Depending on your particular relationship with English football, this weekend is either one of the best of the season or the worst. Tomorrow kicks off the Third Round Proper of the FA Cup. For some, it’s a competition steeped in history and tradition, full of romance, and a view of English football in its purest form. For others, it’s a needless distraction from the league and Europe, adding to fixture congestion and forcing clubs to risk injuries to their squad for relatively little reward. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I squarely fall into the former category. This is the weekend I look forward to all year long.
Part of the romance of the FA Cup is the capacity for massive upsets, where small clubs from League One or League Two (or perhaps even non-league!) can win on the day against Premier League opposition. In theory, anything is possible. In practice, Arsenal will probably win it again this year. But it’s the potential for Davids slaying Goliaths that keeps fans glued to their seats.
Exploring the history of FA Cup upsets would practically require its own column, and there’s no shortage of material to pull from on the eve of the Third Round. This week, we venture into the very near past to see an old rivalry reignited by the Cup. This week, we look back to January 4th, 2010: Manchester United vs Leeds United.
Manchester United and Leeds United have a bit of an odd history. Their first meeting didn’t come until 1923, when both sides played out to a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford. Yet the football rivalry itself is a sort of proxy war for a centuries-old conflict between the counties Lancashire (Manchester) and Yorkshire (Leeds). Indeed, the fixture is sometimes informally referred to as the Roses Rivalry, alluding to its supposed true historical roots: The War of the Roses.
Yet by the time they met at Old Trafford in 2010 the rivalry had simmered down considerably. Leeds United had been struggling with financial difficulties since 2001, and in six years had gone from Premier League stalwarts to trying to pull themselves out of League One. In 2009-10, Leeds had started to turn things around, and by Boxing Day had established a strong grip on the top end of the League One table. They were also doing well in the FA Cup, having dispatched Oldham Athletic 2-0 and survived a hiccup against non-league side Kettering Town to go through 5-1 in a replay. While some fans may have blanched when they were drawn against Manchester United in the Third Round, others no doubt saw it as a mouthwatering opportunity. And having gone unbeaten in 15 games, the team must’ve liked their chances.
Their faith, as it turned out, was rewarded. Jermaine Beckford, a graduate of Chelsea’s academy who spent much of his career bouncing around the lower ends of the Football League, claimed a long ball with a gorgeous touch just outside the box. He took a few touches to beat Wes Brown while Tomas Kuszczak beared down on him. With time and space running out, Beckford poked the ball underneath Kuszczak and just out of Brown’s reach. Thousands of Manchester United fans howled in rage and horror as the ball slowly rolled toward the goalline with no one nearby to stop it.
With an slim and admittedly improbable advantage, Leeds locked the game down and fended off the defending champions on their home patch for more than 70 minutes. At full time, hardly anyone in the ground could believe what had happened. Just a few years after an astonishing fall from grace, Leeds United had made an indelible statement of intent.
That was the first time the Red Devils had been eliminated from the FA Cup in the Third Round (as well as by a lower league side) since Bournemouth did it in 1984. Leeds couldn’t quite keep the momentum going in the Cup that season and went out in the next round in a 3-1 replay loss to Tottenham. They did manage to finish second in League One that season, gaining automatic promotion to the Championship.
The Third Round this season provides ample opportunity for a cupset. Friday kicks off the round with Liverpool travelling to League Two side Exeter City, while Saturday offers such lopsided clashes as Wycombe Wanderers v Aston Villa, Eastleigh v Bolton Wanderers, and Manchester United v Sheffield United. Sunday features Swansea traveling to Oxford United and Chelsea hosting Scunthorpe United. Most will be shown on either Fox Sports 1 or Fox Sports 2, so if you want to catch a whiff of history and romance, tune in this weekend.