What You Could Have Won: When Third Place Play-Offs Were Introduced For The FA Cup
Between 1970 and 1974 the losing side in each of the previous season’s FA Cup semi-finals battled it out to be officially named the third best side in the tournament and perhaps not surprisingly the idea never really caught on.
Bill Shankly once said: "If you are first you are first. If you are second, you are nothing," so why anyone thought it would be a good idea to determine who were the third best team in the most famous knockout tournament is anyone’s guess.
To make things worse, in its infancy, the match was even played on the eve of what was the biggest game of the season; acting as something of warm-up for the main event at Wembley 24-hours later and a cruel reminder for both players and fans of just what they were missing out on.
If that wasn’t enough the final indignity was that the 22 players each received a specially engraved commemorative tankard for playing in the game rather than winners’ and losers’ medals, the most token of token gestures imaginable.
The first of these games took place in May 1970 as that season's beaten semi-finalists, Manchester United and Watford, faced each other on a Friday night at Highbury on the night before the cup final with the Reds claiming the “honour” of being able to say they finished third after a 2-0 win in front of a crowd of just 15,105.
Seemingly not having learned their lesson, the following season’s clash saw Everton and Stoke travel all the way down to Selhurst Park, again on a Friday night, with only 5,000 showing up for what was quickly becoming something of a laughing stock.
The same night more people turned out for the Fourth Division clash between Colchester and Stockport than were in South London to see Stoke’s 3-2 win; a game which didn’t even warrant a match report in the following day’s papers.
As any interest there was in the competition continued to dwindle, the FA in their wisdom decided to move the match from a pre-Wembley curtain-raiser to a form of pre-season preamble in August; some three months after the Cup final had taken place.
As well as being shifted to a summertime contest the game suffered the indignity of being booted out of the capital too, with Stoke City travelling to St Andrews to face Birmingham City in front of 25,000 of their own fans with the game memorable for nothing else than the fact that the Blues’ win on spot-kicks would be the FA Cup’s very first penalty shoot-out victory.
Quite remarkably, one of the most unpopular competitions ever devised, until the arrival of the Anglo-Scottish Challenge, stuck around for another two seasons with Wolves beating Arsenal 3-1 at Highbury in August 1973 in front of a crowd of 21,000; somewhat vindicating the FA’s decision to allow the game to be played at the home ground of one of the competitors rather than a neutral venue.
And in May of 1974, on a Thursday night and some five days after Liverpool had won the trophy by beating Newcastle at Wembley, Leicester hosted Burnley in what would be the tournament’s swan song.
“We make no secret of the fact that we would have preferred the game at the beginning of the next campaign, but unfortunately the FA insisted that the issue be settled this week,” was Leicester City’s rather barbed message in that night’s match programme and maybe somebody at the FA took notice as the Fox’s 1-0 win in front of a crowd of barely 5,000 people proved to be the final staging of the event.
Not surprisingly there is no mention of this ill-conceived competition on the FA’s official website while some of the tankards that were awarded to the players merely for turning-up have since appeared on a number of sports memorabilia auction sites; proof if it were ever needed that being the best of the rest is no cause for celebration in football, let alone the FA Cup.