Everyone loves an underdog, and in the FA Cup everyone loves a “giant killing” — except for the giants, of course. Since knowing something about the “magic of the FA Cup” is essential to understanding the history and culture of English football, let’s take a look at 10 of the more famous upsets in FA Cup history.
Probably only a cup competition like the FA Cup, played every year since 1871 and without seedings or brackets, can produce such moments. (Related: What is the FA Cup?) Sure, European competitions can have shocking outcomes, but anyone playing in Europe had to be good to get there, and “minnows” almost never make the knockout rounds.
In something like the FA Cup, though, you regularly have matchups between clubs separated by multiple leagues on the pitch and worlds off it, like in 2020’s Third Round with Tottenham Hotspur having to play at semipro Marine FC.
For this list of some of the greatest “giant killings” in the FA Cup, I am going to focus (with one notable exception) on times when the bigger club lost away to the smaller one, because I love seeing these tiny grounds erupt with joy, and because I like to tell my readers about clubs they might not be familiar with.
1972: Hereford United 2-1 Newcastle United
This is the one it’s all about. The name “Ronnie Radford” has a significance in English folklore akin to “Hoosiers” in the United States. Funny thing is, though, his iconic and extraordinary goal didn’t win the game!
It’s February 5, 1972, a replay of a Third Round match that drew 2-2 at Newcastle. Four tiers of the league pyramid separated the clubs, and most of the players at Hereford — in the southwest of England, near the Welsh border — were not even full-time. The details are the stuff of dreams: a ground with 14,000 capacity thought to have 16,000 in it; people sitting in trees to watch; a 26-year-old commentator named John Motson sent out by the BBC on a trial basis; the muddy pitch; the internationals versus the part-timers.
Newcastle went ahead 1-0 with about 10 minutes to go, at which point Radford, who had been with several bigger clubs but never quite caught on, latched onto a loose ball and unleashed a 30- or 40-yard howitzer into the top corner to level it. The image (above) of No. 11 running around in the mud with his arms up in the air while the crowd rushed the pitch is one of the most deeply ingrained in the British sporting imagination.
But then it was only 1-1, the tie went into extra time, and it was Ricky George who actually got the winner. It was the first time a non-league side ever beat top-flight opposition in English history.
Radford’s effort won Goal of the Season on the BBC, who incorporated his celebration into the opening video of Match of the Day for years. After his career he went back to being a carpenter, but he now presents the annual “Giant-Killing Award” at halftime of the FA Cup Final.
Motson, by the way, went on to a career of some 40 years and 2,000 games, and he was essentially the voice of the FA Cup Final for decades. He retired in 2017.
Enjoy your trip to the mud and glory of yesteryear. Newcastle are in red, and Radford’s goal comes just after the 9-minute mark. Don’t miss the Hereford kop singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
1992: Wrexham 2, Arsenal 1
Wrexham, a club made famous of late because they were purchased by American actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenny, are now in the fifth-tier National League, but in 1972 they were in the old Fourth Division. More than half the team were aged 20 or under, meanwhile Arsenal were defending First Division and Community Shield winners, and the following year they would win both the FA Cup and League Cup.
We’ll pick up the video just before Mickey Thomas’s famous equalizer for Wrexham in front of the sad Arsenal supporters. The winner comes a few minutes later. Take special note: This is still Wrexham’s home ground!
2015: Chelsea 2-4 Bradford City
There are so many things to love about this one, starting with the fact that Chelsea put out a massively strong side. They were defending UEFA Super Cup champs, and later in 2015 they would win both the Premier League and the League Cup. Bradford, meanwhile, are a Yorkshire club then in League One, but one which had lost the League Cup Final just two years before. Still, when they went down 2-0 in the first half, even the Bantams faithful must have feared the worst.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho would say after the game that while it was ” a disgrace” to lose to such a team, the game was an example of “the beauty of football” and the special nature of the FA Cup. He would say in later interviews that despite the loss, it was one of his favorite memories in English football. He is seen at the end clapping for the visitors, and he famously went into their locker room to congratulate them.
Take special note: In the FA Cup, away teams get a bigger ticket allotment, so one entire end was packed with 6,000 Bradford fans.
1971: Colchester 3-2 Leeds
Leeds have only recently risen back to the top flight, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s they were a dominant force in English football. Between their league title in 1964 and this game they had added three second-place league finishes, another championship, a League Cup Final and an FA Cup final loss just the year before. This 1971 team, in fact, would finish second in the league.
Colchester, meanwhile, had since their founding in 1937 never made it above the third tier; they were in the fourth tier when this tie took place at their old ground, Layer Road. They moved out of there in 2008.
The interviews here are great, as is the second home goal scored by a man lying on the ground! Take special note of the dugouts. The coaches and players couldn’t even stand up in there!
2011: Stevenage 3-1 Newcastle
This was a rematch of sorts, as back in the 1997-98 FA Cup these two had played a tie packed with controversy. Newcastle were drawn away to Stevenage but didn’t want to play there, so they tried to have the game moved to their ground, but the Stevenage chairman rebuffed them, famously telling Newcastle officials on camera that they should have kept their mouths shut!
It was a draw at Stevenage in 1998, followed by a narrow Newcastle win at home, which you can watch in this video montage.
Thirteen years later, the same balls came out in the same order, but this time Newcastle simply showed up, played a pretty strong side and got their asses kicked by a team sitting 14th in League Two, some 70 spots beneath them in the tables.
Take special note of how close the coaches and players are to the front row! This is still the Stevenage home ground, as well.
1984: Bournemouth 2-0 Manchester United
If you just started paying attention recently, you may think of Bournemouth as a pretty big club just recently relegated from the Premier League. But before that, in 2009, they almost went out of business, and before that they were a pretty ordinary lower-league team on the South Coast, never making it out of the third tier. It was in the 1980s when a young manager named Harry Redknapp took over that they had a great run, highlighted by this famous win. Still, they finished 17th in Division Three that year and only got promoted three years later.
Man U, of course, need no introduction. As to how good they were in 1984, they were FA Cup holders, Community Shield holders, and on their way to a semifinal in what is now known as the Europa League. They were still a couple years shy of hiring Alex Ferguson and once again becoming dominant domestically and in Europe.
I visited Bournemouth when they were in the Premier League many years later.
2013: Oldham 3-2 Liverpool
Oldham Athletic, in the suburbs of Manchester, had spent the 20 years before this in the third and fourth tiers, so hosting Liverpool with a strong side that included Suarez, Sturridge and Gerrard would have seemed a tough task. But cheered on by a packed crowd in a very old-fashioned-looking stadium that is still their home, they took it to the Reds and got a famous win.
For context, Liverpool were League Cup holders and had lost the FA Cup Final the year before; Oldham haven’t finished above the middle of the third tier since 2009. Oldham lost in the next (5th) round, 3-1 at Everton.
Take special note of the snow piled up on the near sideline. I assume they had to plow the pitch to play this game. Oldham’s Boundary Park sits on a Lancashire hilltop and is famous for being cold; one former manager called it Ice Station Zebra.
2003: Shrewsbury Town 2-1 Everton
This is a Shrewsbury Town team that started the day 80 places below the Toffees in the table and would, just a few months later, finish dead last in League Two and get relegated out of the Football League. In their 103-year-history to this point, they had never risen above the second tier. For that matter, they still haven’t, and the best they ever did in the FA Cup was the quarterfinals.
Everton in 2003 were eight years removed from their 1995 FA Cup win and had settled into mid-table Premier League mediocrity. But a new manager for the season, David Moyes, would soon pick them up. They would finish seventh that season and play in Europe a few years later, but on this day at their old Gay Meadow home, the Shrews gave the Blues the what-for.
A comment about the goalscorer, Nigel Jemson: His career started in 1986, and by this game he was 33 and playing for his 15th club in 17 seasons! He played seven more seasons and wrapped it up in the colors of Rainworth Miners Welfare in the East Midlands Counties League at tier 10.
Take special note of 17-year-old Wayne Rooney!
1989: Sutton United 2-1 Coventry City
Non-British fans may not be familiar with either of these names, but in 1989 Coventry City of the Midlands had spent the previous 20 seasons in the top tier and won the FA Cup less than two years before. Sutton, meanwhile, is a South London outfit who have to this day never been in the Football League. In 1989 they were on their way to finishing 12th in the fifth tier — but only a few seasons removed in either direction from the sixth tier! They still play at Gander Green Lane, a name I had to include.
Sutton would lose in the next round, 8-0, away to Norwich City.
Is that sawdust in front of the goals?!
2019: Wimbledon 4-2 West Ham
Let’s wrap up this post with the most recent giant-killing, the Premier League Hammers getting, well, hammered by the League One Wombles. West Ham have won three FA Cups and lost two more finals, but Wimbledon are the interesting story here. The original team, Wimbledon FC, was moved by its owner to become MK Dons, an unheard of situation in England. So their supporters started a new club, AFC Wimbledon, in 2002.
They rose from the ninth tier to the third, where they were when this game occurred. Capping off the remarkable story, they rebuilt a stadium at their traditional home in Plough Lane, Wimbledon, replacing Kingsmeadow which you see here. They lost in the next round, 1-0, at home to London rivals Millwall.
Note the scaffolding they had to erect to have BBC cameras on hand.