By William Hill
Last Updated: 31st December 2019
The FA Cup is one of the oldest football tournaments in the world and has been going strong since the 1871-72 season. The joy of the tournament is the fact that almost any team in the country can enter, and sometimes even non-league sides get a chance to face the Premier League’s elite clubs.
In the 2019-20 campaign, there are 736 teams competing, with 763 being the record for the most entrants in 2011-12. While it’s normally the top flight sides that prevail and lift the trophy at the end of the tournament (Arsenal have claimed it a record 13 times), sometimes the minnows manage to get the better of the powerhouses – and star in FA Cup features on TV. Here we take a look at some of the biggest upsets in the history of the competition.
1. Sunderland 1-0 Leeds United
Leeds United were one of the greatest teams in the top division in the 1970s, and in 1973 were in the peak of the Don Revie era. At the end of the 1971-72 campaign, the Whites had earned a second-place finish in the top flight and had also won the 1972 FA Cup. The reigning champions charged all the way to the FA Cup final and looked set to retain their crown when they came up against Sunderland in the final at Wembley in front of 100,000 spectators.
The Black Cats were wallowing in the second division at the time and were expected to be rolled over by the Yorkshire giants. Bob Stokoe’s men pulled off what is considered to be one of the biggest upsets ever in the competition and won the match 1-0. The trophy remains the side’s only piece of major silverware since World War II.
2. Wigan 1-0 Manchester City
In 2013, Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City side were odds-on favourites to lift the FA Cup when they met with lowly Wigan who were battling against the drop from the Premier League at the time. The Latics pulled off a shock 1-0 victory against the reigning Premier League champions, thanks to a stoppage-time strike from substitute Ben Watson who’d come on in the 81st minute.
Ben Watson scored the winner for Wigan in the 2013 FA Cup final
Wigan went on to become the only side ever to win the cup and be relegated in the same season after a 4-1 loss to Arsenal three days later. City sacked Mancini two days later and replaced him with Manuel Pellegrini. The Citizens also failed to win the top-flight trophy, ending the campaign in second place.
3. Liverpool 0-1 Wimbledon
While the two finals mentioned above are up there with the biggest giant slayings ever, the most remarkable story of all time is quite possibly when Wimbledon beat Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final. This was in the heart of the Liverpool glory days, when the Merseyside outfit were undisputedly the best side in the country. Kenny Dalglish’s charges were league champions in fine form and only lost two games in the division that term.
The Reds should have strolled through the final against mid-table Wimbledon given the form they were in. The Dons’ keeper Dave Beasant made the first ever penalty save in an FA Cup final following John Aldridge’s strike, and Bobby Gould’s charges went on to win thanks to a first-half goal from Lawrie Sanchez. At the time, this prevented Liverpool from becoming the first team ever to win the double twice. This clash goes down as one of the all-time great FA Cup games.
4. Wrexham 2-1 Arsenal
In 1992 reigning top-flight champions Arsenal were drawn against old fourth division side Wrexham, who are now wallowing in the fifth tier of English football. The Gunners made the trip to the Racecourse Ground in the third round of the tournament in fine fettle and had only lost one match in the previous campaign to Chelsea. George Graham had a number of English internationals at his disposal, including David Seaman, Tony Adams, and Alan Smith, and were expected to easily dominate the side residing at the foot of the fourth tier.
Steve Watkin and Mickey Thomas scored for Wrexham to knock Arsenal out of the cup
In one of the most remarkable giant slayings in the history of football, Brian Flynn’s side managed to get the better of the North London high-flyers. Arsenal had taken the lead late in the first half thanks to a Smith strike and appeared to be cruising towards a ticket to the next round. The Welsh side rallied in the closing moments of the match, though, and equalised in the 82nd minute thanks to a free kick from captain Mickey Thomas which sailed past Seamen into the back of the net. Two minutes later, Steve Watkin sealed the stunning victory and dumped Arsenal out of the tournament. Graham referred to the loss as his “lowest moment in football.”
5. Chelsea 2-4 Bradford City
One of the most recent major upsets in the FA Cup was between Chelsea and Bradford City at Stamford Bridge in the fourth round of the 2015 competition. Jose Mourinho’s side were flying high in the Premier League, and went on to become crowned champions later in the season. The Bantams were 49 places below the Blues on the English football ladder, battling it out in League One. This was destined to be a routine victory for Mourinho’s powerful team, which included the likes of Didier Drogba and Eden Hazard.
Chelsea took the lead thanks to goals from Gary Cahill and Ramires, but City bounced back and fired in four goals to sweep the top flight giants aside. This tie has gone into FA Cup folklore, and of course, the look on Mourinho’s face was priceless.
While there have been some other memorable wins for underdogs in this classic competition, these have to be the top five. If you want to check out some more, though, take a look at Shrewsbury’s win over Everton in 2003 and Hereford’s defeat of Newcastle United in 1972.
6. Burnley 0-1 Lincoln City
Lincoln City completed a giant-killing double act with their fifth-round victory over Burnley at Turf Moor in 2017. If the National League club defeating Premier League side Burnley wasn’t enough, they also became the first non-league side in 103 years to reach the FA Cup quarter-finals.
Sean Raggett was the hero, with his late header securing a famous victory and sending Lincoln into the quarter-finals for the first time in their 133-year history.
7. Oldham 3-2 Liverpool
Liverpool rocked up at a wet and windy Boundary Park to take on League One side Oldham for this FA Cup TV game in 2013 with a team including Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge to name a few, and having beaten their opponents in the same competition the previous season 5-1.
Many expected a similar result this time around in the fourth-round tie, but a double from Matt Smith – who had given up professional football just a few years earlier to gain a university degree after being released by Cheltenham – and a third from Reece Wabara saw Paul Dickov’s side produce a seismic shock to edge out the seven-time winners.