Friday, 28 February 2014

Sunderland v Man City - Black Cats as Underdogs is No Bad Thing

This weekend, the first bit of domestic silverware will be decided as Sunderland take on Manchester City in the League Cup final. City will of course be hot favourites but as outsiders, Sunderland will have no reason to believe the game is a foregone conclusion. Even leaving aside the fact they already have a decent recent record over their opponents, the Black Cats (and City for that matter) will be well away that finals don't always go the way they are expected.

Sunderland 1973

Indeed, It seems fitting to start with Sunderland. The Wearsiders had already pulled off a shock in the semi-final having overcome Arsenal 2-1 at Hillsborough thanks to goals from Vic Halom and Billy Hughes but few would have given them any chance of repeating the trick at Wembley. The Leeds United side of the time were one of the strongest in the country and, indeed, holders of the cup going into the final. Don Revie's charges were expected to win at a canter and certainly didn’t expect a team languishing in the division below to cause much of a problem on their way to retaining the trophy.

But Bob Stokoe’s inspired Mackems weren’t about to lay down and simply allow the Whites a procession, especially given the supposed feud between the two managers. Stokoe was to later allege that his opposite number had once tried to bribe him to lose a match while he (Stokoe) was in charge at Bury. Although the allegation was never proven, if it were true, what greater motivation could there have been for the Sunderland manager?

On the day, an Ian Porterfield half volley and a jaw-dropping double save from Jimmy Montgomery saw the Black Cats run out 1-0 winners and write their names in English football folklore. This remains Sunderland’s only major post-war honour. For now...

Southampton 1976

Possibly inspired by Sunderland’s heroics, Lawrie McMenamy’s second division Southampton side travelled to Wembley to take on Manchester United following their return to the top flight. The Reds stormed back from their shock relegation two years earlier by finishing third in First Division and of course reaching the cup final. However, in matter of weeks, Tommy Docherty went from potentially winning a historic double to ending the campaign empty handed. Having missed out on the title by a mere four points, United were then stunned by the Saints. Bobby Stokes’ late first-time snap-shot from the edge of the penalty area beat a scrambling Alex Stepney and meant that the team from the south coast were able to go home with more than just sight-seeing photos from their ‘big day out’.

Coventry 1987

Of course, upsets also occur when two teams from the same division are involved. Despite playing at the same level, finals can still throw up quite clear mismatches where one team will go in as overwhelming favourites but yet still come a cropper as their unfancied opponents still somehow prevail. In fact, this has happened on three occasions over the course of just two years.

In 1987, Tottenham, spearheaded by the free-scoring Clive Allen, were serious contenders on all three domestic fronts. However, despite a third-place league finish in the league – their best since 1971 – they were unable to prevent a rampant Everton from winning the title. In the League Cup, Spurs suffered late heart-break as they were knocked out at the semi-final stage by rivals Arsenal so were desperate to make amends at Wembley against a Coventry team who meandered to a midtable finish. Having won their previous seven, Tottenham were embarking on their eighth FA Cup Final while Coventry were about to make their first (and to date, only) appearance on the big stage.

Things were very much going to the script when Clive Allen headed home his 49th(!) goal of the season to give Spurs the lead. Undaunted, Coventry equalised through Dave Bennett a few minutes later. A scrappy Gary Mubbutt goal before half time restored Spurs’ lead but Keith Houchen’s famous flying header levelled the scores again with less than half an hour to play. The contrasting fortunes of the two clubs were certainly not evident that sunny May day as the teams couldn’t be separated after 90 minutes. In extra time however, Mabbutt was unfortunate enough to deflect a low cross high into the air. In almost slow motion, the ball looped over the head of a confused Ray Clemence to give Coventry the lead for the first time in the game. A lead they were able to hold onto as they went on to lift the trophy for the first time.

Luton 1988

The following year Wembley saw not one, but two major shocks in the domestic finals. The first came in the League Cup as holders Arsenal, on an upward trajectory after some barren years in the early eighties, set about trying to retain their trophy. George Graham’s Gunners were to be crowned champions of England in two of the next three seasons but Luton Town provided a gentle reminder that they weren’t about to have everything go their way.

Brian Stein’s opener gave the underdogs some early hope and Luton were able to hang on for most of the match. That was until two quick-fire goals from Martin Hayes and Alan Smith put Arsenal in front. Nigel Winterburn then had the chance to seal the victory from the penalty spot with just 10 minutes left on the clock but was denied by Hatters’ keeper Andy Dibble. Some hapless Arsenal defending (more on this later) led to Danny Wilson scrambling home an equaliser. The remarkable comeback was completed in the 90th minute as Stein scored his second to leave Arsenal, like their North London neighbours a year before, scratching their heads having been on the wrong end of a 3-2 scoreline.

The Hatters, under the guidance of the late Ray Hardford, were on something of a mission in the competition that year. Luton had been excluded from the previous year’s tournament after taking the radical decision to ban away fans from Kenilworth Road following the infamous riot involving Millwall fans two years prior. The Bedforshire club’s eventual success almost seemed like their destiny.

Wimbledon 1988

Despite all that drama, Luton’s win was put in the shade just three weeks later. By the time the 1988 FA Cup final came around, Wimbledon FC had been been playing league football for just over a decade and were about to complete only their second season in England’s top division. In that same short period, Liverpool had won eight league titles, one FA Cup, four league cups, and three European Cups. The Merseysiders were on course for their second League and Cup double in just three years so the South Londoners were really supposed to be no threat whatsoever to English football’s dominant force.

However, in similar vein to Luton, the Dons denied their more illustrious opponents thanks mainly to a huge penalty save. Lawrie Sanchez may have scored the winning goal, but when Dave Beasant saved John Aldridge’s 60th minute spot-kick, he not only became the first keeper in FA Cup final history to do so but also preserved the all too precious 1-0 scoreline. Bobby Gould’s ‘Crazy Gang’ hung on to win the trophy and confirm the single best post-war ascension of an English football team.

That Wimbledon no longer exist in the same form makes their fleeting success that more poetic. A tiny club that came from nowhere, had an unparalleled rise to prominence and unfortunately were eventually cruelly dismantled. With that unlikely win over Liverpool, they were able to stitch their name into the very fabric of the game in this country forever.

Birmingham 2011

Arsenal again and this time, the Gunners were flying high in the league, had just beaten Barcelona in the first leg of a Champions League tie, still in FA Cup contention and reached the League Cup final. Much was (and still is) made of the club’s trophy drought. It had been six years since silver polish at the Emirates was used on a cup on any meaningful distinction but the 2010-11 season saw Arsene Wenger’s team, for a time, fighting on all fronts. In fact, as they took to the field against a struggling Birmingham City, some optimistic souls might have even been making fanciful suggestions about winning the lot!

The first obstacle would prove to be Alex McLiesh’s Birmingham side who one might have thought would be more concerned with preserving their top flight status than a potential humiliation in a cup final. As it turned out, nobody in Blue was to be distracted. From a corner, Nicola Zigic rose higher than everyone to head Birmingham into a deserved first half lead. This seemed to spark Arsenal into life as Robin van Persie volleyed in an equaliser just before half time. The expected second half onslaught didn’t come however and as both teams were preparing for extra time, a huge Ben Foster goal kick caught Arsenal cold and Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczęsny inexplicably gifted Obafemi Martins with an open goal to seal the most unlikely of victories in the dying embers of the game. Arsenal's season crumbled and they ended up with nothing to show for their efforts that year once more.

That Birmingham only won 2 of their remaining 12 league games (losing 7) only serves to emphasise how much of a shock this victory was. The Blues were subsequently relegated but a first trophy in 48 years would have certainly cushioned the blow.

Wigan 2013

Similarly, Wigan Athletic had been making something of a habit of last day survival in their all too frequent battles against relegation. Eventually, their luck would run out as they finally slipped through the trapdoor at the end of the 2012-13 campaign. However, the Latics were able to take a rather significant souvenir down with them following their unexpected 1-0 Wembley win over Manchester City.

The last few years has seen Manchester City power their way into English football’s elite, the huge investment since Sheikh Mansour’s acquisition of the club has seen them challenge for top honours season after season. The club successfully won the FA Cup in 2011 and followed it up with that unforgettable title win 12 months later. This time however, rather than benefit from a late goal, Mancini and his City team were instead punished by one as Ben Watson rose from a corner to head the ball past Joe Hart to provide an upset that arguably took on a whole different level of significance than those of the past.

With the vast resources at their disposal, the modern Manchester City have been built in such a way that 'upsets' shouldn't even be something they should be concerned with. By right, this team shouldn’t really have any weaknesses that a team like Wigan (although themselves no strangers to spending money) should be able exploit. Despite being in the same division at the time, the gulf between the two teams was arguably far greater than any of the examples above. Yet Wigan were able to find that chink in City's considerable armour and surprise us all, perhaps also offering a reminder that the game still has the capacity to throw up an interesting story now and again. This wouldn't be popular sentiment over at Eastlands but Wigan's win was a prime example of why football will always remain popular. Despite everything, the best team, no matter how strong, will not always win.

And that's exactly the kind of encouragement that Sunderland will take going into this Sunday's final.

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