Carson: FA Cup offers chance at Cinderella stories
Alex Carson | Monday, February 20, 2017
With Lincoln City in the midst of one of the great all-time sports Cinderella runs, perhaps it’s more apt than ever that the team is nicknamed the Imps.
When Lincoln traveled to the Premier League’s Burnley on Saturday and came away with a win, it made history, becoming the first “non-league” side to make the FA Cup’s quarterfinal round since before the war. No, not that war — the First World War. The last time a non-league side played an FA Cup quarterfinal, March 7, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was alive, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was yet to declare Mother’s Day a thing, and Babe Ruth was a minor-league baseball player.
A lot has changed since then.
For a quick point of clarification: A team is “non-league” if it doesn’t compete in either the Football League, which now runs the second- through fourth-tier divisions, or the Premier League, which broke away in 1992 to run the top flight. Thus, Lincoln, who currently sits at the top of the fifth-division National League, would be ranked as the 93rd-best team in the country.
Remember Florida Gulf Coast, the No. 15 seed that America fell in love with four years ago in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament? This is them going one step further, beating Florida and making the Elite Eight.
If you google “imps,” the first result you’ll find is the definition: “a small, mischievous devil or sprite.” As far as the FA Cup goes, Lincoln — or any other non-league club for that matter — is the very definition of small. At the Premier League level, clubs rake in exorbitant sums of money — the last-placed club’s prize money share will likely be around $125 million (£100 million) this year, as even the smallest clubs in the competition (like Burnley) are able to shell out eight-figure transfer sums.
Contrast that with Lincoln, who will make, well, nowhere close to that, even if they win the National League and, with it, promotion to the Football League.
While Burnley’s not one of the Premier League’s giants, that it sits in the league at all makes this a perfect David vs. Goliath scenario; Transfermarkt values Burnley’s team at around $80 million, Lincoln’s at just $850,000.
The FA Cup is the most storied competition in England — 736 clubs entered the tournament this year, with single-elimination matches (if two teams tie, they replay the match up until the round of 16) playing the field down to one champion, crowned at the end of May. Before the institution of the nationwide Football League, it served as the chance to crown the best team in the nation.
For many years, it held that glory, too. But over time, the importance of the FA Cup has decreased, with bigger clubs taking it less seriously — resting starters to finish a place or two higher in the Premier League often yields more in return than advancing one or two rounds in the cup.
Consider this weekend the perfect tonic to the malaise that’s set in.
Not only did we get Lincoln’s win, but Monday night (well, afternoon in the U.S.), fellow non-league club Sutton United will host Arsenal for a spot in the quarterfinals. Sutton’s ground holds just 5,013, with all of 765 seats — the rest of the supporters are forced to stand, and unlike Arsenal’s modern Emirates Stadium, Gander Green Lane (seriously, how can you not love that name?) isn’t at all luxurious.
Sutton has a chance — a slim one if its opposition takes the match seriously, to be fair — of becoming the second non-league team this year to qualify for the quarterfinals, after it hadn’t happened in 103 years. That’s pretty neat.
Of course, Sutton’s task is much more difficult — Arsenal’s squad is valued at over $500 million — but if the Imps succeed, they’ll set up the dream quarterfinals of all dream quarterfinals: Sutton United would host Lincoln City, with a spot at a Wembley Stadium semifinal on the line. Even if Sutton isn’t victorious, we’d still be treated to a Lincoln City trip to Arsenal.
It seems likely that either Monday night or next month, we’ll get a fleeting moment of belief, a chance that lets us ponder if Sutton or Lincoln can pull off the impossible.
And that moment will make this run one of the year’s best sports stories.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.