An underdog story
While there is unquestionably something special about watching world-class athletes excel in their respective disciplines, it is the underdog stories over the years that have truly captivated the masses. Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Barcelona may command respect for their utter dominance but, when it comes to specific events, it is the surprise packages, the likes of Buster Douglas, Goran Ivanisevic and Greece's Euro 2004 champions, who are burned into the public's sporting psyche.
The FA Cup has thrown up an abundance of upsets over the years and the enduring magic of the competition stems from its continued capacity to conjure up a giant-killing. This year saw non-league Crawley Town step into the limelight when they saw off a side three divisions above them in former English champions Derby County, though David was eventually defeated by Goliath when the minnows' journey was ended - unconvincingly, it must be noted - at Old Trafford at the hands of the mighty Manchester United. The 2011 edition of the FA Cup also saw League Two outfit Stevenage finally beat Newcastle United, 13 years after Giuliano Grazioli had threatened to do so.
Although the aforementioned triumphs over adversity were extraordinary days for the clubs involved, they are surpassed by those teams that have managed to produce shocks in the final at Wembley. With a wider audience, Sunderland (1973), Southampton (1976), West Ham (1980) and Wimbledon (1988) are among those to have been lofted into lore by defying the bookmakers and lifting the trophy.
Sunderland's triumph, in particular, captured the imagination of the footballing fraternity as the Wearsiders defeated Don Revie's imperious Leeds United to become the first Second Division side to win the FA Cup in 41 years. It has been said that a club has never been more passionately willed on by the neutrals than Bob Stokoe's Sunderland: the propensity of English fans to back the underdog, coupled with the near-universal distaste for Leeds at the time, brought nationwide support for the men in red and white. Had the iTunes age sprung up three decades earlier, North-East comedian Bobby Knoxall may well have been able to celebrate his only No. 1 with cup final ditty Sunderland All The Way, such was the feeling of goodwill towards the Wearsiders.
The game itself is remembered for two major incidents: Ian Porterfield's 31st-minute winner and Jim Montgomery's dramatic double save from Trevor Cherry and Peter Lorimer, widely regarded as the greatest piece of goalkeeping ever seen in an FA Cup final. The importance of Montgomery's intervention was recognised immediately after the final whistle, as a jubilant Stokoe sprinted from his position at pitchside to embrace Sunderland's hero with the sort of hug a father would usually only reserve for his son.
"I was turning round to the crowd waving to the Sunderland fans behind the goal and when I turned around he was about ten yards away from me jumping up on me," Montgomery tells ESPNsoccernet. "[Captain] Bobby Kerr came along and I always remember one fan came on and got in a hug as well. Because of the noise of the crowd and the occasion, I didn't actually know what Bob said to me at that particular moment until two or three days later when we sobered up! There was a save I made at Notts County [in the third round], one in the semi-final against Arsenal and then that one at Wembley - he just wanted to run across and pat me for that."
Montgomery's double save was a decisive contribution to his side's unlikely success and, unsurprisingly for someone who was born and bred in Sunderland and had grown up supporting the Wearsiders, he can still remember the moment that helped his boyhood club win the FA Cup in vivid detail 38 years later.
"A ball was chipped into the back post and Trevor Cherry came in and headed it across me. When I look at it now, I should have probably saved that first effort, but then the double save would have been history and you wouldn't be talking to me! I saw it going to a white shirt and I had to get up. Peter [Lorimer] hit it but I get my hand to it, it hits the bar and comes down and was cleared out.
"It was just a phenomenal day. Lifting the cup was special, to go up there with that team - we had a lot of local lads. It was our day. When we were walking around London [afterwards], a lot of the fans were there and the jubilation was fantastic but I look back and think, 'I just wish we could have been in Sunderland the night we won the cup'. When we came back on the Tuesday and got on the open-top bus, it took us about three hours to do ten miles back to Roker Park and there were 40,000 people waiting for us at the stadium. It was fantastic."
There were plenty of sub-plots to Sunderland's triumph, including Stokoe's later claim that when he was Bury manager in 1962, he had been offered money by Revie to throw a game when Leeds were fighting against relegation from the Second Division. But the shock factor will always remain the main plotline in the 1973 fairytale. Leeds had regularly challenged for major honours in the preceding five years and were FA Cup holders, while the Wearsiders squad - containing no full internationals - had been in danger of dropping into the third tier only months earlier, before Stokoe replaced Alan Brown and steadied the ship.
"You get the atmosphere of the day right from the very start, on the morning," Montgomery recalls. "We had a big joke and we were laughing away when we were getting interviewed on television. It was lovely and fun and happy, but we saw when the Leeds players came out they were all tensed up even though they'd been there and done that the year before. It was a happy-go-lucky atmosphere and we were very confident bearing in mind we'd beaten Manchester City and Arsenal in the previous rounds, who were two of the top sides in the division. But beating Leeds, who were a phenomenal side, was a fantastic achievement.
"I don't think we will see as big a shock. The biggest shock was because of Leeds' superiority over the previous years - they had won the FA Cup the year before and they had ten internationals in the team and one sitting on the bench. It was a major upheaval for us to beat them. I can't see it ever happening again. I know Wimbledon and Southampton did it but I think those days are gone."
There were 36 years between Sunderland's first FA Cup triumph and the 1973 success; this Saturday, Manchester City and Stoke aim to end similarly lengthy trophy droughts when they meet at Wembley. Roberto Mancini's City are the favourites on paper, but Montgomery feels that Stoke's British core gives them an excellent chance of beating the expensive Eastlanders.
"I think it would affect Man City more if they lost it than Stoke City," Montgomery says. "Stoke have got a lot more homegrown players and it will mean more to them than Manchester City, with all their foreign players. I don't think they appreciate what it's all about. I think Stoke have got a great chance. I don't think it will be a shock if Stoke win. People say they are a long ball team but you play to your strengths. It's no good playing tippy-tappy football if you've got two big six-foot players up front. Pulis has done a fantastic job and he deserves all the success he's getting. I'd love to see Stoke beat them and I think they can beat them."
Despite Montgomery's assertion, a Stoke victory would be viewed by most onlookers as an upset - but he is certainly right that surprise FA Cup winners are increasingly rare. Only 24 finals in the competition's 129-year history have included a lower division side, and only eight have seen them taste glory. Since West Ham beat Arsenal in 1980, there have been just four second-tier finalists, all of whom have lost. One of those was Sunderland in 1992, when their hopes of writing a second underdog story on their Wembley return were quashed by Liverpool. But while Montgomery admits the FA Cup has become more predictable in recent years, he insists the competition will forever retain a special significance.
"When Manchester United went abroad [to the Club World Cup in 2000] rather than putting a team in the FA Cup, I think that was the big time when the competition started to go downhill a little bit. But believe me, if you speak to any British player and ask them what to win, they will say an FA Cup winners' medal. There are some fantastic players that haven't won the cup and there are still a lot of people who would love to win it.
"It is still special, it is still electric when it comes on and that's what the fans want to watch. For the non-league teams it can keep them going for two or three years if they have a good run and do well. The magic is still there in the FA Cup and it always will be."