1966)

6: Aston Villa (1960); Sheff Utd (1961); Southampton (1963);

Swansea, *Preston (1964);

Birmingham (1968)

*Finalists

1970s

Colchester (D4) 3 Leeds 2, 1971

Rochdale (Div 3) 2 Coventry 1, 1971

Hereford (SL) 2 Newcastle 1, 1972

Hereford (Div 3) 2 West Ham 1, 1974

Burnley 0 Wimbledon (SL) 1, 1975

Norwich 1 Bradford City (D4) 2, 1976

Leeds 0 Crystal Palace (Div 3) 1, 1976

Wrexham (D3) 1 Sunderland 0, 1977

Walsall (Div 3) 1 Leicester 0, 1978

Wrexham (D4) 4 Newcastle 1, 1978

Shrewsbury (Div 3) 2 Man City 0, 1979

Eight clubs in 4th rd: Sutton Utd (1970); Hereford (1972); Wimbledon, Stafford Rangers, Leatherhead (1975); Tooting & Mitcham (1976); Northwich Victoria (1977); Blyth Spartans (5th Rnd, 1978)

7: Watford (1970); Birmingham (1972); **Sunderland (1973); Fulham (1975); Crystal Palace (D3), **Southampton (1976); Orient (1978)

*Finalists. **Winners

1980s

Halifax (Div 4) 1 Man City 0, 1980

Exeter (Div 3) 3 Leicester 1, 1981

Bournemouth (Div 3) 2 Man Utd 0, 1984

West Brom 0 Plymouth (Div 3) 1, 1984

Chelsea 2 Millwall (Div 3) 3, 1985

York (Div 3) 1 Arsenal 0, 1985

Doncaster R (Div 3) 1 QPR 0, 1985

Birmingham 1 Altrincham (GMVC) 2, 1986

Bristol R (Div 3) 3 Leicester 1, 1986

Port Vale (Div 3) 2 Tottenham 1, 1988

Middlesbrough 1 Grimsby (Div 4) 2, 1989

Sutton Utd (GMVC) 2 Coventry 1, 1989

Seven clubs in 4th rd:

Harlow (1980); Enfield (1981); Telford (1984 & 5th Rnd in 1985); Altrincham (1986); Sutton Utd, Kettering (1989)

6: **West Ham (1980); Leicester, *QPR (1982); Sheff Wed (1983);

Plymouth (D3, 1984); Leeds (1987)

*Finalists. **Winners

1990s

Bristol C (Div 3) 3 Chelsea 1, 1990

Northampton (Div 3) 1 Coventry 0, 1990

Wrexham (Div 4) 2 Arsenal 1, 1992

Middlesborough 1 Cardiff (Div 2) 2, 1994

Cardiff (Div 2) 1 Man City 0, 1994

Stockport (Div 3) 2 QPR 1, 1994

Port Vale (Div 3) 2 Southampton 1, 1994

Chesterfield (Div 2) 1 Nottm Forest 0, 1997

West Ham 0 Wrexham 1 (Div 2), 1997

Swansea (Div 3) 1 West Ham 0, 1999

Four clubs in 4th rd: Woking (1991); Kidderminster (5th Rnd, 1994);

Hednesford (1997); Stevenage (1998)

9: Oldham (1990); West Ham (1991); Portsmouth, *Sunderland (1992);

Luton (1994); Wolves (1995);

Chesterfield (D3, 1997); Wolves,

Sheff Utd (1998)

*Finalists (none since Premiership)

Champion

giant-killers

Clubs with three

or more victories

against teams in

the top flight:

Millwall 10

Swindon 8

Wrexham 7

Brighton 6

York 6

Walsall 5

Cardiff 4

Norwich 4

Port Vale 3

Bournemouth 3

Exeter 3

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