Despite the growing disdain shown by many Premier League sides to the FA Cup, for fans of lower league clubs nothing quite gets the blood pumping than waiting for your team to be plucked from the bowl during the third-round draw.
Some people trace this disdain to when Manchester United were forced to pull out of the competition to compete in the Club World Cup after their Champions League success in 1999. The truth of the matter is, as the game’s finances have skyrocketed, so has the importance of remaining in the Premier League or competing in Europe. Anything else is merely seen as a distraction.
The chance to give one of these sides a bloody nose is not taken lightly by the clubs desperate for a cup run to keep much-needed money flowing into the coffers. Lately, as squads at the top-level bulge with international-level quality, the dreaded rotation policy comes into effect, as fringe players are trotted out to extinguish any threat of a cup upset. True cup upsets are few and far between now as Premier League clubs have a ready-made excuse should they succumb to a giant-killing.
Back in the 1990s, though, no such thing was a given. If you played a top division side you were most likely to come up against their strongest team. An upset, then, was one that would not be forgotten in a hurry – fans could dine out on such glory for years to come. For fans of the Goliath slain by David, the humiliation hung around like a bad smell. Results were desperately scoured in the hope that your team wouldn’t be the main headline in the newspaper or the first game on Match of the Day. It’s something I know about only too well.
It seemed a good idea at the time when, in an act of pre-teenage rebellion, I decided to choose my own football team to support. Suckered in by the all singing and dancing Premier League, I settled on Ipswich Town, a team new to the top flight that just so happened to be situated 245 miles away from my home in Wales. These were mere details that passed me by as I was preoccupied trying to avoid having my head flushed down the toilet during my first year at secondary school.
My weekly income of £8 made up of pocket money and a paper round couldn’t stretch to a match ticket, never mind the train fare to East Anglia, so each year when the third round of the FA Cup came around, I would eagerly await the draw and pray for an away tie to one of my nearest clubs, Chester or Wrexham.
The latter also happened to be the team my dad supported. I’d spent my formative years as a football fan with my dad on the Kop at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground watching the Robins in the old Division Four. I loved going but they weren’t my team, they were my dads. I never quite got that connection for some reason and when junior football came into my life at the age of ten, my days standing on the Kop were over.
During the third-round draw in late 1994, my wish was granted. Premier League Ipswich was drawn to play second-tier Wrexham – a family divided, me versus my dad. Wrexham were no strangers to the big clubs coming to town: just three seasons previously they had defeated reigning champions Arsenal at the Racecourse and sealed themselves a place in FA Cup folklore. A cursory look at my dad was met with a nod and I was on course to watch my team in the flesh for the first time. It would be in amongst the home fans but still, it was better than nothing.
Now was the small matter of getting a ticket. Before the days of pre-sales and membership cards, clubs operated a voucher scheme where you usually had to attend a non-descript league game to be in with a chance at a cup ticket. In this case, I returned to the Racecourse to witness a painstaking 0-0 draw with Shrewsbury on a cold December afternoon, the highlight being future Wrexham cult hero Dean Spink getting sent off for the Shrews.
Vouchers secured, my dad dutifully went and queued up for tickets whilst I nervously eyed the clock waiting for double science to finish so I could get home and see if he had been successful. I crashed through the front door to see two tickets sat on the kitchen table. The countdown was on.
The day of the game arrived and I’d persuaded my dad to get to the ground early to see my heroes arrive and hopefully grab some autographs. With Ipswich struggling in the league this was a welcome distraction, although your typical cup clichés of “potential banana skin” were bandied about.
New £1m signing Adrián Paz took his place on the bench. The Uruguayan striker had arrived at Portman Road much to the fans’ bewilderment after local press suggested an impending South American signing would be none other than Gabriel Batistuta.
The game got underway with almost 9,000 crammed into the Racecourse Ground. We had taken our place on a bulging Kop with my autograph book now boasting the names of Frank Yallop, John Wark, Stuart Slater and the enigmatic Paz, amongst others. Ipswich struggled to match Wrexham’s intensity and looked sluggish on the muddy surface.
Half-time arrived with the game goalless. My dad reached for his trusty flask and, whilst disappointed not to see an Ipswich goal at our end, I was quietly confident another FA Cup cliché would kick in: the much-vaunted higher fitness levels of the Premier League side.
On the hour mark, however, my worst nightmares began to come true. Wrexham broke down the left side and, with a cross launched toward the back post, Kieran Durkan crashed a volley past the flailing Clive Baker. The Kop erupted, though no one noticed the 14-year-old with head in hands – to be fair to my dad he kept his composure enough to limit his celebrations to a hair ruffle.
Time was running out for the Tractor Boys who had thrown Paz on in the chase for an equaliser. With six minutes to go, the Uruguayan swung a corner into the area and centre-half David Linighan rose highest to plant a header past Andy Marriott in the Wrexham goal. I met the sighs of despair on the Kop with a quiet fist pump, out of relief more than anything else.
This was shot to pieces a minute later when a Wrexham free-kick was launched forward. Winger Karl Connolly bundled the ball in front of Adam Tanner who scythed the former fishmonger down in the box. Up stepped leading scorer Gary Bennett to send the Kop into rapture. Well, all bar one fan. My dad didn’t show as much restraint this time. The game was over: another top-flight scalp for Wrexham.
Manchester United awaited in the fourth round for the Welsh club, while things only got worse for Ipswich and me. Two months later, a 9-0 drubbing at Old Trafford sent the club spiralling towards relegation. Twenty-five years on, I still watch the FA Cup draw hoping to one day gain my revenge on both Wrexham and my dad.
By Matthew Evans @Matt_The_Met