It’s the second round of the FA Cup this weekend, and forty teams across the bottom two tiers of the Football League and beyond are looking to earn their place in the hat for a potential glamour tie against English football’s big boys. To celebrate this season’s competition, we’re looking back on some of the great cup ties from years gone by. Not necessarily the biggest shocks (so you can keep your footage of Matthew Hanlon scoring for Sutton United against Coventry City, Match of the Day), nor even the most entertaining games (no matter how dramatic Steven Gerrard’s goal against West Ham was), but matches that offer a reminder of why the FA Cup remains one of the most storied competitions in the world. Today, we’re into the Second Round.
Your cup campaign has kicked off before the nights have started to draw in, you’ve done all the hard yards, fought through qualifying round after qualifying round, and the football gods have rewarded you with an absolutely stinking First Round tie that, ultimately, proves a step too far. That was the fate that befell Heybridge Swifts last season when, after entering at the Preliminary Round and slogging their way through seven games to reach the competition proper, they were drawn at League Two Exeter Town and swiftly exited.
Other non-league minnows have been graced with better fortune, however. In 2008/09, Histon FC were flying high. The Cambridgeshire club, nicknamed ‘The Stutes’ in tribute to their original Histon Institute moniker, had been promoted to the Conference National the previous season, their third promotion in four years, and took the league by storm, eventually finishing third and losing out to Torquay United in the playoffs. Manager Steve Fallon had become something of a promotion expert, having helped Cambridge United from the old Fourth Division to the Second Division in a twelve-year spell at the Abbey Stadium. Arriving at Bridge Road off the back of a nine year spell as player-manager of Cambridge City, Fallon had proved the catalyst to lift Histon up the leagues, winning the Eastern Counties League Premier Division in his first season.
He’d also transformed The Stutes into cup specialists, with Histon making the First Round of the FA Cup in 2003, and the Second Round in 2004 and 2005. Now thriving in the top tier of non-league, Fallon was hoping to go one better in 2008. First, of course, they’d have to qualify, and Durham City proved stiff opposition in the Fourth Qualifying Round, holding Histon to a draw at Hall Lane before taking a 5-2 battering in the East of England. The first round draw threw up a juicy home tie for the Conference side, with former Scotland international Maurice Malpas bringing his League One Swindon Town team to Bridge Road. An inspired performance from ‘keeper Danny Naisbitt kept the Robins at bay, and Daniel Wright’s 66th minute goal sent the gathered 1,500 Histon fans ballistic. A famous victory achieved by Fallon and his charges, but one that would be overshadowed just a few weeks later.
Having been knocked out in previous years by the likes of Nuneaton Borough and Yeovil Town, Histon were hoping for a little more glamour in the second round draw. Having already disposed of one former Premier League team, they were gifted with perhaps the biggest tie available, as Leeds United were pulled out of the hat to make the trip south. A far-cry from the team that had reached the semi-finals of the Champions League just seven years earlier, Leeds were into their second season in English football’s third tier, the result of serious financial mismanagement at the turn of the century. Even so, a meeting with the 1972 FA Cup winners represented a fantastic opportunity for Histon to write their name into cup folklore.
With the ITV cameras present in anticipation of a shock, and the bombastic Peter Drury on commentary duties, Gary McAllister took his place in the dugout opposite Fallon, with the precocious talents of Fabian Delph and Robert Snodgrass looking to cause the Conference team problems on their own patch. On a damp and dreary Cambridgeshire afternoon, with the Glass World Stadium pitch failing to match the standards some of Leeds’ players were used to, McAllister’s side struggled to get going, though Luciano Becchio should have done better with Andrew Hughes’ cross early on, instead heading over the bar. Then, six minutes before half-time, the deadlock was broken. Gareth Gwillim, formerly of Crystal Palace’s academy, curled a corner into the penalty area and postman Matthew Langston rose to meet the delivery and power a header beyond David Lucas in the Leeds goal.
An insipid, forgettable performance on the pitch from those in Lilywhite was bettered by the 1,800 Leeds United supporters who’d made the journey to the small village of Histon, spending the second-half chanting “ITV is fucking shit!” into a pitchside boom mic they’d commandeered, and making far more noise than their team’s display deserved. Besides those foul-mouthed chants and the sight of a Histon player’s gentleman’s agreement in the televised post-match interview from the home dressing room, the tie will perhaps best be remembered for Drury’s dramatic description of the game’s denouement. At the final whistle, backed by the rapturous chorus of the Histon faithful, the commentator exclaimed, at his blusterous best, “HISTON! HISTORY! HYSTERIA!”. At the time playing third fiddle to Clive Tyldsley and Jon Champion for Britain’s least favourite sports broadcaster, Drury has since carved his niche as the country’s most verbose correspondent. His part in Histon’s big day has become one of the most iconic commentary moments of recent years.
Another home tie would fall Histon’s way in the Third Round, though Roberto Martinez’s Swansea City didn’t quite offer the pizzazz of a Manchester United or Liverpool. Nonetheless, the Swans were a side on the up, having been promoted to the Championship the previous season, and despite suffering some nervy moments would see off the non-league side to secure their place in the Fourth Round.
Despite an impressive first season in the Conference, Histon were unable to maintain their form under Fallon, finishing eighteenth the following year as their manager departed Bridge Road after a decade in charge. In 2011, they finished bottom and were relegated from the Conference, the beginning of a decline that would see them suffer four demotions in seven years. The club are currently competing in the Eastern Counties League Premier Division, and have failed to reach the first round of the FA Cup since 2008. Regardless, Histon will always have their history.