To start the ball rolling here, I thought I'd revisit a post I made on my Improspectives® blog back in February 2017 regarding Lincoln's shock win over Burnley in the men's FA Cup.
One of the undying joys of sports is watching an underdog beat a massive favorite. The U.S. Olympic hockey team beating the USSR in the semi-finals of the 1980 Winter Olympics is one such win, as was the #15 seed University of Richmond basketball team’s win in the first round against my alma mater, the #2 seed Syracuse Orange. Even though those wins were improbable, they came in contests among reasonably well-matched teams. Richmond and Syracuse are both Division I programs, so they could recruit and offer scholarships to elite players.
Few tournaments remain where teams of all levels compete on equal terms. Even the famed Indiana state high school basketball tournament changed to four divisions based on enrollment in 1997. The exception is soccer, or football as it’s called everywhere except in the U.S. and Canada. Most national organizations hold a tournament where teams of all levels compete. In England, that tournament is the FA (Football Association) Cup. Premier League, League Championship, and League 1 teams get byes through the early rounds, but the lower division sides advance and, on occasion, knock off one of the big boys. It’s unusual for a League 1 or League 2 side to beat a Premier League team, but it does happen.
And then there’s Lincoln. Lincoln plays in the National League, which is, in rank order, below the Premier League, League Championship, League 1, and League 2. According to the New York Times, Lincoln was 81 places below Premier League side Burnley when they played on February 18. No National League team had ever beaten a Premier League side in an FA Cup game until Lincoln pulled it off.
While the win is shocking, it’s doesn’t come against Lincoln’s run of form. They reached the Round of 16 by beating League Championship sides Ipswich and Brighton, so they were clearly playing well. And Burnley is a mid-table club, substantially behind the leaders but well above the cutoff line for relegation to the League Championship. (The bottom three Premier League teams are relegated, while the top two League Championship teams, plus the winner of a playoff among the sides that finished third through sixth, are promoted.) Burnley has the money to attract top-flight foreign talent, while Lincoln fields part-timers who work to supplement their football pay.
Upsets of this magnitude make for great stories, but they also point to the depth of talent available to take the field for English sides at all levels of the game. The history of the game, its cultural significance, and the pride that comes from playing well shine through Lincoln’s success. As the saying goes, “England expects.” Lincoln has exceeded those expectations.