Much of what makes England’s FA Cup so special is that it often throws together teams from far apart on the pyramid of leagues. And that is certainly true among the 2020-21 dates for 3rd Round FA Cup games, which kick off this weekend.
(Disclaimer: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning Groundhopper Guides may receive some compensation if you make a purchase after clicking one of these links.)
The so-called “Magic of the Cup” is that the FA Cup structure doesn’t have seedings or a bracket, so the random draw often sends big Premier League clubs down to small clubs, or vice-versa, as so-called “minnows” travel to the great palaces of English football.
It’s the 3rd Round when, every year, clubs from the Premier League and the English League Championship join the fray. So as the 2020-21 Third Round fixtures are upon us, let’s take a look at some of the games where “minnows” are hosting “big boys.”
Bear in mind that all FA Cup games are broadcast in the US on ESPN+. We’ll take these in the order they are happening.
Third Round FA Cup Fixtures on Saturday, January 9
After a couple of all-Premier-League Friday ties that will garner a lot of press, we start off the real action (for me) on Saturday at 7 a.m. Eastern with Millwall visiting Boreham Wood. The Lions have been in the second-tier Championship for four seasons in a row and nine of the last 11, and their home, The Den, has more than 20,000 seats. But for this game they will visit The Wood’s 4,500-capacity home known as The Meadow. Only 1,700 of those spots are seated!
Boreham Wood, now in the 5th-tier National League, were founded in 1948 and spent decades in leagues like the Parthenon, the Athenian, and eventually the 7th-tier Isthmian. They have never been this far in the FA Cup, and they have only beaten a team from the Football League (tiers two through four) once, knocking off Blackpool in 2017.
I actually got to see an FA Cup tie at Boreham Wood once, when they drew Notts County and earned a replay (which they lost) away in Nottingham.
At 7:15 a.m. Eastern, the Championship’s Derby County is away to Chorley of the National League South, a level below Boreham Wood in the sixth tier. This is the same Derby County whose current (interim) manager is none other than Wayne Rooney and who won the league in 1972. The game is at Victory Park, a 3,700-capacity (900 seats) ground in Chorley, which is in Lancashire between Bolton and Preston, about a half-hour from central Manchester. This is also the best the Magpies (for their black and white shirts) have ever done in the FA Cup. They beat two League One teams, Wigan (who won the Cup in 2013) and Peterborough United. (Meet Wigan Athletic here.)
At 10 a.m. Eastern, Sheffield United kick off at Bristol Rovers in a “Premier League visits League One” matchup. The Blades are having a historically bad Premier League season, so Rovers — also known as “The Gas” because their ground used to sit near a smelly gasworks — will be chasing a “giant-killing.” The best they ever did was finish sixth in the Second Division twice in the 1950s; during that same decade they also twice made the quarterfinals of the FA Cup, the furthest they’ve ever gotten. They haven’t even been in the second tier (now called the Championship) since the early 1990s.
It’s too bad their fans won’t be around, because their signature song is “Goodnight Irene,” which is fun to hear.
And yes, I’ve been to Bristol Rovers, as well!
Also at 10 a.m. Eastern, Swansea City at Stevenage has the Swans of the Championship traveling back in time to see League Two Stevenage, a bedroom community on the north side of Greater London. When I say “back in time” I mean that it wasn’t that long ago Swansea were playing in leagues like this, and barely hanging on; they almost went out of business in 2003 but by 2012 were in the Premier League, and in 2013 they won the League Cup. They have been in the Championship the last two seasons.
Stevenage, meanwhile, were until 2010 known as Stevenage Borough Football Club, and they still call themselves The Boro. They replaced the town’s former club in 1976. In 1997 they famously held Newcastle at Broadhall Way in the FA Cup Fourth Round, only to lose the replay 2-1 at St. James Park.
Here’s a visit to Stevenage FC, which was largely inspired by that Newcastle memory. They were then, and still are, in League Two, and in fact last season they only avoided relegation because another club, Macclesfield Town, went out of business.
Third Round FA Cup Fixtures on Sunday, January 10
First up on Sunday at 8:30 a.m. Eastern, is a game that won’t get a lot of attention because of what comes next, but it’s still Leeds United at Crawley Town. I can’t wait to see Marcela Bielsa, legendary manager of Premier League Leeds, sitting on his haunches at the 6,134-seat Broadfield Stadium. Crawley is essentially a southern suburb of London, and the Reds — who were a part-time team until 2005 — actually made the FA Cup Fifth Round in 2011, losing 1-0 at Manchester United after hitting the crossbar in injury time; had that gone in, Man U would have been off to Crawley! There were 9,000 Crawley fans at that game, undoubtedly the most ever assembled.
That game is followed by Marine FC vs Tottenham Hotspur at 12:00 Eastern. This is the one dreams are made of! When they draw these teams out for the matchup, there’s this delicious moment when the first name out, the home team, is a minnow, and everybody holds their breath to see who they get. This video of the 2020-21 draw starts with Chorley’s draw, so we’ll let it roll from there.
That’s right, Tottenham Hotspur — then the leaders of the Premier League and currently fourth — must go and face Marine FC of the eighth tier, only the second team ever to make it this far! Imagine Jose Mourinho coaching in this place! The gap between the two teams — currently 170 places! — is the biggest in the competition’s history.
Marine, a semipro team in the Liverpool area who plays in the Northern Premier League Division One North West, got an injury-time winner in the Second Round to take out Havant and Waterlooville.
Here are the highlights from that game; look at the ground!
Rossett Park has just 3,185 capacity, around 400 of that seated, and it’s a massive shame their fans can’t be there. The club have made Spurs fans a deal: since you can’t make it to this one, Tottenham season-ticket holders can come to a Marine game for free next season!
Another great matchup on Sunday at 2:45 p.m. Eastern is Brighton and Hove Albion at Newport County. These are dangerous waters for the Seagulls of the Premier League. They are currently 17th in the table and fighting to stay up, so they might not prioritize this one with first-team players. But The County, as they are known, are established Cup experts. In their current form (they were bankrupt in 1988), they have only been in the Football League since 2013, but in 2018 they beat Leeds United at this stage, then in the next round drew Tottenham at home before losing the replay. In 2019, they beat Leicester City in the Third Round, Middlesbrough of the Championship in the Fourth, and hosted Man City in the Fifth, losing 4-1. In last year’s EFL Cup they beat Watford and took Newcastle United to penalties.
Newport, if your geography is weak, is in Wales near Cardiff; they are one of just a few Welsh clubs to play in the English league system, along with Cardiff City, Swansea City, and Wrexham. Their home ground, Rodney Parade, holds 7,850 people.
Third Round FA Cup Fixtures on Monday, January 11
At 3 p.m. Eastern, West Ham United play at Stockport County. The Premier League Hammers, who have won the FA Cup three times and lost two more finals, visit the fifth-tier Hatters, so named because the town, just south of Manchester, is known for making hats. County briefly made the second tier of the pyramid in the 1990s but by 2013 were in the sixth. They made it back to their current National League North affiliation in 2019.