The FA Cup, widely acknowledged as the oldest national football competition in the world, has always had a certain aura to it. Everything is possible, they say. This is where the magic happens. This is where everyone is allowed to dream.
90:06 is on the clock when the right foot of Shaun Maloney punts a corner into the box. It is a perfectly measured ball, meeting the head of Ben Watson on the edge of the goal area (yes, this is technically the correct term – but everyone knows it as the “six-yard box”). Jack Rodwell remains a step too far while Joe Hart has absolutely no chance. A perfect ball, a perfect shot. A perfect moment.
Joel Robles, Emmerson Boyce, Paul Scharner, Antolin Alcaraz, Roger Espinoza, James McCarthy, James McArthur, Jordi Gomez, Callum McManaman, Arouna Kone, Maloney, and the super-sub Watson, led by a young Roberto Martinez (with hair!). Somehow, this Wigan Athletic team of 2013 went all the way against the Man City backbone of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva, and Sergio Agüero.
“On the eve of the final, everyone was given paper and a pen and then told to write down why they were proud to work with the other individuals, from the players to the coaches. When we went back to our rooms, there was an envelope full of people’s anonymous comments about you,” assistant manager Graham Barrow reminisced five years after the triumph. Small details mattered.
From highs to lows
Described as one of the biggest shocks in FA Cup history, it was the first – and so far, only – big trophy Wigan has ever won. But the story got even more surreal three days later when Wigan lost 1-4 to Arsenal, securing relegation. This meant they would be playing in the Europa League and the Championship simultaneously.
Three days before an away game to Yeovil Town, they would travel to Kazan, eleven hours east of Moscow in Russia; a visit to Millwall would be followed by a trip to a medieval Maribor in Slovenia. The group, where Wigan would eventually finish bottom, was rounded out by Belgian side Zulte Waregem.
They have not been back to the Premier League since, instead going back and forth between the Championship and League One. Wigan, a proud local club located between Manchester and Liverpool, reached the heights of Europe only to return to mediocrity. But all fairytales have an ending, right?
One can always dream
For all the success of Manchester City, Wigan has been their kryptonite. A year after the final, they lost 1-2 under new manager Manuel Pellegrini. And they met again in the 2017/18 tournament when a Wigan side languishing in League One defeated the City of Pep Guardiola 1-0. In retrospect, maybe that one was even more remarkable than the 2013 triumph.
25 years before Wigan, Wimbledon wrote a similarly impressive piece of history by defeating Liverpool in the FA Cup final. Liverpool had dominated English football for most of the 1980s and were reigning league champions, but on that night in 1988, Wimbledon came out on top to the surprise of many. It is their only big piece of silverware.
The past century has given us just two more one-time winners in Coventry City (1987) and Ipswich Town (1978). Indeed, although everyone can dream, going all the way is close to impossible. This season, 729 clubs competed, with clubs from the ten highest divisions participating; most of them, like Brislington or Liskeard Athletic, have a chance only because, mathematically, there is one. But some do not care for that.
Days to remember
For teams not in the Football League system (so the top four levels: Premier League, Championship, League One, and League Two), reaching the third round is a great achievement. Chasetown in 2007/08 and Marine in 2020/21 are the lowest-ranked sides to ever reach that point, the last 64. Both played league football on the eighth level at the time.
But probably the most impressive run, and the only time a non-League club reached the sixth round, happened in 2016/17. Lincoln City beat two Championship sides in Ipswich Town and Brighton before overcoming Premier League representative Burnley, only to be stopped by Arsenal in the quarter-finals.
A year earlier, their coaches had been PE teachers. They trained wherever they could – the school ground, the local park – and sometimes had to change clothes at the local college. The crate of beer awaiting in the dressing room after the Burnley game was confiscated. But victory tasted better anyway.
Who to root for?
The 2023/24 FA Cup has reached the coveted third round once again, which means Premier League clubs will join the party. But who has made it through so far? Maidstone United from the sixth tier is the lowest-ranked remaining side, with Chesterfield, Eastleigh, and Aldershot Town also representing non-League football.
Maidstone will host Stevenage (League One) while the others will have to travel. Eastleigh must have been happy with the draw, as they will be up against Newport County (League Two); wins for Chesterfield, who will be away to Watford (Championship) and Aldershot, who travel to West Bromwich (Championship), are difficult to envisage.
But as Arsenal will be hosting Liverpool and at least three other Premier League teams are guaranteed to drop out, neutrals are hoping for a magical cup run by one of the less fancied sides. After all, why not? Fairytales do happen.