Three times they have been the champions of England. FA Cup winners thirty-six years ago. Leeds United’s mere presence in the early rounds of the FA Cup is a powerful symbol of how far from grace they have fallen in recent times. In contrast, ten years ago Histon were a village club playing in the Eastern Counties League. Their rise towards the top of the Blue Square Premier hasn’t been without concerns over their long-term sustainability, but FA Cup days aren’t for worrying about reality. This afternoon, on a pitch that was almost completely unplayable, Histon more than matched a Leeds United team that doesn’t, on current form, look terribly likely to make a serious challenge for promotion this season.
ITV’s coverage of the match focussed, perhaps predictability, upon the fairytale element to Histon’s story, but this season has been seen more than its fair share of controversy for the club. Rumours started to circulate concerning the club’s financial stability after goalkeeping coach Lance Key was made redundant, and crowds have fallen as the economic circumstances have deteriorated. There was talk that they would have to enter into administration which were quashed by the club itself, but still the suspicion remains that pushing for a place in the Football League with a part-time squad may come at a cost that is simply too high to be worth it. Last Saturday, they went top of the Blue Square Premier for the first time, beating Oxford United 5-2 at Bridge Road. This in itself is an amazing achievement.
It rained all morning in Impington, where Histon play their home matches. It felt as if the football gods might just be smiling upon John Beck, who infuriated and frustrated many with his long ball tactics in the early 1990s. At Histon, the philosophy has been to play to their strengths. Set pieces, long throws and “putting it in the mixture” have been the unapologetic order of the day. In the First Round, Histon beat Swindon Town 1-0 at Bridge Road. Swindon had a let off when Histon had a goal disallowed from a corner, but the League One club didn’t learn from their let off, and Danny Wright swept in a second half goal to put them through. Leeds, meanwhile, might have expected a tough game away against Northampton Town, but an inspired performance from Jermaine Beckford helped them to a slightly flattering 5-2 win.
Leeds FA Cup pedigree isn’t that great. Of the teams that they would still – even now, despite their massively reduced status – consider to be their contemporaries, theirs is the weakest record. They have a single, solitary FA Cup win against Arsenal in 1972, but it always felt as if they were as likely to be on the receiving end of a bloody nose from a smaller club. There’s no question that Don Revie’s team of the early 1970s was a great team, but one always felt that their biggest problem was a psychological one. They were beaten in extra-time of a replay in 1970 by Chelsea, and lost to Fourth Division Colchester United the following year. In 1973, they were beaten at Wembley by Second Division Sunderland. For all the strangely occasional glimpses of swagger, Revie’s bunker mentality seemed to work against his team at least as much as it worked in their favour.
This was an afternoon for symbolism that was so apposite that it felt at times as if a higher force was controlling proceedings. As the pitch cut up, the Leeds white shirts turned to brown – the literal and metaphorical name of a once-great club being dragged through the mud. The biggest insult was that this wasn’t the traditional giant-killing match. Leeds didn’t dominate the entire match and fall to a sucker punch. They were comprehensively outplayed by a team that, to put it simply, wanted it more. The long throws, long balls and set pieces caused panic bordering on hysteria in the the Leeds penalty area. The goal, when it came, arrived with precise simplicity. A corner from the right hand side, and Matthew Langston arrived unmarked to head the ball down and into the corner of the net.
It’s difficult to pull out any positives at all for Leeds. Robert Snodgrass seemed to be the only Leeds player that seemed to recognise that this was day for hard graft, and he alone deserved better than the humiliation and fury that will likely be heaped upon his team. There were moments when they rode their luck, of course. Lubomir Michalik hit the foot of the post with a fierce drive from the edge of the penalty area, and had a shot cleared off the line by defender Jack Midson. Ultimately, however, these were mere scraps from the table, and Histon could just as easily have added to their lead.
The reward for Histon is obvious. A home match against Swansea City of the Championship may not be the “glamour” match that they want, but Swansea were knocked out by Havant & Waterlooville and while, yes, Swansea are now a division higher than they were last year, Histon are a division higher than Havant were at the time. A throughly deserved result, and it wasn’t only surprise of the weekend. Northern Premier League side Eastwood Town did what seventeen League Two clubs have failed to this season and beat Wycombe Wanderers. Forest Green Rovers of the Blue Square Premier beat Rochdale. Barrow beat Brentford. This year’s FA Cup is turning out to be every inch as exciting as last year’s was.