the Harry the Haddock mascots were out in force at St Mary’s earlier this month as Grimsby beat Southampton to progress to the FA Cup quarter-finals. The away fans held aloft a sea of inflatable fish in the stands as their team pulled off one of the biggest shocks in recent years. Grimsby became the first side in the 151 years of the FA Cup to beat opponents from higher divisions in five rounds, having already taken care of three League One clubs – Plymouth Argyle, Cambridge United and Burton Albion – and Luton Town from the Championship.
Grimsby, who are 16th in League Two and only regained their league status last year by winning the National League playoffs, have reached the quarter-finals for the first time since 1939, when they were a First Division side and eventually lost 5-0 to Wolves in the semi-finals. Their stunning 2-1 victory at Southampton makes them just the fifth club from the fourth tier to reach the quarter-finals since the division was founded in the late 1950s.
Oxford United were the first to do it, beating Blackburn in the fifth round in 1964 when Ron Atkinson was their captain. “I remember it vividly, it was a wonderful occasion,” he reflected later. “At the time it was a record gate and, for so many people to come and watch, it gave us all a big lift. Blackburn were right at the top of Division One and we were a little Division Four club. Only a month or so earlier they had won 8-2 away to West Ham, and that was a West Ham team with Bobby Moore and all the England World Cup stars in it, so they were a very good side.
Seven years later, Colchester United became the second club from the Fourth Division to reach the quarter-finals. They pulled off an almighty shock to reach the last eight, beating a Leeds team that had been FA Cup finalists and First Division runners-up the year before. Colchester were not given much chance before they hosted Leeds at Layer Road in February 1971 – they were dubbed “Dad’s Army” in the buildup due to the age of their team compared to Don Revie’s side – but they won 3-2, with Ray Crawford scoring twice.
Bradford City followed in Colchester’s footsteps in 1976, when they knocked out top-flight Norwich at Carrow Road before losing to eventual winners Southampton in the quarter-finals. The last fourth-tier side to progress this far were Cambridge United in 1989-90, when they played nine games in the FA Cup – including three replays – before losing to top-flight Crystal Palace in the quarter-finals.
hey are not the only unlikely quarter-finalists. Three of the other clubs in the last eight are from outside the top flight. Burnley visit Manchester City on Saturday and Sheffield United host Blackburn on Sunday, guaranteeing that at least one Championship club will enjoy a semi-final at Wembley.
There has not been a Championship club in the last four since 2015, when Reading made it to the semi-finals but were beaten by the eventual winners, Arsenal, in extra time. The Royals have a habit of progressing to the latter stages of the competition, racking up an impressive five quarter-final appearances between 2010 and 2019, all while in the second tier.
Like Reading, Sheffield United and Blackburn have a fair amount of experience of reaching the quarter-finals; this year is the fourth time in just over two decades they have done so. Sheffield United even reached the semi-finals in 2014 while playing in League One.
It is a rarity for half of the quarter-finalists to come from outside the top flight. It has not happened since 2008, when three Championship clubs – West Brom, Barnsley and Cardiff City – went a step further and made it to the semi-finals. All three made a splash along the way 15 years ago. West Brom beat Coventry 5-0 and Bristol Rovers 5-1 on their way to a semi-final against the eventual champions, Portsmouth.
Barnsley’s run was even more impressive as it included a pair of famous scalps. They beat Liverpool at Anfield in the fifth round thanks to a last-minute goal from Brian Howard and then knocked out holders Chelsea at Oakwell in the quarter-finals. Considering Simon Davey’s team only just survived relegation from the Championship, it was quite a double. Cardiff made it all the way to the final, where they were beaten 1-0 by Portsmouth at Wembley. They remain the last side from outside the top flight to reach the Cup final.
Since the Premier League was formed 30 years ago, Cardiff City and Millwall are the only two clubs to have reached the FA Cup final while playing outside the top flight. Millwall did it in 2004, when they beat Sunderland in the semi-finals to set up a final against Manchester United, which they lost 3-0. Cristiano Ronaldo and Ruud van Nistelrooy proved too much for a side that finished 10th in the second tier.
By contrast, in the 20 years before the Premier League was formed, six clubs from outside the top division reached the final, with three of them ending up as winners: Sunderland in 1973, Southampton in 1976 and West Ham in 1980. It has been 43 years since that particular record was updated. Grimsby, Sheffield United, Blackburn and Burnley will be hoping to join the club when Wembley hosts the final on 3 June.
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