50 Great Cup Upsets
by Derek Watts
Book Guild, £12.99
Reviewed by Terry Staunton
From WSC 276 February 2010

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The return of a certain country of perceived footballing minnows to the world stage this summer is likely to trigger some dewy-eyed reminiscences in the north-east of England. Bizarre as it may sound to younger fans, there is a corner of Middlesbrough that is forever North Korea.

Of the 16 nations who reached the finals of the 1966 World Cup, the Asian outsiders were the obvious candidates for newspaper descriptions along the lines of “plucky” or “surprise package”. And with the home nation based miles away at Wembley, visitors to Ayresome Park found themselves rallying round North Korea, who, to borrow another favoured journalistic phrase, “turned the competition upside down” by defeating Italy. In one of several evocative chapters here, Derek Watts recounts the glory of these especially diminutive Davids, who also went on to give the Goliaths of Portugal a scare in the knockout stages by taking a three-goal lead before ultimately being overpowered by the brilliance of Eusébio.

Cup upsets have always grabbed headlines, what the author describes as “special moments the faithful yearn for, a pay-off for all those years of patience and drudgery”. TV coverage means that most incidences over the last, say, 40 years of humble no-hopers sticking it to the big boys are familiar and oft-told tales, but Watts examines them in admirably more detail than a quick goals package on Football Focus. With the skill of seasoned raconteur and a colourful use of language, he puts each of these unexpected outcomes into a vibrant geographical and social context.

Sunderland’s victory over Leeds in the 1973 FA Cup final has been well documented down the years, as has Hereford United’s triumph over Newcastle in the earlier stages of the previous year’s competition, but both are given a fresh spin and chronicled with the dramatic flourish of a Hollywood movie. However, Watts really gets his pen in a lather the further he goes back in time.

Newcastle are also the subject of the first upset in this book, coming unstuck at the hands of the unfancied Crystal Palace in 1907. More often than not, the game itself is used as a jumping-off point for some meticulously researched social history that draws heavily from period newspaper reports and in this case liberally sprinkled with passages from DH Lawrence’s writing. Watts relishes these archive stories of derring-do, “inexplicable afternoons when either lassitude or a collective lack of focus renders even the greatest sides ineffectual”. He occasionally gets a little too carried away with the outcome, turning Millwall’s 1937 defeat of Manchester City into something akin to a minstrel’s ballad of a bloodied skirmish on a far-off battlefield, but his enthusiasm is contagious, leaping off the pages and urging the reader to burst into hearty cheers.

It’s ironic that any future reprint of this book would have to include the Leeds triumph at Old Trafford in this year’s FA Cup third round, seeing as the victors are cast in Watts’s tome (twice) as the “giants” of old. Darren Beckford’s heroics have filled hundreds of column inches in the past week or so, but rarely with the brio and eloquence of the match reports contained here.

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