The Third Round of the FA Cup was one of the great footballing days when I was a boy. But that was some time ago (when I was a boy that is). Of course it was (and still is) the day when the minnows who have battled through the qualifying rounds and the two proper rounds join the teams from the top two tiers hoping to perform a giant killing act. As a West Ham fan for many years I have witnessed plenty of those but unfortunately in the majority of cases we have been on the wrong end of them.
My first FA Cup memory was in season 1958-59. The third round in early January 1959 saw me approaching my fifth birthday. We were riding high in the top half of the table in our first season in Division One following promotion (we eventually finished 6th) whilst Tottenham were languishing near the bottom (eventually finishing 18th). They beat us 2-0. The following season we met Huddersfield of Division 2 and drew the away game in Yorkshire 1-1, taking them back to Upton Park where they thrashed us 5-1! In 1961 (again in Round 3) we drew 2-2 at home to 2nd Division Stoke, and then lost 1-0 in the replay. In 1962 (round 3 yet again), despite being a top half Division One team, we crashed out 3-0 at lowly Plymouth. At this time I’d never known us play an FA Cup game beyond 13th January! After 4 seasons I knew what giant killing was all about. We had been humbled on every occasion by inferior opponents.
But in 1963 we reached the quarter final (disposing of Fulham, Swansea and Everton) before losing 1-0 at Anfield. We were really getting the hang of the FA Cup by now and the following season (aged 10) I witnessed the first of what I expected to be many trophies when we beat Second Division Preston 3-2 to lift the cup. I wasn’t there on that day, but the win took us into Europe and I was at Wembley the following May when we won our second trophy, lifting the European Cup Winners Cup beating Munich 1860 in the final. But in that year we reverted to type in the FA Cup losing 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in Round 4.
In 1966 we lost 4-1 in a 4th round replay to Blackburn (who finished bottom that season), and the following year we got no further than the third round losing 3-1 away at 3rd Division Swindon in a replay. In 1968 we got to round 5 where we lost 2-1 at home to Sheffield United who were relegated that season. In 1969 we had progressed to round 5 before we were unceremoniously dumped out 3-0 by lowly Mansfield, and in 1970, once again in the third round we were beaten by a team from a lower level going down 2-1 at Middlesbrough.
It’s not making great reading so far (1964 excepted) so surely it would only get better you would think. Wrong! 1971 was the year of the famous Blackpool night club incident (Google it if you don’t know the detail) when we went out 4-0 in round 3 to the team who were to finish bottom that season. Huddersfield finished bottom in 1972 but that didn’t stop them knocking us out in the third round (4-2), and in 1973 we went out in round 4 to lowly Hull City. 1974 was no better when we lost to third division Hereford in a third round replay.
But, lo and behold come 1975, and we were once again FA Cup winners beating second division Fulham in the final, thanks to a brace from Alan Taylor in the quarters, semis and final itself. But for the remainder of the 1970s, it was back to despair in the FA Cup losing 2-0 at home to Liverpool (round 3 1976), 3-0 at Aston Villa (round 4 1977), 6-1 (!) at QPR (4th round replay 1978), and (how low can you get!) 2-1 at 4th division Newport County – by now we were a second division side ourselves for the first time since I had started watching in 1958.
Incredibly, as a second division team we battled through to the final in 1980 where we won the FA Cup for the third time beating Division One Arsenal 1-0 with Trevor Brooking’s famous header. And for most (but not all of the next decade) our FA Cup performances were generally better than I had experienced before. In 1981 we lost in a third round second replay to lowly Wrexham (1-0), and in 1982 it was round 4 to another team from a lower division Watford (2-0). In 1983 it was 2-0 at Old Trafford in round 3, but the following year we reached the fifth round before losing 3-0 to (eventually relegated) Birmingham.
For the next two seasons we lost in round 6 to Manchester United and Sheffield Wednesday, and in 1987 it was Wednesday again in a fifth round replay. In 1988 we lost 3-1 to QPR in round 4 and the following year it was a sixth round replay where we went out 3-1 to Norwich. So, a slight improvement in the 1980s?
In 1990 we lost 1-0 in Round 3 to lowly (I keep using that word!) Torquay but the following year we reached the semi-final at Villa Park where thanks mainly to Keith Hackett we were denied a place at Wembley. The following seasons were not too great losing 3-2 at home to Sunderland (round 5 replay 1992), 4-1 to Barnsley (round 4 1993), 3-2 at Luton (round 6 replay 1994), 1-0 at QPR (round 4 1995), 3-0 at Grimsby (!) (round 4 replay 1996), 1-0 at home to Wrexham (!) (round 3 replay 1997), on penalties at home to Arsenal (round 6 1998), 1-0 at Swansea (round 3 replay 1999).
We have done better in the 21st century (in not being the victims of giant killing!) going out to Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester United (4 times), Manchester City twice), and Arsenal. But there have still been some less than impressive performances losing to Fulham, Sheffield United, Watford, Middlesbrough, Stoke, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest, West Brom (twice), Wigan, and AFC Wimbledon. The best performance was, of course, in 2006 when we unluckily lost the final in Cardiff to Liverpool on penalties after drawing 3-3 after extra time and conceding the late equaliser in normal time to Steven Gerrard when the ball should have been planted into the stands in the last minute!
Without carrying out a study of every club I am quite confident that we have probably lost in the FA Cup to “lesser” teams (that is those lower than us in the same division or from a lower division) on more occasions than any other team in the top tier of English football. And our record in the League Cup is equally poor. Nonetheless I am confident we will dispose of Leeds on our way to our 4th FA Cup win in 63 years next May. What are the chances?