A record fourth Premier League scalp for Wigan Athletic in this year’s FA Cup, adding Southampton to the already vanquished AFC Bournemouth, West Ham United and Manchester City, would take the North West club into the Semi-Finals to become only the tenth third tier club to make it to the last four of this historic competition.
All nine of the previous third tier clubs to make it that far all fell at the final hurdle potentially giving Wigan the opportunity to become the first club from that level to make it all the way to the Final itself. However, for many of the previous nine clubs, it is a tale of ‘what might have been’ as bad luck, nerves or blatant mistakes prevented the ultimate glory of a Cup Final appearance.
The whole concept of a third tier didn’t come to fruition until the second season after the cessation of hostilities in WWI when the Southern League was assimilated into the Football League to create Division Three. The following season, 1921-22, a northern equivalent was integrated into the League creating a Northern and a Southern Division at the third level. A few years later the FA Cup was re-aligned to reflect the expansion of the Football League and from the 1925-26 onward third tier clubs have been exempted in the FA Cup until the 1st Round ‘Proper’.
Millwall had been an FA Cup Semi-Finalist twice as a Southern League club at the start of the 20th Century, and had twice made the last eight of the competition as a Football League side prior to the 1936-37 season when doing so again as a Third Division South club. To get to the last eight Millwall had scored 20 goals and conceded just two in defeating third division sides Aldershot and Gateshead, second division Fulham, and two First Division clubs, Chelsea and Derby County.
The Quarter Final draw pitted the Lions at home the Champions elect Manchester City. It would be a tough task to overcome such superior opposition, but Millwall had in their ranks a prolific goal-scorer in the shape of Dave Mangnall who had already netted seven times in the current Cup run. And it duly was Mangnall who scored either side of half-time, in front of 42,000 spectators, to create FA Cup history and make Millwall become the first ever third tier side to reach the Semi-Finals.
In the Semi-Final at Leeds Road, Huddersfield, Millwall were up against the previous season’s First Division champions in the shape of Sunderland. Dave Mangnall bagged his tenth goal of the campaign to give Millwall a tenth minute lead and a fleeting glimpse of Wembley, but goals by Bobby Gurney and Patrick Gallacher ended their fine run at the last hurdle.
Port Vale never had much of an FA Cup history prior to the 1953-54 season, and haven’t had much to sing about in the competition in the 60+ years since, but in that one glorious Cup run the Valiants came within one game of Wembley. And they had goal-scorer Albert Leake to thank that it was they and not Third Division South Leyton Orient who made it to the last four.
Port Vale had a memorable 1953-54 winning the Third Division North at a canter and remained unbeaten at home throughout the whole season. Their FA Cup run saw victories over Division Three sides Darlington, Southport and Queens Park Rangers, as well as beating Division One clubs Cardiff City and FA Cup holders Blackpool. And in that run Albert Leake grabbed five of their 11 goals including the double that saw off Stanley Matthews et al in the fifth round.
Leyton Orient had made the Quarter Finals without facing a top-flight side. Albert Leake scored the only goal of the Quarter Final, but the Valiants had their ‘keeper Ray King to thank for ensuring the victory. In the Semi-Final Vale were drawn to face West Bromwich Albion, a side that year vying with Wolverhampton Wanderers for the First Division title. The tie was played at Villa Park, a neutral venue yes, but just a stone’s throw from the Baggies’ home ground.
Yet again it was the lower league side’s top scorer who opened the scoring in the Semi-Final when Albert Leake netted in the 40th minute to give Vale a half-time lead and dreams of Wembley. The Baggies came out all guns a-blazing in the second half but reverted to a long ball game that saw Jimmy Dudley equalise off the back of Vale defender Tommy Cheadle’s head just after the hour mark, and former Port Vale player Ronnie Allen covert a heavily disputed penalty eight minutes later.
York City had made the FA Cup Quarter Finals in 1937-38 season losing 2-1 at Division One side Huddersfield Town in a replay, but that aside their FA Cup record is one of ignominious failure (the odd notable top-flight scalp aside). However, in just the very next season after Port Vale had an FA Cup run out of the blue, so did the Minstermen of Division Three North in 1954-55. And their goal-scoring hero was an Englishman called Arthur Bottom.
York City joined the 3rd Division later than most others, not becoming a member of the Football League until the 1929-30 season and would be destined to remain in the Division Three North for the remainder of that division’s existence, not gaining promotion until finishing third in the first ever Fourth Division season. Their League record was as nondescript as their Cup form.
Three non-league clubs had been dispatched (Scarborough, Dorchester Town and Bishop Auckland) alongside two First Division clubs in the shape of Blackpool and Tottenham Hotspur before York City travelled to Second Division Notts County for their Quarter Final tie. And it was Arthur Bottom who scored the only goal of the game in the second half, his seventh of the campaign, to take York City into the last four for the first time ever where they would face First Division Newcastle United.
In atrocious conditions at Hillsborough, 65,000 spectators saw Vic Keeble give Newcastle United the lead, only for Arthur Bottom to equalise before half-time. The second half remained goal-less and so York City became the first third tier side to earn an FA Cup Semi-Final replay. There was to be no fairy-tale in the second game at Roker Park as Len White opened the scoring within two minutes for Newcastle. York City hung on commendably despite being reduced to 10 men through injury and were always in with a chance of equalising, but Vic Keeble settled the tie towards the end of the 90 minutes.
Norwich City were the next third tier side to reach the FA Cup Semi-Finals in the 1958-59 season. The Canaries had had a nondescript FA Cup record both before and after becoming a Football League side in 1920-21 when the Southern League was amalgamated as the Third Division. Despite five seasons in Division Two, the club had never gone beyond the 5th Round, but that was all to change in the first season they once again competed in what was called Division Three.
Unlike their three predecessors, the goals for Norwich City’s Cup run were spread across three to four notable players; Bobby Brennan, Errol Crossan, Terry Bly and Jimmy Hill (not that one). They had scored 13 goals by the time they were drawn to face Division Two side Sheffield United in the Quarter Finals having defeated non-league Ilford, Third Division Swindon Town, Second Division Cardiff City, and both Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur from Division One.
Canadian Errol Crossan scored the goal at Bramall Lane that brought the two sides back to Carrow Road following a 1-1 draw in the Quarter Final. Bobby Brennan opened the scoring for Norwich City and Terry Bly doubled their lead before the half hour mark only to be pegged back to 2-1 by half-time. Bly added a second before Sheffield United pulled another one back with 20 minutes to go, but the Canaries held on.
In the Semi-Final Norwich City were drawn to face Division One side Luton Town at White Hart Lane, a ground where the Norfolk club had already gained a memorable draw earlier in the competition. Allan Brown opened the scoring for the Hatters, but former Luton Town player Bobby Brennan equalised forcing a replay at St Andrews. Billy Bingham scored the only goal of the game in the replay to send Luton through. Norwich City have twice since made the FA Cup Semi-Finals, but have still yet to make it to Wembley. They are joint holders of the record of most FA Cup Semi-Finals without ever having made the Final itself.
Crystal Palace finally made the FA Cup Semi-Finals 104 years after their namesake did so in the inaugural FA Cup competition of 1871-72. Palace had been a First Division side but recent successive relegations saw them in the third tier just before the 1975-76 season, the year when they went on their best Cup run up until that time.
The club had faced just one First Division side en route to the Semi-Finals, a waning but still strong Leeds United side 1-0 in the Fourth Round, and had defeated two non-league clubs (Walton and Hersham and Scarborough), Division Three Millwall, and both Chelsea and Sunderland from the Second Division, the latter of whom was beaten 1-0 at Roker Park thanks to an Allan Whittle strike.
Palace were drawn to face Southampton in the Semi-Finals. Southampton were a mid-table team in the Second Division at the time and the tie was to be played in London at Stamford Bridge. They were the first third tier side to face non-top-flight opposition in their Semi-Final and would face them in their home city. On paper, Palace had the best opportunity of all third tier sides so far of making it to Wembley.
Alas, it was not to be. Second half goals from Paul Gilchrist and David Peach (from a debatable penalty) saw Southampton progress at their expense. Palace, therefore, became the first third tier side to fail to score in their Semi-Final.
Plymouth Argyle had no real FA Cup history to speak of before venturing all the way to the Semi-Finals in the 1983-84 season. A solitary 5th Round appearance 31 years previously the best the Pilgrims had been able to muster.
An inauspicious goal-less draw at fellow Division Three side Southend United gave no indication of the Cup run to come, but they were defeated 2-0 in the replay and this was followed up by victories over non-league Barking, Third Division Newport County in a replay, Fourth Division Darlington and a 1-0 win at First Division West Bromwich Albion, the winning goal scored by Tommy Tynan. And all that on the back of a fight against relegation in the Third Division.
Second Division Derby County visited Home Park for the club’s first ever Quarter Final tie, but the match ended scoreless. Derby were obvious favourites for the replay, but Plymouth had other ideas with Andy Rogers scoring the only goal of the match direct from a corner kick. Villa Park beckoned and a date with First Division Watford, a club on an upward trajectory to their best ever period.
It’s fair to say the Semi-Final wasn’t a classic, but Plymouth Argyle were never out of the tie throughout the whole 90 minutes. George Reilly scored a header from a John Barnes cross before the quarter hour mark and the rest of the game saw the two sides huff and puff without generating much else in terms of goalmouth chances, although it was Plymouth who took the game to Watford in the second half and were unlucky not to equalise.
Chesterfield fans will quite rightly say, ad infinitum, that it should have been them and not Middlesbrough to face Chelsea in the 1997 FA Cup Final. The 3-3 draw played out at Old Trafford was an FA Cup classic, the lead changing hands, a last gap equaliser, a sending-off, and a ‘goal’ that should have been given but was incorrectly ruled as not crossing the line. The forgettable 3-0 win for Middlesbrough in the replay paled into insignificance in comparison.
By the 1996-97 season the third tier was known as Division Two thanks to the re-naming of the top flight to the Premier League five years earlier. Chesterfield had never been beyond the 5th Round of the FA Cup before, and it was almost 50 years since the last time they ventured that far. Second Division Bury were beaten 1-0, Third Division Scarborough 2-0, Second Division Bristol City 2-0 and then First Division promotion chasers Bolton Wanderers 3-2 with Kevin Davies scoring a hat-trick against a side he would go on to star for when they were in the Premier League.
Chesterfield then faced Premier League strugglers Nottingham Forest in the 5th Round, a game settled by a Tom Curtis penalty. As with Port Vale 43 years earlier, Chesterfield were drawn against another third tier side in their first Quarter Final in the shape of Wrexham. Both sides were mid-table, but Wrexham had twice been Quarter Finalists in the 1970s. However, it was Chris Beaumont who settled the tie in favour of the Spireites just before the hour mark, and it was they who would become the seventh third tier side to make the last four of the FA Cup.
And then came the real drama. A goal-less first half saw Middlesbrough with the upper hand, but also reduced to ten men when Vladimir Kinder was sent off. Chesterfield sensed an opportunity and seized it soon after the re-start. Andy Morris scored the simplest of goals nine minutes into the second half, and Sean Dyche converted a penalty on the hour mark to seemingly book Chesterfield’s place at Wembley.
However, soon after Fabrizio Ravanelli bundled in to halve the deficit, but it all seemed in vain when Jonathan Howard cracked a goal in off the underside of the bar. Amazingly referee David Elleray deemed it had not crossed the line although television replays confirmed that it had. To add insult to injury, Middlesbrough were soon awarded a penalty for an ‘offence’ that appeared to happen outside the area. Craig Hignett duly despatched the penalty and the game went into extra time.
Despite being a man down, Gianluca Festa gave Middlesbrough the lead for the first time in the 100th minute and it seemed all over for the gallant lower league side. However, they were not to be denied a chance of putting wrongs to right, when Jamie Hewitt popped up to score a last-minute equaliser. However, the steam had run out of their engine by the time of the replay, and Middlesbrough won a more straightforward affair 3-0 at Hillsborough with goals from Mikkel Beck, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Emerson.
Wycombe Wanderers’ run to the FA Cup Semi-Finals in the 2000-01 season will be inexorably linked to CEEFAX and Roy Essandoh.
The Chairboys had never even progressed beyond the 3rd Round of the FA Cup in the 19th and 20th Centuries, but almost went all the way in the first full season of the 21st Century. It started innocuously enough with a straightforward 3-0 win over non-league side Harrow Borough, and a sixth ever visit to the round when the ‘big boys’ join was secured after a 2-1 replay win over fellow third tier side Millwall.
Two Division One sides were sent packing in the next two rounds, Grimsby Town 3-1 in a replay in Cleethorpes and Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-1 at Adams Park, as Wycombe marched on into uncharted territory. Then came a massive test against Premier League side Wimbledon, FA Cup winners just 13 years previously. The Chairboys held their more senior opponents to a 2-2 draw, but only the most optimistic of Wycombe fans would have expected anything more in the replay. But more there was and in dramatic style. The game went to penalties, which seemed to go on forever eventually won by Wycombe 8-7, after a twisting and turning 2-2 draw that had seen a sending off, a late penalty miss and a last gasp equaliser.
By the time of the Quarter Final against Premier League Leicester City, Wycombe had a crippling injury list. A now infamous CEEFAX plea for a striker was answered by Essandoh’s agent and the rest is FA Cup folklore. Wycombe were doing well to hold Leicester to a 1-1 draw and thoughts were turning to a replay back in Wycombe when Essandoh was subbed on late in the game. And what a substitution, and what a story, as it was Essandoh who grabbed the late winner to send the Chairboys into the FA Cup Semi-Finals to face the might of Liverpool.
For over 75 minutes Wycombe Wanderers held Liverpool at bay before Emile Heskey opened the scoring at Villa Park. Robbie Fowler scored a second soon after and the dream of a trip to the Millennium Stadium seemed over. However, a late goal by Keith Ryan caused a tumultuous ending but in the end it turned out to be just a consolation.
Sheffield United are the only FA Cup winners to have also made the Semi-Finals as a third tier side. In 2013-14 the third tier was now known as Division One following a change in name for the old Division One to the Championship ten years earlier.
A 3-2 win at fellow third tier side Colchester United started the run off followed by a 2-0 win at non-league Cambridge United. The 3rd Round made people sit up and notice when Ryan Flynn grabbed a late winner at Villa Park after the Premier League side had equalised through Niklas Helenius following a Jamie Murphy opener.
Another Premier League side, Fulham, were held to a 1-1 draw at Bramall Lane, despite the third tier side being reduced to 10 men. Chris Porter scored for the Blades with Hugo Rodallego equaliser with quarter of an hour to go. The replay was a dour 0-0 draw for 119 minutes before Shaun Miller claimed a last gasp header to send United through. The 5th Round was a more straightforward 3-1 victory over Championship side Nottingham Forest, and the Quarter Final saw a similar two goal victory, this time 2-0, over another Championship side Charlton Athletic.
The Blades’ Semi-Final against Premier League side Hull City proved to be a record equalling eight goal thriller. Sheffield United became the first third tier side to play an FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley and it was Jose Baxter who put them ahead on 20 minutes. Yannick Sagbo equalised for Hull four minutes before half-time to seemingly make it all square at the break, but Stefan Scougall restored the Blades’ lead a couple of minutes later.
Matty Fryatt grabbed a second equaliser for Hull City four minutes into the second half, and the Tigers took the lead for the first time through Tom Huddlestone just five minutes later. Stephen Quinn appeared to have settled the tie mid-way through the second half, but Jamie Murphy managed to half the deficit just as time was running out. The Blades sensed an opportunity to get an unlikely equaliser, but their hope was snuffed out by David Meyler adding a 5th goal for Hull deep into injury time. It was the first time in FA Cup history that eight different players scored in a Semi-Final match.
So Wigan Athletic are looking to become just the 10th club from the third tier to make the FA Cup Semi-Finals. Like Sheffield United they are former Cup winners and coincidentally were also in the other Semi-Final the year the Blades last appeared in it. But could the Latics become the first team from the third tier to make the FA Cup Final itself? Well they have to overcome Southampton first!