Have you noticed how few examples of cup giant killing there have been lately? The last truly extraordinary one that I can think of belongs, oddly enough, to the team whose ground I can see from my window here – Sutton United, who beat First Division Coventry City in 1989’s 3rd round.
Since then, there have been a few close calls – Newcastle v Scarborough, that famously unromantic and unaffectionate encounter, and the Manchester United Reserves’ near-disasters against Exeter City and Clough’s Burton Albion. But nothing that comes remotely near to Yeovil Town’s 1949 win over Sunderland.
The Fourth Round won’t add to the list – but it’s going to send an unusual number of lower-level clubs through, so the Fifth might be interesting. Yet, the traditional act of giant killing is definitely on the wane, and I’d like to suggest some reasons.
Oddly, chief among them is the improvement in non-league football. The kind of Conference club that makes it to the Third Round of the FA Cup now is likely to have a small but high quality ground. Gone are the bad pitches, horrendous changing facilities and in-your-face supporters, replaced by fresh, flat turf, modern showers and proper stands. Home advantage simply isn’t what it used to be. And the similar improvement in Premiership grounds since the 1980s has made them even more intimidating than they were before. Few players, even at the top level, play in front of 60,000 or 70,000 spectators. A trip to Ashburton Grove or Old Trafford will be all the harder for players only used to 1500 or 2000 turning up at games.
For fans of small clubs, the chance to take on the big boys is once in a lifetime stuff. But players aren’t fans, and have their own issues and agendas. This is as true at small clubs as it is large.
A good cup run at a small club can actually represent a threat to the players responsible for it. It means a rush of money – some of which may go on paying for the new players who will replace them. Perhaps safer for some players to quietly underperform, to avoid such an eventuality.
For young players at small clubs, the common idea is that a cup run is their chance to put themselves into the shop window. In actual fact, this is almost certainly not the case. Every Premiership club, and most Championship ones, already know the identities of just about every player with any potential in the country – to say nothing of abroad. It’s unlikely that anyone playing in e.g. the Conference will spring a surprise. It’s very rare for a player to feature significantly for a non-league club and find themselves lifted out afterwards into the top leagues – it happened for DJ Campbell of Yeading/Birmingham, but for how many others?
It’s far more likely that a game against a top club will prove to a young player, once and for all, that their dreams of greatness are unlikely to come true. They’ll play their hearts out, but in those same hearts know that they aren’t remotely as good as the opposition and never will be.
For the older players, it might represent a chance to have one big moment in otherwise unremarkable careers, but also present a depressing confirmation that they haven’t made it.
Loyalty and the lower league club is also an issue. Both of my local clubs, Sutton United and Carshalton Athletic, have been vocal in the last two years about the difficulty they’ve had in interesting their players in the clubs’ respective fates. At the start of the season, registered players can fail even to turn up. Those that do, often have trouble getting excited about games against e.g. Egham or Lewes.
A typical non-league side will have a smattering of local boys in the squad – but a browse through the profiles of any squad of that kind will ram home just how volatile the transfer market is in this level of football. Players move often, and stay for short periods of time. This can make it hard for a player to identify with his club in the way fans who have been turning out in the rain for thirty years might want. An FA Cup match against a League club might not turn out to be the passionate, utterly local affair that it will inevitably be reported as.
And the game is as likely to be intimidating as it is inspiring. You don’t often hear the underdogs’ managers expressing confidence in victory – instead, they’ll be hoping that they can put up a good show and not get hammered.
That’s only realistic. A decently organized team with better players will prevail in most circumstances against a decently organized team with less talent to call upon. And that less talent knows this. As a group, the knowledge of the likelihood of defeat is going to act as a restraint on their performance – and they were up against it already.
In other words, if you don’t think you’re good enough to win, you are unlikely even to reach your own best potential performance. I’m often surprised how people are resistant to this idea when it’s applied to football, given how efficiently it operates in their own lives, and how often we see it happening on Match of the Day. In this famous example, (of this principle, not of giant killing) the commentator praises the losing team for the grace with which they accept their fate. If you watch the actual play, you’ll see that they’re actually trying to kick lumps out of their tormentors… when they can raise themselves from listlessness at all: