The Third Round of the FA Cup— also known as The Part Of The FA Cup When Most People Start Caring About It— kicks off this weekend. Those few lower-league and nonleague clubs that survived the rigors of the qualifying rounds and the first two matchdays in the fall will face off against opposition from the Premier League and the Championship.
The thing that gets people really excited about this stage of the tournament, where the “magic” in the Magic Of The FA Cup comes from, is the prospect of a giant killing. A small team from further down the English football ladder coming up against a top flight side and triumphing against all odds and reason. It happens often enough that you can usually count on at least one Premiership team bowing out in the Third or Fourth Round, with the victors becoming the beloved Cinderella team for as long as they can hold on.
But it’s not a particularly common occurrence. And for all the weirdness of the Cup and all the dumb luck that factors in, talent and quality still count for a lot. Giant killings can and do happen, but on balance it’s much more likely that the giant is the one that does the killing.
This week we look back at one such potential upset that didn’t quite come to pass— Sutton United vs Don Revie’s Leeds.
Sutton have had strong runs in their long history and climbed to the summit of semi-professional and amateur football in England, but they’ve never managed to break into the Football League. They’ve gotten close, once or twice, but they haven’t yet gotten over the hump. Sutton’s run in the 1969-70 FA Cup was one of the highlights of their lengthy history, fighting their way into the Third Round and then overcoming Hillingdon Borough in a replay to move on to the Fourth. While few had any illusions about their ultimate chances— no one was booking trips to London for the Final— there was some hope that maybe they could get just a little bit further.
It’s hard to imagine those hopes held firm for most people when the Fourth Round draw, held before their replay with Hillingdon, paired them with Leeds United. This was, of course, Don Revie’s Leeds. Champions of England and one of Europe’s strongest sides. They who figured so prominently in David Peace’s The Damned Utd. You get the idea.
Giant killing was one thing, but this… this was something else. Sutton were charged with the task of slaying a mountain. Of capturing the moon and displaying it in the trophy case. Of chasing the car AND knowing what to do with it once you caught it. A tall order, but to their credit, Sutton seemed up for it.
But there was to be no great Cupset that day at Gander Green Lane. While Sutton came close to getting on the scoresheet a few times— a strike on the crossbar here, a disallowed goal there— there was just no chance of overcoming Leeds that day. Allan Clarke tallied four goals that day, and, combined with a brace from Peter Lorimer, gave Leeds a dominant and altogether-expected win over Sutton. The result wasn’t surprising, and neither was the scoreline, but it’s hard not to feel sad for the home side. There was nothing more Sutton could’ve done to even force a draw and a replay; still, to imagine an alternate universe where the U’s held on and overcame Leeds is a lovely flight of fancy. And maybe that’s where the real magic of the Cup lives.
Both sides are in action this weekend in the Third Round (though not against each other). Sutton host AFC Wimbledon on Saturday (10am Eastern on FS1) while Leeds travel to Cambridge United on Monday (2:45pm Eastern on FS2). There’s plenty of other action around England and Wales as well. The Third Round weekend is one of the highlights of the English football calendar. Ignore the cynics and enjoy it.