Best of the rest

For five surreal seasons in the 1970s, the FA Cup had an extra round. Owen Amos looks back at the games no one remembers

Of all the FA’s daft ideas – and there have been a few – the FA Cup third-place play-off must be among the worst. If, as the saying goes, no one remembers the runners-up, then who cares who came third? The answer, as it turned out, was no one at all. These were, and are, the forgotten FA Cup ties. The first play-off was in 1970, between that season’s beaten semi-finalists, Manchester United and Watford. The game was played on a Friday night at Highbury, the day before the Cup final. United won 2-0; 15,105 people watched. And were they impressed?

“As an aperitif for the FA Cup final,” wrote Norman Fox in the Times the next day, “the play-off failed for no more subtle reason than that it was a non-event between two losers.” There was heavy rain, wrote Fox, and an “unreal atmosphere”. On the same day, two real games took place in the First Division. The play-off was squeezed in alongside, presumably in the hope no one noticed. Precious few did – the Times sports pages gave more space to the rackets report.

The next season, if anything, was worse. The beaten semi-finalists were Stoke City and Everton so, naturally, the FA played the game on a Friday night at Selhurst Park in south London. Just over 5,000 attended; the same night, more people watched a mid-table Fourth Division game between Colchester and Stockport. Neither the Times nor the Sun carried a match report of Stoke’s 3-2 win. Stoke’s Evening Sentinel, though, reported “entertainment worthy of a better response than a meagre crowd”. Despite that, the paper was more concerned with Stoke’s upcoming entry into the second-ever Anglo-Italian Cup. Trips to Roma and Verona, it seemed, were more exciting than a Friday night at Selhurst Park, playing for a scant consolation prize. (Stoke, as it turned out, won at Roma and lost at Verona, and didn’t make the final.)

From 1954 until 1969, the so-called “eve of Cup final” match had been England v England Youth. It was usually televised and usually held at Highbury. Although the idea seems attractive now – imagine Jack Wilshere running rings round Frank Lampard, or Phil Jones whacking into John Terry – there was less interest then. According to minutes from the FA Cup committee meeting in 1969, the England Youth game had suffered a “loss of appeal and decline in attendance”.

The FA wanted a match of “a more competitive nature” and so, of course, picked a game the clubs, players and fans didn’t care about. But wait, the committee had a plan. “It was also decided,” the minutes said, “to recommend that suitable mementoes be made available to the players and substitutes taking part in the match.” Well that’s all right then. No one minds trekking to Selhurst Park on a Friday night if there’s a suitable memento in it.

At least the 1972 play-off, a 0-0 draw between Birmingham and Stoke, created history: it was the first FA Cup game to be decided on penalties. The game was played in August at St Andrew’s, on the same day as both the Charity Shield and the Watney Cup final. Despite that, the game attracted a much improved attendance of 25,000.

The papers, though, remained unimpressed. The Sunday Times said the “coconut shy ritual” of the shoot-out, which Birmingham won 4-3, provided “a truly artificial climax to a totally artificial match”. And while the penalties annoyed the journalists, they confused the players. When Stoke’s Peter Dobing saw his penalty saved he – naturally enough – put in the rebound. When it was disallowed, he “stared balefully at referee James, as Birmingham deservedly won 
the game”.

The play-off limped on for two more seasons. In August 1973, Wolves beat Arsenal 3‑1 at Highbury, in front of 21,000. (“Wolves, for what it’s worth, take third place in last year’s FA Cup,” wrote Brian Glanville in the Sunday Times. “If the sentence makes little sense to you, it is nonetheless factually impeccable.”) In 1974, Leicester hosted Burnley in what turned out to be the final third-place play-off. The crowd of 4,432 was the lowest for a competitive game at Filbert Street. Burnley won 1-0, although both teams were weakened by injury and international call-ups. “It was the game neither side wanted,” wrote the Leicester Mercury. “It’s obvious the public couldn’t care two hoots.”

At that year’s FA Cup committee meeting, the play-off was put out of its misery and placed on the sagging shelf of failed innovations. The last rites were brief: “After a full discussion, and bearing in mind the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the clubs and public for this match, it was agreed that it should be discontinued.” Now, the FA’s website, which claims to list every result in the competition’s history, pretends the games didn’t happen. While it’s true that, for example, Northampton War Team’s 5-2 win at Raunds Town in the 1920 extra-preliminary round is faithfully recorded, the third-fourth games are not. But for five seasons these FA Cup appendages took place. Somewhere, doubtless in dusty drawers, there are mementoes to prove it.

From WSC 288 February 2011