Hereford United, Wigan Athletic, Blyth Spartans - a few of the smaller clubs to have carved their names into the annals of the beautiful game thanks to unlikely victories in the FA Cup.
This Sunday could see the biggest underdog story of the competition’s history. Marine AFC, from the eighth tier of English football, play host to Tottenham Hotspur in the third round of the contest - only the second time the Mariners have ever reached this stage of the competition. A home victory would certainly go down as the greatest giant slaying of all time, and Marine’s players are relishing the opportunity to take on Jose Mourinho’s men.
“I think we owe Robbie Savage one for pulling that ball out of the hat,” beams striker Niall Cummins, who scored the winning goal against Havant & Waterlooville in the previous round of the competition. “It’s unbelievable to get to play Spurs, who were top of the Premier League when the draw was made. It’s brilliant.”
Despite being tipped for a long afternoon by the bookies, Cummins and the rest of the Marine first team know what a privilege it will be to play a side who have won the FA Cup on eight occasions.
“It’s one achievement getting to the third round but then you need a kind draw,” reflects the 27-year-old. “No offence to anyone, but you don't want to get a League One team away from home where you could get beat anyway. You want that glamorous side and you need some luck with that.
“It’ll be a great moment for us all, regardless of where we are in our careers. We watch football on TV all the time and you often think to yourself ‘I could have done that’ or ‘How on Earth has he done that?’ - well, now we get to actually do it for ourselves and see how these players do what they do up close. It will be a moment we’ll treasure forever.”
For manager Neil Young, the chance to pit his wits against a coach who counts two Champions League medals among his personal collection will be equally momentous.
“It’s a proud moment for me,” he smiles. “To come up against one of the greatest managers to have been in the game is amazing. I started off at Sunday League 22 years ago, then I worked in Welsh Premier League and then into non-league so, from a personal perspective, having come through those Sunday mornings to now managing against Jose Mourinho in the third round of the FA Cup is just incredible.”
Beneath all the excitement, though, there is a football match to be played, and Young and his players are fully focused on getting the best result possible - even if that doesn’t necessarily mean winning. Our conversation takes place in the aftermath of Tuesday night’s League Cup semi-final, in which a full-strength Spurs took a talented Brentford side to the sword.
“I watched it through my fingers,” admits Young, who spent the first half working with his players on the training pitch. “In terms of preparation, we’ll do the best we can. We’ve looked at them in the Europa League, the League Cup and also the Premier League. There is no great plan or magic formula, but our lads will work as hard as they can. They’ll be running through brick walls for one another. We’ve just got to get about them as much as we can and make life difficult for them.”
The FA Cup provides opportunities for players from all levels to make history, and few people know that better than John Barnes. The former Watford, Liverpool and England winger reached the final of the competition on four occasions, lifting it twice. He joins FFT on the video call to tell us what makes the FA Cup so magical.
“The third round of the FA Cup has always been special,” he says excitedly. “It’s the first opportunity for a non-league team to get drawn against one of the big boys. We all remember Ronnie Radford scoring in the mud for Hereford against Newcastle.
“Having said that, you don’t normally have teams who are seven divisions below the top flight getting there, it’s usually conference at the furthest. And again, to then be drawn against the team who are top of the Premier League at the time and not just one mid-table. It’s such a great story and this is what the FA Cup is all about.”
Barnes has been on both sides of underdog FA Cup ties, including in two finals. He was part of the Watford team that lost 2-0 to Everton in 1984’s Wembley showpiece, before joining Liverpool and infamously losing to the Wimbledon four years later. Still, those teams were all in the top flight at the time - this is a different kettle of fish.
“There is no advice I could give to these guys,” says Barnes. “You can tell the players to relax and not get overawed, but these are players that will probably do that. The reality is they are playing against a fantastic team.
“But Neil is an experienced manager and he has experienced players. They may not have played at this level but they've been around football long enough to know that anything can happen. As long as you trust your ability and trust yourself.”
Unfortunately, due to COVID restrictions, fans will not be in attendance for the biggest game in Marine’s 126-year history. The potential revenue lost in match days tickets is believed to be more than £100,000. This has led to the club offering “virtual tickets” to fans who make donations before watching on TV.
Meanwhile Jamie Carragher, who grew up locally to Marine’s Bootle-based home ground, has also sponsored the club’s matchday attire through his charity, the JC23 Foundation.
“Jamie does a lot with the club, to be fair,” says Young, fondly. “He did loads for the community during lockdown, too. He stepped in and helped out when sponsors pulled out at the last minute and that’s great credit to him.
“Financially speaking, we could have earned a lot more. But, look, we’re playing a Premier League team, we’re at home, it is what it is and there is no point worrying about what might have been.”
The latest lockdown also means that shirt-swapping is unfortunately outlawed, though Cummins reveals this might not have been possible for his team regardless.
“To be honest, we can’t do that anyway,” he laughs. “We’re not that big a club, we might only have one shirt for the entire season - we need them. If we give it away, the chairman will be pulling his hair out!”
“It was exactly the same when we played!” Barnes adds with a grin. “When I first went to Liverpool, in 1987, coach Ronnie Moran said we couldn't swap the shirts. We only had one kit. Ronnie was always running around saying go and get your shirts back from whoever you gave them to. So don’t you Marine lads pretend you're hard done by, I’m telling you!”
With Marine priced at 40/1 to win the clash, nobody is expecting a positive result for the home side. Barnes believes it’s harder than ever for smaller clubs to overcome larger opposition, due to the quality of lower level pitches and changes in refereeing.
“At Watford, before my time, they used to get the groundsman to water the pitch and dig up the sides a little bit,” he laughs. “I’m not trying to give Neil any ideas. The pitches used to be a leveller but these days even the Marine pitch will be good. All pitches are now.
“The refereeing laws have also changed. Where once you could get really stuck into big teams and not give away too many freekicks and penalties, you really can’t do that anymore. You can’t be as physical. So it’s much harder for the non-league teams these days, but I am sure they’ll enjoy the occasion.”
“To get through would be the biggest upset in FA Cup history,” concludes Young. “If we win on Sunday, you might not see me again. I wouldn’t even be here for the next round, I’d still be celebrating!
“You can dream but you also need to be realistic. We just need to make sure we prepare right and when people put their TVs on on Sunday, we need to ensure we give our absolute best.”
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