By George Bond
Amidst repeated claims that the FA Cup is losing its charm, that Premier League teams disregard it as little more than a testing ground for their young talent, the competition’s 136th edition was a refreshing return to form, complete with everything we’ve come to associate the cup with.
Eight Premier League teams were knocked out by lower-league opposition, the most high-profile being Wolves’ 2-1 win over Liverpool at Anfield, three weeks after they had gone to Stoke City and ended their run too.
Millwall went one better, welcoming Bournemouth, Watford and Leicester to the Den in consecutive rounds. All three left having been unable to find the net against the League One side, whose streak ended in the next round against another top flight opponent, hit for six by Spurs in the final FA Cup tie played at White Hart Lane.
Elsewhere, Fulham put four past struggling Hull City and Steve McLaren’s Derby ended West Bromwich Albion’s hopes, but there can be no doubt about the most shocking giant-killing of the season. Since QPR in 1914, when the league pyramid consisted of only two leagues, no non-league side had reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
Enter Lincoln City, the National League leaders who put out Oldham, Ipswich and Brighton before being handed a trip to Burnley in the Fifth Round. Sean Raggett’s 89th-minute header, another advert for the benefits of goal-line technology, saw the Imps reach the last eight against a side four divisions and 81 places their superior.
Like Millwall, Lincoln’s run ended in the quarter-finals at the hands of North London opponents, holding Arsenal level until the very last minute of the first half before falling behind. The floodgates opened in the second period as the Gunners ran out 5-0 winners, but at no detriment to an epic cup run that may even have surpassed their return to the Football League, secured by winning the title three months later.
Lincoln’s success was very nearly matched by fellow non-leaguers Sutton United, whose fans may have been satisfied enough cup upset-wise with the club’s 2-1 win over then-First Division Coventry City in 1989. 28 years later, the U’s were at it again, knocking out League One AFC Wimbledon and Leeds United of the Championship, en route to reaching the Fifth Round for the first time in their history.
There, like Lincoln, they also met Arsenal, who used goals from Lucas Pérez and Theo Walcott – his 100th for the club – to win a game now best known for the antics of Sutton’s reserve goalkeeper Wayne Shaw.
Having become the centre of much media attention leading up the game, Shaw’s decision to eat a pie whilst on the bench in front of a live BBC audience appeared harmless at the time, before it was revealed he had indulged for the benefit of his friends, who took advantage of Sun Bets offering odds on such an event to occur during the game.
Relieved of his duties for the stunt, Shaw was then paraded in front of the public by the Sun, who, ever-caring, seemed to ignore the role their pre-match weight jibes had played in creating the incident in the first place. A distinct low for a competition famed for its celebration of non-league clubs’ success.
For Curzon Ashton, such success was just minutes away in their Second Round tie against AFC Wimbledon, who began the day three divisions higher than their National League North opponents. Having needed a replay to get through their First Round tie against ninth-tier Westfields, few could have predicted the events of this tie.
In under 30 seconds, Curzon were ahead, thanks to a 25-yard strike from Liverpool academy graduate Adam Morgan. Morgan, who alongside Heung-Min Son was the tournament’s joint-top scorer with six, was playing for his fourth of five clubs in 2016 and doubled the lead 20 minutes later. Shortly after the hour mark, he completed his hat-trick, leaving 1700 onlookers at the Tameside Stadium in total disbelief.
It was, however, all downhill from there. With 10 minutes of normal time remaining, Wimbledon began an inspired comeback, with three goals in 162 seconds drawing them level. Then, in the 94th minute, Tom Elliott’s second goal of the game consigned the Nash to a heart-breaking defeat, sparing Wimbledon’s blushes and capping off what was undoubtedly the game of the tournament.
Despite the seemingly never-ending giant-killings in this season’s FA Cup, the four semi-finalists were all clubs that finished the campaign in the Premier League’s top 5: Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Arsenal.
It was no coincidence that these were the four Premier League sides who had taken the competition most seriously, repeatedly putting out strong line-ups and, with the exception of Spurs requiring a 97th minute goal to knock out Wycombe Wanderers in the Fourth Round, had experienced little trouble in reaching Wembley.
The first game pitted the country’s top two, Chelsea and Spurs, against each other. Despite resting talismen Diego Costa and Eden Hazard from the start, Chelsea emerged victorious. Willian took advantage of two mistimed tackles to put the Blues into a 2-1 half-time lead with a set-piece double from 20 and 12 yards, either side of Harry Kane’s equaliser.
Dele Alli drew Spurs level again early in the second half before Hazard came off the bench to put his side in front once again. Victory for Chelsea was sealed by Nemanja Matić’s thunderous drive, the most brutal assault on a Wembley goal frame since the infamous on-field celebrations of Scottish fans in 1977.
Arsenal, revitalised after switching to English football’s new vogue, the three-at-the-back system, met Manchester City in the second semi-final. City, in far greater form than their opponents, dominated for much of the game, hitting the woodwork twice and having a perfectly good goal disallowed due to a linesman’s error. They finally went ahead in the second half when Sergio Agüero pounced on a long ball forward, dinking over Petr Čech, who was not so much onrushing as ambling out of his goal to close down the Argentine.
With Arsène Wenger’s job looking increasingly precarious, his recent uncharacteristic tactical switch paid dividends, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain crossing for fellow wing-back Nacho Monreal to volley home. Extra time appeared to favour City, who had taken advantage of the new rule allowing a fourth substitute in extra time from the quarter-finals onward, whilst Danny Welbeck had been the Gunners’ sole change to that point.
However, it was Welbeck who provided the assist for Arsenal’s winner, albeit with an ungainly swipe at a loose ball that then fell to the irrepressible Alexis Sánchez, who slotted in yet another crucial goal to send Arsenal to their record-breaking 20th final.
The competition culminated with a final befitting everything that had gone before. Having lost their three first-choice centre-halves Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Gabriel the week before the game, Arsenal were given little chance of upsetting league champions, Chelsea.
From kick-off, this did not seem to have fazed Wenger’s side, who of course had far more to play for after losing out on Champions League football. Sánchez’s fourth-minute opener could well have been ruled out for both handball and offside, but Anthony Taylor, otherwise excellent on the day, saw nothing wrong.
Chelsea’s performance was decidedly sluggish, having to clear two efforts off the line in the first half and relieved to see Danny Welbeck’s header from a corner strike the post. At the other end, Per Mertesacker’s first start in 13 months turned into a true captain’s performance, time and again thwarting Antonio Conte’s side.
Victor Moses’ recognisably unconvincing dive in the 68th minute – whilst on a yellow card – saw him become the fifth player to be sent off in an FA Cup final, and the third in five years. Despite being a man and a goal down, Chelsea were level shortly after, thanks in no small part to surprise inclusion David Ospina’s feeble attempt to palm away Diego Costa’s close-range effort.
Undeterred, Arsenal came straight back. Olivier Giroud, fresh off the bench, found a channel in between Chelsea defenders and crossed first time towards the sole red shirt in the box. Aaron Ramsey was in the middle of setting a new cup final record for distance covered at 14.4 kilometres – no mean feat in the searing Wembley heat – when he burst forward, finding space amongst the reputedly stubborn Chelsea defence to get on the end of Giroud’s centre with a bullet header, sending a sea of red in the east side of the stadium into raptures.
The goal was Ramsey’s second cup final winner in four years, repeating his extra time effort against Hull City from 2014. That goal also came at the end of a Wenger contract, and both of the Welshman’s contributions appear to have saved his manager’s job.
Wenger now becomes the outright leader in managerial cup wins with seven, a total more than or equal to that of every club in England, with the exceptions of Manchester United, Spurs, and of course Arsenal. Arsenal themselves became the most successful FA Cup club again, their thirteenth triumph pushing them back ahead of United.
The 2016-17 FA Cup was one of the best in recent competition history, reminding fans exactly why it is so revered globally. A litany of shocks in the early rounds were followed by three breathless contests at the national stadium, once again demonstrating that when Premier League sides value the competition, and the trophy at the end of it, everybody benefits.
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.