It’s the most magical time of the year.
You won’t be able to move for mentions of the “Magic of the FA Cup” when the third round of football’s oldest knockout competition gets underway this week.
Round three is when teams from the Premier League and the Championship — English football’s top two tiers — enter the cup across 64 ties that provide the greatest opportunities for minnows from League One, League Two and even non-league to pit their wits against footballing heavyweights.
This capacity to produce David vs. Goliath clashes has helped to make cup upsets and giant killings the FA Cup’s stock-in-trade, a key part of its worldwide allure.
As the list below shows, upsets are not confined to the third round — they can be just as delicious at the business end of the competition — but it is the time when everyone can dream that the impossible might just be possible, even in the era of multi-million-pound Premier League squads.
Here are 10 of the most memorable upsets.
10. Oldham Athletic 3-2 Liverpool (January 27, 2013)
There was little for a Liverpool team boasting the likes of Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez to fear against an Oldham Athletic side who had lost seven of their previous eight games in League One.
The FA Cup provided some respite for a team playing under former Manchester City forward Paul Dickov and a Matt Smith brace in the first half, either side of a Suarez solo effort, gave them a 2-1 lead in the fourth round at Boundary Park. Reece Wabara then had the Latics in dreamland and, although Joe Allen pulled one back and Steven Gerrard came off the bench to clatter the crossbar, they held on.
Oldham enjoyed another Merseyside assignment in round five, with Smith scoring at the death against Everton to force a replay before they were finally beaten at Goodison Park.
9. Chelsea 2-4 Bradford City (January 24, 2015)
Chelsea were top of the Premier League and en route to the title under Jose Mourinho, meaning a round-four meeting with League One Bradford City looked like a formality, especially when Gary Cahill and Ramires eased them into a 2-0 first-half lead.
Jon Stead’s thumping finish to reduce the arrears didn’t immediately look like being anything other than a fond memory from a good day out for the travelling Bantams fans in the Shed End. But the match exploded into life in the final 15 minutes when former Chelsea youngster Felipe Morais pulled Bradford level.
Andrew Halliday made it 3-2 and, after Didier Drogba and Kurt Zouma each went close to equalisers, Stead teed up Mark Yeates to seal a remarkable comeback win in stoppage time. City claimed another Premier League scalp in the next round, beating Sunderland 2-0, before losing to Reading in the quarterfinals.
8. Manchester City 0-1 Wigan Athletic (May 11, 2013)
A year on from their unforgettable Sergio Aguero denouement to win the Premier League title, Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City were seeking to keep the silverware flowing against relegation-threatened Wigan Athletic in the 2013 FA Cup final.
The immediate build-up to the game was dominated by speculation that Mancini was to be replaced at the helm by Manuel Pellegrini and Wigan took advantage of disquiet in the City ranks. Roberto Martinez’s men rode their luck at times but grew into the contest and, after Pablo Zabaleta was sent off, Ben Watson headed a Wembley winner for the ages.
Within a week, Mancini was out of a job and Wigan had been condemned to Championship football. They have not returned to the Premier League since, although they repeated the trick by knocking Pellegrini’s City out of the following season’s FA Cup.
Now down in League One, Wigan will be hoping to claim another Mancunian scalp when they host United on Monday, January 8.
7. Stevenage 3-1 Newcastle United (January 8, 2011)
Since the establishment of the Premier League in 1992 and the widening gap between the rich and the poor in English football, fairy-tale wins do not come around quite so often. Indeed, Stevenage’s thumping victory over Newcastle United at Broadhall Way in round three was only the third time a team from the fourth tier had beaten a top-flight side in the two decades since the breakaway.
Stacy Long’s deflected effort gave Stevenage an early second-half lead and Michael Bostwick thumped in a low drive via the post to double their advantage. Cheick Tiote came on at the break to bolster Newcastle only to get himself sent off for a rash challenge. Joey Barton’s long-range strike gave the 10 men hope but Peter Winn sealed victory in stoppage time. Graham Westley’s side were beaten by Reading in the next round but finished the season by winning the League Two playoffs.
6. Liverpool 0-1 Wimbledon (May 14, 1988)
On paper, this was the seventh-best team in England beating the best — hardly an upset to rank alongside the vast gulf in league places represented elsewhere in this list. And yet, for a variety of reasons, Wimbledon’s final victory over Liverpool in 1988 endures in FA Cup lore like no other.
Wimbledon were the rough-and-ready upstarts who uncompromisingly battered their way up the pyramid, marking a stark contrast with Liverpool. The Reds played the game ‘the way it should be played’, collected medals by the bucketful and were the definition of excellence in 1980s English football. Kenny Dalglish’s side had cantered to the Division One title and were heavy favourites to close out a double.
Lawrie Sanchez’s looping header gave Wimbledon the lead before halftime and there was no way back for Liverpool, with Dons goalkeeper Dave Beasant becoming the first man to save a penalty at a Wembley FA Cup final when he thwarted John Aldridge. At fulltime, BBC commentator John Motson uttered his immortal line: “The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club.”
5. Stoke City 2-3 Blyth Spartans (February 8, 1978)
Stoke were playing outside the top division for the first time in 15 years in 1977/78. Six years earlier they’d won the League Cup and a UEFA Cup tie with Ajax was a very recent memory. In round four of the FA Cup they were drawn against Blyth, the only remaining non-league side in the competition.
The round-four game was twice postponed due to a waterlogged pitch, and the minnows were chomping at the bit by the time the rearranged fixture came around, with Terry Johnson giving them a first-half lead. Goals after the break from Viv Busby and Garth Crooks looked to have extinguished Blyth’s dream but Steve Carney scrambled an equaliser and Johnson volleyed home two minutes from time to stun the Victoria Ground.
4. Sutton United 2-1 Coventry City (January 7, 1989)
A stunning upset that only came to look more towering with age. Coventry were riding high in Division One at the time and had lifted the FA Cup at Wembley 18 months earlier. Tony Rains brought them back down to earth when he capitalised on a Steve Ogrizovic error from a 42nd-minute corner.
David Phillips crowned a Coventry counter-attack seven minutes into the second half but Sutton would not be denied, with Matthew Hanlan volleying home from close range before the hour. Coventry’s defeat remained the last time a non-league team beat a top-flight side in the FA Cup until Luton Town eliminated Norwich City in 2012/13. Sutton’s immediate reward was an 8-0 walloping in the fourth round… at Norwich.
3. Sunderland 1-0 Leeds (May 5, 1973)
Don Revie’s Leeds were a formidable prospect in the early 1970s and aiming for back-to-back FA Cup successes. Sunderland, by contrast, were operating in Division Two but became the first team since West Brom in 1931 to win the cup from outside the top flight.
Ian Porterfield scored the 32nd-minute winner before Sunderland goalkeeper Jimmy Montgomery produced an inspired performance to keep Leeds at bay throughout the final.
2. Wrexham 2-1 Arsenal (January 4, 1992)
Even after seeing Wrexham oust Covertry City last season before forcing Sheffield United to a replay, this is the sort of outcome that even Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney would not dream of scripting.
Wrexham hosted reigning English champions Arsenal in round three of the FA Cup while rooted to the bottom of Division Four.
Alan Smith put the Gunners in front and they looked to be heading into round four until Mickey Thomas thundered home a superb free-kick 10 minutes from time. There was worse to come for George Graham’s men as Steve Watkin headed a late winner.
1. Hereford Utd 2-1 Newcastle Utd a.e.t. (February 2, 1972)
The quintessential FA Cup upset and one thought of so fondly due to the multiple levels of improbability, it feels impossible to imagine anything like Hereford’s delayed third-round-replay win over Newcastle occurring today.
The Southern League side had gone to great lengths to secure a 2-2 draw at St James’ Park and the return match was postponed three times on account of inclement weather. A mudbath of a pitch bore those scars, although Newcastle thought they’d got away unscathed when Malcolm Macdonald headed an 82nd-minute opener.
Hereford’s response was to produce one of the most celebrated FA Cup goals of all time as Ronnie Radford played a one-two with Brian Owen and the ball sat up invitingly for him to lash a venomous 30-yarder into the top corner. A huge pitch invasion followed and it speaks of the sensational quality and drama of Radford’s strike that his goal, rather than Ricky George’s expertly taken extra-time winner, remains the enduring image of an incredible triumph.