Football: Twenty-four hours that shook football: Richard Williams considers the wider consequences as the underdogs have their day in the FA Cup last week. Was it just coincidence? Or is the class divide getting smaller?

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The Independent Online
THE BELL tolled four times last week. Late on Tuesday night, the first faint chime came rolling across the country.

Bong. Blackburn Rovers 0, Charlton Athletic 1. And a club from the First Division of the humble Endsleigh Insurance League, whose 14 players on the night cost a total of pounds 290,000 in transfer fees, found themselves dancing on the grave of a side from the glamorous FA Carling Premiership whose team-sheet added up to a value of pounds 12.9m.

On Wednesday, it happened again. And again, and again, with gathering resonance.

Bong. Arsenal ( pounds 8.8m) 1,

Bolton Wanderers ( pounds 1.4m) 3.

Bong. Leeds United ( pounds 9.9) 2, Oxford United ( pounds 935,000) 3.

Bong. Luton Town ( pounds 250,000) 2, Newcastle United ( pounds 6.9m) 0.

As they dragged the corpses of three more Premiership clubs from the arena of the FA Cup fourth-round replays, the Endsleigh Insurance League began its celebrations.

By Thursday morning, it was the hot topic. This, people were saying, was the best night's football in years. But didn't there have to be some general significance to it? What did it mean that four clubs from the old pre-Premier League second division had trounced the clubs currently placed second, third, fourth and seventh in the shiny new Premiership? Three of them away from home, at that. And each victory had been achieved not by raw physical effort and sheer motivation - the kind of knees-and-elbows football mugging that Watford and Wimbledon used to inflict on their betters - but by careful, creative, constructive use of the ball itself.

'When it comes to matching skill for skill,' crowed Ian Cotton, a spokeman for the Endsleigh League, 'our clubs are up there with the best.' In which case, the sceptics argued, why aren't Charlton, Bolton, Oxford and Luton indeed up there with the best?

Something happened, though. Since the founding of the Football League in 1888, the FA Cup has been won by only eight clubs from outside the top division. Over the past 35 years, there have been just three winners from the old second division - Sunderland in 1973, Southampton in 1976 and West Ham in 1980. Since then Queen's Park Rangers and Sunderland have lost FA Cup finals at Wembley, in 1982 and 1992 respectively, as Second Division representatives. Yet the draw for the fifth round - the last 16 - of this season's competition features a mere seven sides from the Premiership, two of whom (Wimbledon and Manchester United) are playing each other, guaranteeing a strong non-Premiership presence in the quarter-finals, and perhaps beyond.

'I thought he was offside,' said George Graham, the Arsenal manager, of John McGinlay's opening goal for Bolton. And on Friday, the echoes of the midweek bongs were refusing to die away. The newspapers were starting to talk about the financial cost of elimination to the big clubs: a minimum of pounds 10m in lost receipts between the Fallen Four, according to the Daily Mail, which predicted a consequent clear-out of the playing staff at Highbury.

George Graham's characteristic display of gracelessness under pressure certainly made a telling contrast with the reaction of Kevin Keegan, Newcastle's manager to the Endsleigh League's mob- handed triumph. 'I think it's been a great week for football,' he said. 'It's proved what we've always known about the FA Cup, that everybody has a chance. Good luck to those clubs. I hope Luton go all the way. They certainly have a chance if they carry on playing the way they did against us.'

So what had it all been about? Much more, surely, than just the proverbial romance and unpredictability of the FA Cup. The Endsleigh people made a good point when they observed that, of 16 giant-killing acts in the third and fourth rounds of this season's Cup, no fewer than nine had been completed either away from home or over two legs - clearly a tribute to the resilience and fighting spirit of the lower-division sides.

But did all this make a pattern? Were the poor, instead of getting poorer, getting better? How on earth could the Premiership clubs, with their lavish income from television and sponsorships, be trapped wholesale by the generally impecunious teams from the lower reaches of the First Division? Had the top clubs been softened up by the good life? And what about the person who said to me on Thursday that it wasn't a question of the gulf between the Premiership and the First Division, but of that between Manchester United and the other 45 clubs making up the top two divisions, all of whom were much of a muchness?

'Of course, there's a stimga attached to being in the First Division,' said Keegan, who led Newcastle out of it less than a year ago. 'Everybody would have you believe that there's a gulf of class. Well, there isn't. There's a gulf of business. The clubs up here in the Premiership are run differently, because of the massive investment of cash from Sky and so on. But if you said that in playing terms there isn't a big gulf, maybe the results this week would back you up.'

Keegan believes that last week's results reflect a change in the way football is being played by those clubs who are striving for promotion. 'A lot of teams down there - and I mean that respectfully - are playing football now,' he said. 'There's no kick and rush any more. Luton played us at football - I can vouch for that.'

It started, he believes, 'when Manchester United won the Premiership by playing football, and we got out of the First Division the same way. We proved that it could be done. And I believe that you've got more chance of beating a Premiership side by playing football than by any other method.'

Nor does he put much belief in the away-team phenomenon. 'I saw the first Bolton game,' he said. 'If they'd beaten Arsenal at home, there couldn't have been any complaints.'

Howard Wilkinson, another Premiership victim of the midweek terror, sees it differently. With a quiet scepticism as engaging as Keegan's instinctive generosity, the Leeds manager refuses to recognise the pattern of a phenomenon in the results on Tuesday and Wednesday.

'If there is a pattern in this,' he told me, 'it's that every now and then you get a freak. That's all.'

So this is a bunch of freak results all happening at once, making nothing more than one mega-freak?

'Yes. I've been reading all sorts of things in the papers this morning about this style and that style. It's rubbish. If you look at the four games, and at the eight teams who played in them, there's no pattern there at all. You can't say that the four teams that won played this way, or the four teams that lost played that way. The only pattern is that, this time round, four teams from that league beat four teams from this league.'

But isn't there any significance to this at all?

'In the global scheme of things, I don't think there is any, no. There's a significance for me and for George Graham and Kenny Dalglish and Kevin Keegan . . . a significance of cataclysmic proportions. We've each gone out of the Cup to a team from the next league down. And none of us likes losing. It eats you up. But in the wider sense . . . well, the so-called experts only write these things afterwards, don't they? I mean, Denis Smith (the Oxford manager) didn't come out with any of his profound statements before the game, did he?'

No one should know more than Wilkinson about the difference between the top two divisions. In the last dozen years he has taken three clubs through promotion from one to the other. Does he see an evolution in the approach of the underdogs?

'When I was in the Second Division with Notts County, the teams we played were not significantly different to the teams we met when I was there with Sheffield Wednesday and again with Leeds United. And you'll still see a variety of styles throughout the clubs, depending on the players they have available and the philosophy of the particular manager. So I don't really see any change, no.'

The financial consequences for the clubs, he felt, had been overestimated. 'At the start of the season - like every other club in football, I should imagine - we budget to go out of the Cup in the first round. So any improvement on that is a bonus. I'll bet there's not a team in the Premier League whose budget includes receipts taking into account more than one game in the FA Cup. We're daft, but we're not that daft.'

For Kevin Keegan, the consequences are simple. 'We won't be ordering Wembley suits, and we won't be going to Cardiff for the next round. Other than that, it hasn't changed anything at our club. We know we're a good side that had a bad night. In the League, you have a bad game and you put it right next week. In the Cup, you've got to wait a year. But I'm not suddenly going to dash out and look at all the players in the Endsleigh First Division to see if they're better than the ones I've got.'

He already keeps an eye on the promising ones, of course, but he agrees with the point made below by Steve Gritt, the Charlton co- manager, that the relative unfamiliarity of the lower-division players helps them in one-off matches. 'That's definitely true,' Keegan said. 'We suffer from overexposure in terms of not being an unknown quantity to anybody. On the other hand, can you say that Manchester United suffer from overexposure? They've lost one game in 30. And we gain from the exposure financially, in the ability to sign new players and to pay them high wages. The penalty is that, as David Pleat said on Wednesday, he knew all about us because he'd seen so much of us on TV. I watched Luton beforehand, but the unfamiliarity is one of the small advantages that they deserve to have.

'Oh, you know, it's still all about the way you play on the day, and if we'd played on Wednesday as well as we've been playing most of this season, we'd have been going to Cardiff in the fifth round. You could invent a hundred different theories based on those four results. But if the four of us played the four of them again next week, the results might just as easily be the other way round. For goodness' sake, though, let them have their day.'