Another of the shocks delivered by soccer to an American sports fan’s finely honed sensibilities and equilibrium is the fact that European Soccer squads routinely compete in multiple competitions at once, sometimes forcing managers to prioritize tournaments by their prestige and importance in the eyes and estimations of that particularly club by setting their starting lineups in accordance to the needs of whatever competition is deemed more important. This is one of the hardest things to grasp as an American, but also one of the best and most exciting aspects of following soccer once you do. The FA Cup, also known as the Football Association Cup, is the oldest domestic club competition in England, and, actually, the oldest entire world, originating in 1871-72. The FA’s website touts the incredible fact that a recent “online project to identify the cultural icons of England has seen The FA Cup nominated alongside Stonehenge, A Cup of Tea and the Double Decker bus.” The FA Cup is a tournament where every professional team in England, more than 700 this year, no matter their finances or place in the multi-tiered league system has a chance to compete and prove their worth against giants.
According to their manager, Alan Pardew, a side like Newcastle places great emphasis on the FA Cup due, partially, to its towering place in the history and iconography of the English game and the fact that its knockout, on-any-given-day structure allows a side like Newcastle, who reside in the Premier league but suffer from grave financial disparities in relation to titanic clubs such as Manchester City and Chelsea, a legitimate fighting chance. Thanks to Rough Guide’s excellent guide to Cult Football, I learned that Newcastle have previously won the FA Cup 6 times. On Saturday, Newcastle traveled to the home of League 2 (Fourth Division) side, Stevenage. Ghosts of FA Cups past, like Fox Soccer Channel analyst and former Newcastle defender Warren Barton, made much of the fact that these sides had played a legendary and controversial match in the 4th round of the 1998 FA Cup tournament, which led to an even more controversial replay. This is the exact sort of match and memory I’m desperate to learn more about. Meanwhile, the 2010-11 edition of Newcastle, fresh off of blistering 5-0 home destruction of West Ham in their last Premier League fixture, seemed poised to zealously advance to the 4th Round over the backs of tiny Stevenage. Appearances, as they say, can be deceiving.
Stevenage played with far more intensity from the outset and parlayed the momentum provided by a lucky deflection, turned Newcastle own goal into a 2 goal advantage, minutes later, when midfielder Michael Bostwick struck in an excellent shot in the 55th minute. The often unbearable weight of a 2-0 lead did not hold Stevenage down at all, as they kept working hard and using superior, at least on this day, pace to win lose balls and keep possession away from a still dangerous Newcastle side. The match’s narrative seemed to swing towards Newcastle around the 76th minute as they kept pressing the Stevenage goal, even though they were playing with 10 men after Chiek Tiote’s red card in the 71st minute of play. Joey Barton lashed in an absolute stunner for Newcastle in the 90th minute, which made pulses race and stutter for a few seconds…until Peter Winn removed all doubt from the outcome with a pretty goal to give Stevenage the 3-1 result and a trip to the 4th round.
Much is made in the American sports subconsciousness of mythical, yet seldom seen, upsets of this magnitude, which provide fodder for countless fluffy movies of ragtag, upstarts somehow coalescing into world-beating, giant-slaying units seemingly overnight, but actually seeing a team 4 entire divisions beneath their opponents play so hard and earn a well-deserved victory was indeed as thrilling as you had always hoped it could be.