A tribute to England's top cup competition, with some recent memories highlighting its glory.
The FA Cup, one of the proudest traditions in our game currently and has been for many years now. Is the competition losing its glossy overcoat of hierarchy in the season now? Yes, for the top teams especially. The top 6 clubs in the Premier League now focus on being in Europe, or getting into Europe, or if you're Tottenham, inadvertently getting out of Europe. But if you ask many managers across the country from the lower leagues they'll all tell you that the cup still has a glint in its eye, and for many of those bosses it's because it gives them a chance to be live on television, faced up against one of the top sides, with just the slim possibility of a giant killing. You'll have more away support at the FA Cup games than any other time of year, too. With up to 15% of the ground being taken up by away supporters. Not quite like the 'old days' where fans would have their pin badges and rosettes marking the occasion, or letting off balloons before kick-off, or players wearing those ridiculous suits e.g. Liverpool at Wembley 1996, but the buzz is still there. Even the Premier League managers will rise for the FA Cup, simply because it's their chance of picking up some silverware in a season otherwise more than forgettable if you're in mid table.
One of the games I've picked out as a memory to wet the whistle of football fans is Manchester United vs West Ham, in a fourth round tie at Old Trafford in January 2001. It was a cold, dull, overcast day in Manchester, and Fergie had sent out a strong side to face the Hammers, led by their charismatic, outspoken captain Paolo Di Canio, now manager of Swindon Town. The game was live on television on the Sunday, following on from Saturday's earlier ties, and the game was similar to the weather, dull. Then, on 76 minutes, from out of nowhere, the underdogs West Ham took the lead through that man Di Canio. A through ball was played by Frederic Kanoute – remember him? - and the hearty Italian strode onto the ball in the United box, and slid the ball past goalkeeper Fabian Barthez. That wasn't the end of the story, though, as Barthez had stopped playing and was appealing offside to the linesman, waving his arm above his head as the ball was played into Di Canio's path. With the goalkeeper not in the equation, West Ham scored and Old Trafford was stunned into silence. West Ham held on for 15 nervous minutes before one of the cup shocks of that season was confirmed, and Fergie went home red-faced, not for the first time in the FA Cup either.
A second match I've picked out was from 2006, another game shown live on BBC before they lost their rights to show the FA Cup games in 2009. This time though it's a third round tie, always the highlight day in the football calendar for English football supporters. Saturday 7 January, at Kenilworth Road. The match: Luton Town vs Liverpool, ring any bells? An extraordinary game between two sides who were only one division apart at the time, and one the TV cameras and the big wigs at the BBC were certainly very pleased in capturing. Liverpool were European champions at the time of the match under the guidance of Rafael Benitez, and took an early lead through their inspirational captain Steven Gerrard. One way traffic, you'd think? Well as we all know from the Champions League final in Istanbul just months before, Liverpool don't do things the easy way. Luton struck back through prolific goalscorer Steve Howard, before going ahead in the game thanks to Steve Robinson, remarkable. It got even better for the home side when Liverpool missed a penalty to equalise at 2-1 from Djibril Cisse, and almost immediately Luton broke away and scored a third before half time from their own captain fantastic, Kevin Nicholls.
At the break Benitez was having kittens, but after Istanbul nobody could rule Liverpool out of any game at any score. Right on cue, Florent Sinama-Pongolle – remember him? - slid home a second goal for the Reds and the game was back in the balance at 3-2. Liverpool surged on and got their reward through Xabi Alonso – more from him in a minute – to level the scores and now the home side were on the ropes. Sinama-Pongolle netted again with header to completely spin the game on its head and put Liverpool 3-4 ahead, before Alonso, as I warned, scored a dramatic fifth goal in added time, after Beresford in the Luton goal had gone up desperately for a corner, leaving his goal unattended and allowing Alonso to fire home a spectacular 60 yard effort from inside his own half to complete the scoring. Mesmerising. Who said the FA Cup romance was dead?
Third on the list of tail wagging FA Cup magic comes from the lower leagues, in what I see as being the true meaning of the competition. It was a cold, miserable, sodden day in Histon, as the Glass World stadium in Cambridge packed out to see their boys face Leeds United, full of cup tradition and glory throughout the years. The game, as with the other two previously, was live on television, this time brought to us by ITV in November 2008. A second round tie between two sides who couldn't be much further apart on paper, with the chance of facing Swansea City in round three. Leeds started the game the brighter of the two sides but struggled to get a rhythm in their passing due to the state of the Glass World turf, which resembled less of a football pitch and more of a dirt track for Speedway or monster trucks. Histon slowly began to press forward, gaining hope and confidence from the fact Leeds, the visitors, hadn't yet broken through.
Then, four minutes before the break, the unthinkable happened. Histon had a corner, having not threatened once in the opening 41 minutes of the game. The penalty area was full, the rain hammering down on the players backs, their shirts clinging to them like a new born baby to its mother. The corner was swung over from the far side, and whipped through due to the wind howling around the very, very open stands that Histon have, until the ball finally reached the head of one Matthew Langston, a painter by trade, who bulleted his header through the body of players and somehow squeezing it into the net, met by rapturous celebrations all around Cambridge and the UK, who love an underdog to overcome a big dog, we hold dear the tradition of David and Goliath many more times similar to this in the cup. So Histon had scored, somehow, and managed to hold on to that 1-0 scoreline right through until full-time. Of course the romance died shortly after as Swansea beat them in round three, but for one day, Histon felt like champions of the world. Only the FA Cup can do that to people.
Match four on the list of recent memories takes us to the Walkers Stadium, as it was then, now known officially as the King Power Stadium, and to Leicester City. Another game from 2006, and again a third round tie, a day after Liverpool had turned around a 3-1 deficit, Tottenham came to the Walkers Stadium hoping to avoid any such problems like Liverpool faced just 24 hours earlier. Again it was a Premier League side facing Championship opposition, again under the lights on a BBC televised occasion. Tottenham manager Martin Jol had obviously seen what had happened to Liverpool and didn't want that to become a factor in the match. His Spurs side came out of the blocks flying, and the Leicester support, who had packed out the 32,000 capacity in the ground had their hopes dashed just 14 minutes in when Jermaine Jenas flicked home to give Tottenham the lead, Paul Stalteri – remember him? - scored an absolute wonder goal to double Spurs' lead and Leicester were sinking fast. Elvis Hammond then reignited the noise inside the Walkers by scoring on the stroke of half time to give Leicester a foot in the game.
Then in the second half, Leicester came out fighting. Stephen Hughes scored with a lovely left footed finish from just outside the penalty area to level the scores dramatically at 2-2 with still half an hour to play. Leicester had seen their side come from two goals down against a Premier League side, sitting fourth in the table at the time, surely there wasn't anything left to give from them? They were really clinging on as Spurs desperately tried to avoid the replay and pushed on for a third goal. But, as the fourth official came out with his board and held up the sign for four more minutes of football, the Leicester City crowd rose as one to cheer on their team, they spurred them as best they could for one last big push, and it worked. All of a sudden, Leicester were streaming forward in their numbers, passing their way through the Tottenham side like a knife through butter, before the ball eventually reached Mark De Vries – remember him? - who turned his marker and slid the ball agonisingly past the on-rushing Paul Robinson. The ball seemed to take an eternity to roll over the line and nestle in the back of the net, before the roar from the Leicester City fans took off the roof of the Walkers Stadium. They'd done it, they'd turned it all around and beaten Spurs from 0-2 to 3-2 in 45 minutes of football. A wonderful occasion for all those concerned, and another case of the true meaning of the FA Cup, especially on third round weekend.
The final game on the list of FA Cup recent memories takes us to a final. Not at Wembley which we all know is our holy grail for FA Cup finals, with the likes of Alan Sunderland and Roberto Di Matteo making their names in cup finals at Wembley, but in fact to the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff, which hosted six finals between 2001 and 2006 whilst 'new' Wembley was being built. Liverpool won the first final at Cardiff having seen off Arsenal with two dramatic late goals from Michael Owen, which is a story in itself, but the last final also saw Liverpool feature, fittingly, against West Ham, who had FA Cup romance flowing through its every vein and in each single sinew of its body as a club. This final was later 'The Gerrard Final', and you'll see why in a minute. Both sides took to the field boasting their strongest possible line-ups, with a capacity 74,000 fans expecting their team to bring home the cup. West Ham started the brighter of the two sides and took the lead when Jamie Carragher scored an own goal, before Dean Ashton scored from close range to double the Hammers' lead, stunning Liverpool in the process. The Reds' supporters had been here before, just one year prior to this final they'd had to sit through the torment of being 0-3 down in the Champions League final to AC Milan, but they came through that and they weren't going to give this one up either. Djibril Cisse pulled one back for Liverpool before half time and the teams went in 1-2 at the break, Liverpool looking the better side as the half went on but still trailing.
The managers half time team talk may as well have not happened, as Steven Gerrard took matters into his own hands, lashing in an equaliser for Liverpool after the break, and giving hope to all the Reds' fans who were there to witness the occasion. The West Ham fans were now in bits, having seen their 2-0 lead shattered by Liverpool, they thought the game was over. That was until Paul Konchesky looped home the most audacious of strikes to regain the lead for West Ham, which he later revealed was a cross that went horribly wrong, or right depending on how you look at it. The Hammers' faithful were now roaring out renditions of “I'm forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air” and so on, whereas the Liverpool supporters looked no less than distraught, having seen the game slip through their fingers once again. The time was running out, the fourth official had put up his board for four minutes of added time, and Liverpool were on the verge of losing the FA Cup final. Gerrard, their captain, who they'd looked at for inspiration on so many occasions, was down on the ground injured, with cramp, and could barely move. The game moved forward regardless, and Gerrard somehow got back to his feet, and was demanding the ball be passed to his feet. Everyone around looked bemused, the Liverpool fans regained hope, Gerrard now had the ball at his feet, 45 yards out, and looked menacing. The West Ham fans could barely watch as Gerrard strode forward, before pulling back his right leg, and letting fly with his deadly right boot. The ball flew from 40 yards out, time stood still, everyone gasped almost in unison, and then the ball rippled the net. Gerrard had scored what was later described as THE BEST EVER FA Cup goal, and the stadium was stunned. The Liverpool fans could barely believe their eyes, the West Ham fans likewise, everyone totally mesmerised by what Steven Gerrard had just done. The goalkeeper didn't get near it, nobody got near it.
The referee blew for full time and it was a bizarre feel, the game ended 3-3 and we were heading for extra time, but the two sets of supporters reacted completely differently. Liverpool thought they'd won the cup, West Ham thought they'd lost it. After what was a simply incredible piece of individual skill from Gerrard in injury time, the extra time was more of a non-event, as players and fans alike still tried to get their heads around exactly what they'd just witnessed. The game finished 3-3 after extra time and we were going into penalties, which Liverpool felt confident with, having Pepe Reina in their goal. West Ham players and fans looked defeatist, and that showed in their spot kicks. Reina was the hero of the shoot-out, saving from Konchesky, Anton Ferdinand, and Bobby Zamora, whilst Hamann, Gerrard, and Riise all scored from the spot for Liverpool as they comfortably ran out 3-1 victors in the shoot-out. But the final will be remembered for only one thing, Steven Gerrard's wonder goal in the 90th minute. That is what the FA Cup is really all about.
May your team have a successful run in the cup this year, bringing all of your football dreams to life. If you believe in the magic of the FA Cup, it will reward your belief.