FA Cup holders Wigan Athletic beat Crystal Palace in this year’s FA Cup fourth round, a match which seemed to sow doubt in the minds of some reporters in terms of how they should present a result which would normally be seen as an FA Cup giantkilling. Could the FA Cup holders really be described as giantkillers? The fact is that this result typified something in the competition which is becoming more and more common, namely the giantkilling that never was.
The fixture between Wigan and Crystal Palace was already the second in this year’s competition in which a Premier League team was unsurprisingly knocked out by a team from a division below. The first was a round earlier when Nottingham Forest beat a second string West Ham United team as Sam Allardyce rested his players for a League Cup semi-final at Manchester City in which his charges would also be thrashed.
The Guardian’s Paul Wilson was clearly uncertain of how to assess Wigan’s achievement against Crystal Palace: “It is not often that the holders of the FA Cup can be considered giantkillers, and it is even more debatable whether Crystal Palace can be considered lofty enough to fit the Goliath billing…”
Richard Bott in the Daily Mail was even more torn, describing Wigan’s victory as a “minor shock”. The fact is that the giantkilling that never was is becoming a more common feature of the FA Cup as Premier League managers from teams in the Threatened 13 line up second string players in fixtures against opposition from outside the elite.
The table below contains all of the FA Cup matches from the last 10 seasons in which a Premier League club was eliminated by a team from outside the competition but the lower team was the favourite to win with the bookmakers.
It is perhaps surprising that the top of the list, and thus the most likely ‘giantkilling that wasn’t’ of all, was perpetrated by a League Two club against a Premier League team. How could a team two divisions below the Premier League be such a strong favourite against one of the country’s top 20 clubs? Quite simply, Blackpool manager Ian Holloway lined up what was effectively a reserve team and opponents Southampton were one of the best teams in League One. Indeed, the Saints were promoted at the end of that season, putting them in the same division as relegated Blackpool, and were a Premier League team themselves a year later.
Saturday’s victors Wigan Athletic were even the underdogs against a League Two club, Swindon Town, in a supposed giantkilling act two seasons ago. Like Blackpool a year earlier, Wigan fielded a largely young and inexperienced team in this match and lost 2-1 to a high flying Swindon team which would finish the season as champions. Swindon’s victory was described by the BBC as “a remarkable win”. It wasn’t, as the bookmakers’ odds on the match confirm. Swindon Town were the favourites, albeit marginal, to win against their more illustrious opposition that day.
It has long been a feature of the FA Cup that the Premier League teams fighting for the title and European places have fielded under-strength teams against lower opposition but, judging from the above table, it seems that this is now routine for the rest of the competition. The data suggests that this was not widespread until around 2009 but from that year on, the Premier League’s Threatened 13 clubs are being regularly knocked out by lower league opposition in matches which, due to the line-ups being fielded, cannot be regarded as shocks.
Now that the FA Cup draw has been blown wide open by the best four teams remaining being drawn against one another in round five, perhaps Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis (although he made fewer changes than some) might regret their decisions to field weakened teams in winnable matches. After all, Wigan Athletic won the competition last season, in part due to a relatively smooth set of draws on the way to the final. Then again, Wigan were also relegated to the Championship and, in the end, avoiding the drop is probably more important for everyone associated with these clubs.