James Lawton: Romance of the Cup is alive and well in world of Radford re-runs

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Soon America will be celebrating the ritual of Groundhog Day, when a furry little animal pokes his head out of the permafrost and gives his weather forecast.

Today is our equivalent, when an equally endearing figure pulls on his sheepskin and arms himself with a forest of statistics before banging on about Hereford and all that.

John Motson's message is of course as beguiling as ever. He talks of the mystique which takes hold when the third round of the FA Cup rolls around and for most football lovers it remains an eternal theme. How could it be otherwise?

Motty celebrates the romance of football that for him - as for all those of us who were packed into Edgar Street, across the road from the cattle market, when Ronnie Radford rifled his unforgettable shot into the Newcastle net 33 years ago - will always be associated with the damp, misty day when reality was stood on its head.

The broadcaster made his name in the TV booth that day and Radford and the other Hereford scorer Ricky George became inseparable from the folklore of English football.

But maybe there is a hard question to accompany Motson's latest epistle: does his message still carry the same resonance?

Can it possibly survive the cynicism that has been heaped on the old tournament for the last five years? Yes, you have to say it can, but only if the football authorities and the most powerful men in the game - they are of course far from the same thing - realise before it is too late how careless they have been with a wonderfully heart-warming tradition.

Some of the ground where so much damage was done can be covered quickly enough. It is still staggering to think that in 2000 - less than a year after celebrating an historic treble - Manchester United responded to the urgings of the Football Association and agreed not to defend the FA Cup. That was an appalling blow and for what? A catch-penny Fifa initiative described as the World Club Championship, which absurdly included clubs from Australia, Iran and Mexico.

Around about the same time Arsène Wenger announced that he would prefer to finish fourth in the Premiership than win the trophy that was claimed, to the enchantment of the nation, in 1953 by the 38-year-old Sir Stanley Matthews, and was held aloft by the likes of Billy Wright, Joe Mercer and Bobby Moore. Wenger said it was better to gain entry into Champions' League and underpin club finances.

If such thinking was good enough for Alex Ferguson and Wenger it was also fine for Sam Allardyce, whose decision to play a reserve team against Tranmere last season opened up the way for Millwall's dismal challenge to United in last year's final in Cardiff. The Bolton Wanderers' manager calculated that he had a better chance of getting to Europe via the League Cup final, and who grieved outside of East Lancashire when Middlesbrough played his team off the park at the Millennium Stadium? This week Liverpool's Rafael Benitez suggested strongly that he would field a young reserve team in last night's opening game at Burnley, which was depressing enough even though, unlike Allardyce, he has never known the muddy passions of English mid-winter.

Of course Motty is right to bang the drum for the FA Cup. If club football in this country has any kind of future beyond a small cluster of super-rich clubs, it needs all the soul and finer feeling it can muster.

Who could not rejoice if Yeading of the Ryman Premier League ambush Newcastle at Loftus Road tomorrow and say to Kieron Dyer, the Material Boy of big-time football, and his bullying chairman Freddy Shepherd, that the game might just be about something more than counting the profits and luxuriating in the good life.

Or if non-league Exeter touched fantasy today and caught Manchester United on one of the worst of their days at Old Trafford. No, it can't really happen, but imagine if it did in a season when United, who so scorned the people's Cup five years ago from the mountain-top of Europe, are far from guaranteed success in the Premiership or the Champions' League. That would be poetic justice co-written by Lord Denning and William Wordsworth.

The potential for such a convulsion is not dead, though inevitably the incidence of major upset has thinned with the ever growing wealth gap.

Two years ago Shrewsbury Town, heading for non-league football and managed by Kevin Ratcliffe, who captained Everton to victory at Wembley and then later, when manager of Chester City, put his hand in his own pocket and paid electricity bills when the club ran out of money, beat the Merseyside club - and a few weeks later required the best of Gianfranco Zola before surrendering their place in the great competition.

That night Chelsea's Claudio Ranieri made a ringing tribute to both Zola and the FA Cup, saying: "Zola was fantastic tonight - he is a great man and this is a great competition when a team like Shrewsbury can come out and play like that."

Or as third division Crystal Palace did in 1976 when they went to Elland Road and beat Leeds United. Less than 12 months earlier Leeds had been considered unlucky to lose a European Cup final against Franz Beckenbauer's Bayern Munich, but Palace, managed by Malcolm Allision and coached by Terry Venables, didn't ride their good fortune. They played the game of their lives. Near the end Stewart Jump, who was playing sweeper, put a finger to his wrist and beckoned to Venables in the dug-out.

He wanted to know how much longer a young Palace team had to defend their lead. Venables signalled 10 minutes. In fact there was just a minute or two left on the clock. However, Venables didn't want to encourage complacency. He was pleased with the response of Jump, who waved an imaginary version of the Havana cigars favoured by Allison.

That was when smoke could easily get in your eyes when you thought about the FA Cup. Will it ever do that again? Only if the FA realise it is time to rescue arguably its greatest asset. Next season's final, we are told, should return to Wembley. It would be the perfect time to grant the winner a place in the Champions' League. Romance may be dead in the upper echelons of English football, but these days an invitation to greed seems to work every time.

Third-round matches that became folklore

Wrexham 2 Arsenal 1, 4 January 1992

In 1992, as today, Wrexham were a club on the ropes. The previous season had seen them finish bottom of the old Fourth Division, and avoid relegation to the Conference by default alone.

Arsenal, on the other hand, were the champions. "Arsenal battered us," remembers Mickey Thomas, the veteran midfielder who scored Wrexham's first in the 2-1 win. "They had a lot of chances, but they only got one goal. When they faltered in the second half, we raised our game and capitalised."

For Thomas, 37 at the time, the game was a chance to end his career "with a bang". He accomplished this with a stunning equalising free-kick with seven minutes remaining. Steve Watkin's goal a minute later ensured Wrexham's place in the Cup's giant-killing pantheon.

How did it happen? "The smaller sides chase more, they run more and the crowd really get into it," says Thomas. "They don't believe they will win, but they know there's always a chance."

Thomas is still best remembered for that day at the Racecourse, and not simply among fans of the two clubs involved. "The Chelsea fans were singing my name at their game that evening," he recalls. "That game meant a lot to a lot of people."

Hereford Utd 2 Newcastle Utd 1, 5 February 1972

Southern League Hereford's achievement in holding Newcastle to a 2-2 draw at St James' Park was impressive. To defeat the First Division side in much-postponed replay was sensational.

Newcastle's Malcolm MacDonald had forecast he would score 10 goals - in the event he had to settle for one but coming in the 85th minute it seemed enough. Then, with a minute left, Ronnie Radford scored the 35-yard goal which launched John Motson's TV career - it was his first major commentary.

Radford recalled: "I won the ball in midfield and played a one-two with Brian Owen. The return pass came off Brian's shin. It sat there waiting to be hit. Colin Addison [player-manager] shouted, 'My ball Raddy' but then he slipped so I just went for it. I just hit it and it flew in."

Thousands of young fans ran onto the pitch delaying a resumption that quickly moved into extra-time. Twelve minutes in Ricky George scrambled a goal and Newcastle were beaten. Hereford went on to hold West Ham, also then in the top flight, to a draw at Upton Park in the next round but lost the Edgar Street replay. They were nevertheless rewarded with election to the League that summer.

Sutton United 2 Coventry City 1, 7 January 1989

One of the most memorable shocks in the history of the FA Cup came in January 1989 when Conference side Sutton United dispatched Coventry City 2-1 at Gander Green Lane.

According to Tony Rains, who headed Sutton's first, however, the gap between the two sides in terms of league positions - Coventry were sixth at the time - was not particularly evident on the field. "For 75 minutes we played as well as we could and held our own," he says. "We weren't a better side than them, but we matched them. It was only in the last 15 minutes, when they hit the bar and the post, that we rode our luck."

For Rains, it was the sense of anticipation that enveloped Sutton before the game that carried them through. "Everyone at the club was so up for the game," he says. "The players, the fans, people who'd been involved with the club for 40 years. There was a buzz round the whole community, not just the club. The unexpected can happen because the games with the big boys mean so much to the smaller sides."

This effect, according to Rains, was compounded by the media attention the players received. "We didn't train properly for two weeks before the match," he recalls. "It was all for the cameras. In the end we played on adrenalin alone."

Could this, then, be the secret to pulling off a shock? "I don't think so," says Rains. "I've not prepared properly for games after that and it's not worked again."

West Bromwich Albion 2 Woking 4, 5 January 1991

As Giant-Killers go, Woking can almost consider themselves giants. Their scalps include Cambridge United, Millwall and, most famously of all, West Brom at the Hawthorns.

Despite being described by the opposing coach, Brian Talbot, as "the biggest outsiders in the competition", Woking managed to secure a remarkable 4-2 victory, thanks to a Tim Buzaglo hat-trick.

"When we were drawn against them," recalls Buzaglo, "I thought we didn't stand a chance. But [the manager] Geoff Chapple had no doubt that we would win the game."

Buzaglo credits the victory to Chapple's reconnaissance missions to the Black Country, where he identified a lack of pace in the Baggies' back line. "My second goal came from a flicked-on header," Buzaglo explains. "I was five yards behind both central defenders and I still got to the ball first."

Buzaglo feels there was a degree of over-confidence in the hosts' ranks. "When we walked past their dressing room before the game they were reading papers and lounging around," he says. "Maybe they do that every game, but we got the impression that they were thinking, 'It's only Woking'."

If there was complacency, Woking took full advantage. "Their most dangerous player, Tony Ford, never got a look in and there is no question that we played the better football on the day," Buzaglo said.

By Glenn Moore and Rory Smith