FA Cup Soccer: Killing Giants, Keeping Romance Alive

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Ever since I was a young lad, everyone has always talked about the FA Cup with a nostalgic look in their eyes. Perhaps that is because it is the oldest soccer cup (i.e. knockout) competition in the world, first held in 1871. Perhaps it is because its history contains fairy tales of giant killings — true David-vs.-Goliath stuff. The media like to use the phrase “the romance of the FA Cup,” too. Although romance, to me, is not watching 22 blokes with muddy knees kick a piece of leather around for 90 minutes.

Still, there is definitely an aura about the competition that lends itself to story lines. Plus, the trophy, some say, looks a bit like Prince Charles’ head. You can be the judge of that.

FA Cup action starts in the fall and continues well into the next spring, culminating in the FA Cup Final in May. This weekend, the 16 teams left in contention will be playing in the fifth out of six rounds before the semi-finals and final. (FA Cup games are broadcast in the U.S. on the Fox Soccer channel.)

One of the competition’s quirks is that aside from the well-known professional teams that are eligible to enter, teams from the next six levels also go through qualifying stages to appear in the event. Which means your local village team can brag that they played in the FA Cup…albeit in the first qualifying round, which is likely still six wins away from the chance of playing Manchester United.

The team from the town where I grew up, Bognor Regis, have played in the FA Cup a few times, once even beating a professional side in Swansea City. I remember it well – I and a couple of friends had to stand on wooden boxes so we could see. We were almost trampled when we won 3-1. The language was a bit blue, but it was a memorable night all the same: long scarves and wooden rattles and all that.

More famous “giant killings” have often involved top-flight teams. 1n 1992, poor Arsenal, which had won the old first division (now premiership) the previous year, lost to small town Wrexham, which had finished bottom of the fourth division the year before – some 91 places below. A couple of years before that, non-league Sutton United beat Coventry City, which caused some school playground chatter considering the Sky Blues had won the Cup a couple of years before. No one admitted to supporting Coventry, however. Yeovil Town, who are currently in league one, apparently hold the record of “league scalps,” beating professional opposition 20 times before they themselves entered the league in 2003.

This year’s competition has already seen some amazing giant-killing results. Romantic results, even. January 27 almost saw three upsets on the same day. League One’s Oldham Athletic beat 18-time league champions Liverpool 3-1, while second-tier Leeds knocked out eight-time FA Cup winners Spurs 2-1 and my favourite team, Brentford, were just a few minutes away from beating billionaires (and defending FA Cup Champions) Chelsea, with the game ending at 2-2. That brought a tear to my eye, I can tell you.

Brentford replay the fourth-round match against Chelsea this weekend at Stamford Bridge. It will be a completely different experience than at Griffin Park, where each of the ground’s corners has a pub for fans to enjoy, which makes it unique in the league. Some fans like to enjoy a tipple in each watering hole clockwise before going inside.

Quirks like this are common in sports grounds and stadiums in the UK (which I will write about in a future post), none more so than just north of London at Kenilworth Road, where Luton play their home games. They are in FA Cup action this weekend, too, and if you enter their Oak Road stand, you literally walk underneath someone’s living room to get there. There you are with a couple of mates, talking up a storm about how the “Hatters” are going to beat Millwall in 15 minutes, walking through the turnstiles and waving at the elderly couple above having their tea and biscuits. How romantic is that?

Which team is your favorite? Tell us in the comments.

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by Matt Goff

Marcello Trotta of Brentford is tackled by John Terry of Chelsea during the FA Cup Fourth Round match between Brentford and Chelsea in Brentford, England. The teams tied and will play again this weekend. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Petr Cech of Chelsea celebrate with the trophy after the FA Cup Final match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium last May. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

The FA Cup mascot, modeled after the FA Cup trophy with its distinctive large handles, entertains fans before a match. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

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