Giant killings are becoming something of an historical nostalgia.
South West London, though, has a tradition in the FA Cup: Wimbledon, in their original incarnation, won the cup in 1988. Sutton United themselves triumphed over Coventry City in 1989, a top division side who had won the cup just two seasons – 19 months – previously.
While Sutton and AFC Wimbledon met in the third round of this season’s competition.
It was an odd tie. Sutton were the opponents for the Dons’ very first encounter as a football club back in June 2002: a pre-season friendly that was watched by over 4,500 people. Sutton, a more established side, won the game 4-0.
Going into the game in the last round, Sutton were the underdogs this time. Newly promoted to the National League this season, Sutton’s victory over League One’s Wimbledon was certainly the type of early-round giant killing we love from the FA Cup. Sutton now welcome Championship high-flyers Leeds in the fourth round of another unlikely cup run.
If ever there was a tie to conjure memories of giant killings in the past, it’s giant-killers Sutton hosting three-time league champions, former FA Cup winners, League Cup winners and European Cup finalists Leeds United.
By all accounts, and by all definitions of a David v Goliath FA Cup tie, this fits the bill. Not only are we talking about an actual battle between a second tier side and a non-league side, but we are talking about historical giant killers and historical giants.
But the word ‘historical’ seems to get in the way here. No longer are Leeds giants. And no longer are FA Cup giant killings really possible in the same way.
The FA Cup’s structure is quite beautiful in that it pits anyone against everyone and gives them a one-off game in which to battle. It allows for upsets and ties you had never even thought of before. But giant killings like Sutton’s in 1989 aren’t just rare these days, but they’re also almost impossible.
For one thing, were Sutton to beat Leeds this weekend, it wouldn’t represent a favourite exiting the tournament in the fourth round. It probably wouldn’t even represent too much of a disappointment for Garry Monk’s promotion ambitions. Other than the embarrassment of losing to a non-league side, Leeds have bigger thoughts on their minds. Exit in the fourth round doesn’t even sound that bad for a Championship club in their situation – ignoring the opposition.
And if Sutton are to dump Leeds out of the competition, it will be a giant killing. It will be covered in all the national press, and held up quite rightly as a big triumph and a newsworthy event. But it won’t be talked about for decades by anyone outside of Sutton – not like Coventry in 1989, an FA Cup third round tie with its own Wikipedia page. Were they then to draw a Premier League side to and attempt to complete the set – they beat League Two Cheltenham Town, League One AFC Wimbledon, and face Championship Leeds – they’ll probably find themselves up against a Premier League side’s reserve team. Had Plymouth beaten Liverpool, it would rightly have been seen as a giant killing, but as large as Liverpool’s youth team is, it’s nothing like the slayings of years gone by.
And so this weekend, Football FanCast’s fixture in focus celebrates a traditional giant killer against a traditional giant and hopes for another story. We hope for a ‘real cup tie’, we hope for a spark of history repeating itself, and we hope to feel the sensations we felt in those years when giants were felled by David’s slingshot.
But this one could mean so much more than most FA Cup ties do these days. A giant killing would be more than just the slaying of a giant: it would cast Leeds as actual giants once again.