Since there are 92 professional football clubs in England/Wales along with dozens of semi-pro and amateur outfits there are bound to be some major FA Cup upsets or giant killings from time to time. Fans were reminded of this David vs Goliath scenario when second-tier Nottingham Forest just ousted cup holders Arsenal of the Premier League out of the 2017/18 tournament.
This list consists of 12 of the biggest FA Cup upsets in the history of the competition. All dozen of the contests involve lower-division teams knocking off those well above them in the hierarchy of English football. There have been a few mild upsets involving clubs in the same division in the past, but we’ve focused solely on lower-tier sides and non-league squads putting the boots to those in the top flight.
12. Peterborough United 2 – 1 Arsenal
Fans at London Road in Peterborough and across the UK were in a sombre mood on January 30th, 1965 as former prime minister Winston Churchill was laid to rest earlier in the day. Still, there was a fourth round FA Cup tie to be played between First Division Arsenal and Third Division Peterborough United. The Gunners were already seven-time English champions at this point while Peterborough, nicknamed ‘The Posh’ were the new kids on the block as they had been admitted into the Football League just five years earlier. So what better way to make a name for themselves than to knock Arsenal out of the Cup? Posh did exactly that as they overcame a 1-0 deficit at halftime to tie the match with 18 minutes to go and then raise the roof by scoring the winning goal just five minutes before the final whistle.
11. Sunderland 1 – 0 Leeds United
The 1972/73 FA Cup Final featured favorites Leeds United of the first Division against Second Division Sunderland. The odds of an upset didn’t look good as just one Second Division side had managed to hoist the trophy in the previous 42 years when West Bromwich Albion achieved the feat in 1930/31. In addition, Leeds were the reigning FA Cup champions and one of the strongest sides in Europe under manager Don Revie. That didn’t mean anything to Sunderland’s Ian Porterfield though as he scored the only goal of the contest in the 32nd minute. The Leeds’ superstars couldn’t solve goalkeeper Jim Montgomery as they threw everything including the kitchen sink at him. When the final whistle blew Sunderland manager Bob Stokoe ran onto the pitch to celebrate and a statue was erected at the Stadium of Light to honor his famous moment.
10. Colchester 3 – 2 Leeds United
Leeds United had been upset just two years before their shock defeat to Sunderland in the 1973 Cup Final when they were ousted from the competition by Colchester United. Leeds were challenging for the top-flight title and were expected to easily brush aside Fourth Division Colchester in their fifth-round cup tie in February of 1971. Leeds weren’t prepared for the match though and found themselves trailing 2-0 after just 25 minutes courtesy of a pair of goals by Ray Crawford. Fans were shocked when Colchester extended the lead to 3-0 early in the second half on a Dave Simmons goal. The visitors finally woke up, but it was too little too late. Norman Hunter scored for Leeds on the hour mark and Johnny Giles pulled another back 13 minutes later, but fell short just in a 3-2 loss.
9. Chelsea 2 – 4 Bradford City
Chelsea was leading the Premier League in January of 2015 and still had a shot at pulling off a quadruple of the league title, League Cup, FA Cup and European Champions League. They were at home at Stamford Bridge in London in the fourth round of the FA Cup where they met Bradford City of third-tier League One. Bradford was 49 positions below the Blues in the grand scheme of things and seemed to be out of their depth. They were trailing 2-0 after just 38 minutes as Gary Cahill and Ramires staked the home side to a commanding lead. Instead of folding and accepting defeat, Bradford decided to fight back and Jo Stead put them on the scoreboard just before halftime. The visitors then added three more goals in the game’s final 15 minutes to stun Chelsea and pull out a 4-2 come-from-behind win. Needless to say, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho wasn’t impressed and called his team’s performance a disgrace.
8. AFC Bournemouth 2 – 0 Manchester United
It was just a week into the new year in 1984 when Third Division Bournemouth hosted First Division giants Manchester United on the south coast in a third-round cup tie. United were the FA Cup holders under manager Ron Atkinson while Harry Redknapp was Bournemouth’s boss. Man United was naturally the betting favorites, but Bournemouth were the better squad on the pitch where it mattered. The home side capitalized on their chances and built a 2-0 lead on goals by Milton Graham and Ian Thompson. United tried to get back into the game at Dean court, but it just wasn’t their day. The Red Devils learned from their mistakes though and reclaimed the FA Cup the next season, just a few months before one Alex Ferguson would take over as their new manager.
7. Birmingham City 1 – 2 Altrincham FC
Non-League minnows Altrincham visited First Division side Birmingham City in the third round of the 1985/86 tournament and nobody gave the part-timers a chance. This was mainly due to the fact that just one non-league team had ever managed to beat a top division club before. Altrincham headed to St. Andrew’s Stadium with no pressure on them and managed to pull off the huge upset when Birmingham City gifted them with the win courtesy of an own-goal with just 15 minutes to play. However, the amateur club’s fortunes didn’t turn around with the unexpected victory as they struggled for the rest of the season and failed to earn promotion into the Football League. Still, they managed to achieve a feat that just one other non-league club had done before.
6. Norwich City 0 – 1 Luton Town
The gap between divisions in English football grew even wider once the Premier League was born in 1992 as many of the lower-league clubs were cash starved. Luton Town was one of these financially-struggling sides and in 2013 they were a non-league club. They headed to Carrow Road for a fourth-round tie against Norwich City in 2012/13 knowing that no other non-league team had ousted a top-flight counterpart in the last two dozen years. Luton took it on the chin early in the match, but managed not to concede a goal even though Harry Kane was suited up for the home side. As they game went on it looked like Luton would be satisfied with a draw and a replay. But with just 10 minutes to go, Scott Rendell scored for the visitors as Luton became the first non-league club to oust a Premier League team from the FA Cup.
5. Sutton United 2 – 1 Coventry City
Coventry City was a First Division club back in 1989 and had won the FA Cup in 1986/87 by upsetting Tottenham Hotspur 3-2 at Wembley. They squared off against non-league side Sutton United in the third round of the 1988/89 competition on the road in south London. Skipper Tony Rains thrilled the 8,000 home fans by putting the amateur team in front after 42 minutes. The celebrations were short lived though as Coventry had leveled the score early in the second half on a goal by David Phillips. However, Sutton didn’t pack it in and just before the contest was an hour old they were back in front again via a Matthew Hanlan goal. The fans were surprised Sutton held onto the lead as Coventry poured it on, but they did for a famous 2-1 upset. It would be another 24 years until a non-league team beat a top-flight squad in the tournament when Luton edged Norwich.
4. Burnley FC 0 – 1 Lincoln City
The most recent FA Cup upset took place in February, 2017 when Burnley City of the Premier League hosted lowly Lincoln City of the National league. This was a fifth-round match at Turf Moor, which has always been a tough place for visiting clubs. Lincoln would keep their fairy tale cup run going by downing the big boys 1-0 on a late goal by Sean Raggett. The win saw Lincoln City become the first non-league team to reach the quarterfinals of the FA Cup in 103 years. The last team to do it was Queens Park Rangers way back in 1914. Unfortunately for Lincoln and their fans, they battled it out with top-flight side Arsenal away in London in their quarterfinal appearance and came away from the experience on the wrong end of a 5-0 beat down.
3. Oxford United 3 – 1 Blackburn Rovers
Let’s go back to the swinging sixties for a moment. The date was February 15th, 1964 and Oxford United was hosting Blackburn Rovers in the fifth round of the cup. The 21,700 fans packed into the Manor Ground weren’t expecting too much from the Fourth-Division home side since they had just reached the Football League two years earlier. On the other side of the coin, Blackburn was enjoying one of their best seasons ever and challenging for first place in the First Division. When the players trotted out onto the pitch there was a 77-position gap between the two squads. All the ingredients were there for a huge upset and that’s exactly what Oxford cooked up with a 3-1 win. They were up 2-0 after 51 minutes, but let Blackburn back in the game in the 68th. However, Oxford sealed the deal with a 90th-minute marker to make history.
2. Hereford United 2 – 1 Newcastle United
It was a cold, damp day when now-defunct Hereford United hosted Newcastle United on their muddy pitch on February 5th, 1972. The home team had already pulled off an upset by drawing 2-2 in Newcastle when the teams met for their third-round cup tie. The non-league team now had the chance to send the First Division side crashing from the competition in the replay and 9,000 fans had tried to get into the 5,000-capacity Edgar Street Stadium. The dream appeared to be over when Malcolm McDonald put Newcastle in front with eight minutes to go. But just three minutes later Ronnie Radford’s rocket tied the game as his shot traveled about 35 yards into the top corner of the net. This forced extra time and substitute Ricky George gave Hereford a 2-1 win as the pitch was invaded for the second time when he scored 13 minutes into the extra session. Hereford had become the first non-league team to topple a First Division club in 23 years.
1. Wrexham FC 2 – 1 Arsenal
The First Division was coming to an end in 1992 as the Premier League would soon take over. But there was one last upset to be played out on January 4th. Top-flight Arsenal were reigning league champions, once again title challengers and FA Cup hopefuls when they traveled to Fourth-Division Wrexham and a third-round game at the Racecourse Ground. In fact, the home side from north Wales was sitting in the basement of their division at the time. The odds were stacked against Wrexham and even more so after Alan Smith put the Gunners in front. It’s never over until it’s over though and 37-year-old Mickey Thomas hammered a 25-yard free kick into the top corner to level the score with eight minutes remaining. Just 120 seconds later, Steve Watkin put the lower division side ahead 2-1 and Wrexham, who were 91 league positions lower than Arsenal, had ousted the reigning English league champions.