With Valentine's Day over last weekend and the FA Cup the next important date on the Leeds United calendar, we pause to ask the question: is the footballing public still in love with the FA Cup?
Established in 1871, the FA cup is the oldest football cup competition in the world and is now an almost ancient 144 years old. Once known as the Football Association Challenge Cup, it has recently been re-branded as the Emirates FA Cup in a deal thought to be worth £30m. Resisting sponsorship for many years, the injection of finance will help provide much needed funds for grass roots football.
It may be true that the FA Cup has lost some of its glamour to the riches of the Champions League, with the likes of Rooney, Ronaldo and Messi and their sponsorship deals worth millions. The FA Cup, though, has not lost its Mystique, History, or Romance... for me, those are things the Champions League has been unable to steal.
In the 1999-2000 season, it was old whisky nose himself (Sir Alex Ferguson) who famously disrespected the FA Cup by pulling his team from the competition altogether so Manchester United could take part in the World Club Competition instead (yawns). Having his reasons for doing so, he denied fans of lower league teams a chance to see their heroes play his treble-winning side, instead opting to give South Melbourne the chance… in Rio.
Despite that, the FA Cup is still a cup where non-league minnows have the chance to play against those Champions League pretty boys (I can't include Wayne Rooney in that group at least) who arrive at their training grounds in Bentleys and Ferraris and don diamond-encrusted, insured-and-sponsored boots, only for them to lose against a team of Fishmongers from Grimsby.
Historically though, the FA Cup has enjoyed massive pulling power. The FA Cup replay of Chelsea v Leeds United in 1970 pulled in 28.5 million (domestic) viewers and to put that into the context of the UK in the 1970's, the figure was higher than the numbers who tuned in to view news of President Kennedy's assassination.
History has shown many upsets in the cup with some of the biggest teams in English football, whilst at the top of their games, finding the rigors of the cup too much. Newcastle, Manchester United, Liverpool, and even Leeds have all fallen when they should've won. Therefore, every year, the underdog team thinks that it could be their turn for glory, that they have a chance. Everyone loves an underdog right? Anything can happen.
Tottenham Hotspur represented non-league when they won the cup in 1901 and remain the only non-league winners of the cup... but it has happened. They are member of a group of 8 unfancied teams who have won the cup from outside of the top division. They are Notts County, Wolves, Barnsley, West Brom, Southampton, West Ham United, and (most relevant to Leeds fans) Sunderland.
FA Cup 1973: Leeds United v. Sunderland
Second division Sunderland were the underdogs in their title game against the envied Leeds United of the Revie era. Leeds were the Cup holders from 1972 and finished 3rd in the league. Those facts were left on paper as the 2 teams walked out onto the Wembley turf.
In the game, United went behind to Sunderland’s first half goal. Leeds replied with attack on attack but was unable to breach Sunderland’s line thanks to keeper Jim Montgomery, who was having the game of his life. Sunderland held out and was the toast of the neutral as they lifted the cup with the 1-0 win.
Unfortunately, this is one of my earliest FA Cup memories. After the defeat, I was in Leeds Market accompanying the parents on a shopping trip. As a young football and Leeds fan I was overjoyed to see a shop giving away FA Cup final Rosettes (a souvenir at least?) but I was left shattered when I was told they were only allowed to give away the Rosettes of the winning team, Sunderland. It was like a cruel and sadistic double blow and I reacted badly, embarrassing myself in a Denis Wise style tantrum.
FA Cup 1983: Leeds United v. Arsenal
I had to wait 10 years before I witnessed that same heartache in person. It was January 1983 and Leeds had been relegated the year before. On the pitch the glory days were well and truly over. However the Leeds faithful, as time would tell and tell again, would not desert their club, they travelled in their hundreds to that London away fixture, Arsenal v Leeds United.
This most definitely wasn’t the era of Don Revie but the era of hooligans, overzealous truncheon wielding coppers, high unemployment, and youth dissatisfaction, and a cider-fueled road trip was on the cards. Although this was the FA Cup, there would be no rosettes, scarves, and colours on display on our coach and I certainly couldn’t wear my school uniform. This was my first ever away trip and I had no idea what to expect, yet I couldn’t wait to get on the coach down south and to Highbury.
I don’t recall if we had tickets or paid at the gate but I recall being squashed into the open terrace opposite to the clock end. Crammed in like clichéd sardines and a shower of coins intermittently raining down on us from some charitable Highbury regulars, I loved it. We couldn’t see much of the game, yet I was hooked. This was a proper football match... before prawn sandwiches were invented. It was the FA Cup, North v South, top versus second division, old rivalries re-emerging, volatile atmosphere, and the old end we were in, that some of the glory hunting Arsenal fans of today wouldn’t know existed.
It was probably the biggest attendance I had been part of, and three sides of the ground (which was packed with 34,000 spectators) goaded, swore and spat at us: the famous Leeds United. Despite the noise of the home fans, they were drowned out with volley after volley of chants of "Who put the ball in the Arsenal, net?" a reference to the Cup winning header by Alan "Sniffer" Clark against Arsenal back in 1972. A reminder, perhaps, that although underdogs, we weren’t to be taken lightly.
We had done them before and could do them again.
As the game wore on, Arsenal knew we weren’t to be messed with and anything could happen. There was passion on the pitch, passion off it, and just the right amount of sinister in the air. The game itself was drawn and turned out to be another example of how a higher placed team was expecting a cake walk but didn’t find one.
The first replay at Elland Road was the heart breaker and I experienced firsthand how the mixture of Leeds, last minute results, and luck do not always go well together. Graham Rix, who had been the subject of Leeds fans taunting all evening, scored with a 30 yard free kick in the dying moments of extra time. Rix’s equaliser forced yet another replay which United eventually lost 2-1 at Highbury. The FA Cup had introduced me to my first ever away game and so FA Cup, I owe it all to you.
FA Cup 1987: Leeds United v. Coventry
So, great FA Cup memories don’t have to be winning ones. One of the best losing games I’ve ever attended is the semifinal v. Coventry at Hillsborough in 1987. If you think it’s difficult to get tickets for important games now, it was mission impossible in that era.
I had witnessed the earlier round v. QPR at Elland Road partly from the hill (now carpark / McDonald’s) behind the South East Corner with a mob of others and also partly in the Lowfields end pens. Ground staff in those days usually opened the gate to the ground with 15 minutes to go, and usually if you were broke you could get to see at least 15 minutes of the game for free. Memory is sketchy, but I’m assuming that most supporters on the field above the ground anticipated this and decided to make their way to the gate (any gate) and be first in line for the free 15 minutes. The occasion seemed to get the better of the normally-reserved and patient football fans present that day, and they descended on the gates a little early, one fan trying to beat the other to the gate. In the resulting chaos, I managed to get in the sold out all ticket 5th round and witness Brendan Ormsby head first-division QPR out of the Cup.
Despite the best efforts of the talentless, bumbling dinosaurs representing the Football League to turn the draws into a farce, the draw can become an attraction in itself. Especially in the latter stages when you are on a Cup run.
That year, Leeds drew Wigan in the 6th round, an enviable draw most teams would have wanted, but a proverbial banana skin all the same. Their ground wasn’t sufficient in size to accommodate many traveling fans, so ticket options were limited. Police expecting ticketless Leeds fans traveling in numbers organized checkpoints, and despite our best efforts, we couldn’t get through. After missing that game and getting Coventry in the Semis, the biggest game I had the chance of attending so far in my life, there was no way I was going to miss out again.
Although the internet did exist, it had not been released in Yorkshire in 1987. I didn’t even have a phone or a job for that matter; I was a ticketless, cashless student. The chances of getting an FA Cup semifinal ticket were similar to getting a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket to the Chocolate Factory. Although likely we would take more fans than Coventry, on police orders, we were given the smaller allocation of tickets, just to make it that little bit more difficult. The police didn’t stop there: the game was changed to an early Sunday kickoff in an effort to stop us getting into the spirit of things at pubs.
It was going to be difficult but somehow, after joining various supporters clubs (and attending their tedious meetings) in the hope their tickets would trickle my way, selling possessions to raise cash, and even entering competitions, a ticket did make itself available.
My memory is as blurry and grainy as some of the photos from the day, as the police failed in their attempts to dampen our spirits. I do recall though our coach for some reason dropped us what seemed like miles from the ground because of some road block or other. We weren’t alone long as a trickle of fans heading towards Hillsborough became a river and then a tsunami as hundreds joined our FA Cup march to the match.
It always struck me, however noisy outside the ground, that when you get inside to the terrace, you are immediately hit by a wall of noise you couldn’t hear in quite the same volume or ferocity only a few moments before. Throw any clichés you want at the description of the atmosphere. Try to describe how ear-splittingly loud, riotous, vociferous, and simply deafening the chants of "We are Leeds" were, and you still don’t do it justice. It was the loudest I've ever heard, to this day. And it was a sight to behold too: thousands of Leeds United fans unified in defiance of everything that had been against us since relegation five years earlier and there was a real sense that this was going to be our day. Not one fan in that ground despite our first division opposition thought that we would lose. Not one.
King Billy was the manager and had attempted to build a team in his image, albeit on a budget. The team was populated with no-nonsense workmen like players but heroes all the same. Neil Aspin, John Stiles, Andy Ritchie, and Ian Baird were among the ranks with John Sheridan (perhaps my Leeds player of the decade) pulling the strings in midfield. We were an unknown quantity and this was an addition to our strengths. We tormented them from the off and went ahead in the 14th minute through David Rennie.
As the game went on, I recall clinging to the fence for a better view and glanced up at the scoreboard thinking, "Just over 20 minutes to go, surely we can hang on." It was 1-0 to Leeds, and so it stayed until the 68th minute when a dagger entered our hearts. An error by one our own heroes gifted them a chance. Ten minutes later and roles were quickly reversed: it was Coventry’s turn to be caught up in the romance. They went ahead 2-1 and thought they were through, and then Keith Edwards had his say. The supersub had barely touched the ball before converting Ritchie’s cross with his head, leveling the game at 2-2. "What was a memorable day had just been turned into a wonderful day," gushed the commentator, almost blushing as he expressed his open love for what he was witnessing.
Although we had shown the fighting spirit of old that day, history (and wikipedia) documents that Leeds cup run was ended by a Dave Bennet strike in extra time. I try to forget that part. Coventry went on to lift the cup that year and Leeds went on in the league to reach the second division playoff final. It wasn’t our year there either, but things were happening at Elland Road, and Leeds were not long off being back in the top flight. Rightfully, they were champions of the first division again in a mere four years.
FA Cup 2016: Leeds v. Watford
Things have clearly spun downwards again over the last decade or so, and the face of English football has changed entirely, but we are once again underdogs in an FA Cup tie. Saturday is Watford v Leeds United at Vicarage Road, and we look to repeat the magic. I'll be there, got my ticket. Will the neutral love the underdog in this fixture? Will romance be dead come Sunday morning? We'll just have to wait until the final whistle to find out.