The simple way the FA Cup favours the underdog

Simon Barnes explains how football is designed for surprises

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Football loves a good upset – and it’s better at creating upsets than any other sport in the calendar. The fall of the mighty always excites base passions, and in football the underdogs are traditionally given every opportunity to bark. You’d almost think football was specifically designed for upsets.

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On Monday lordly Arsenal go slumming to Gander Green Lane, home of Sutton United of the National League (BBC1 7:30pm, kick-off 7:55pm). I went there in the late 1970s to cover mighty Tooting and Mitcham for the Balham and Tooting News and the ground is little changed: the same grandstand seating 765 people and no doubt the same agreeable madness you always find in non-league football.

The Arsenal millionaires will see what life is like in the fifth division. A chore for them; the greatest day of their sporting lives for Sutton. They’ll chuck the lot at Arsenal, that’s what underdogs are supposed to do. Arsenal may even buckle and break; that’s what overdogs do in football, or at least they do sometimes. And how lovely it is to see the great get their comeuppance – or, perhaps I should say, how fascinating to see them discover their limitations.

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Sutton defender Jamie Collins celebrates his club’s FA Cup fourth round match against Leeds United 

There has always been a subversive element in football – see how crowds treat referees, owners, chairmen and opposition managers. And every manager is waiting for the day when his own team’s fans turn on him like lions on their tamer. An upset is the sporting expression of subversiveness.

People in football relish the discomfiture of the defeated great, give humble thanks that it wasn’t their own lot and relish the way that, in football, the demented team spirit of 11 unexceptional players is sometimes enough to defeat the preening self-doubters at the summit of the game.

But why is football so good at upsets? It’s the uniquely high value of football’s currency. In no other ball game is a point – a goal – so rare. Many football games are decided by a single goal; sometimes there are no goals at all.

In rugby the points total is likely to be close to 50, in basketball more than 200, and in Test match cricket more than 1,000 runs. The more points available, the more the stronger side is favoured.

Upsets happen in other sports, but much less often – that’s why it’s so hard for Italy to crack the Six Nations rugby championship and for the Bangladeshi cricket team to win Test series. But football matches are often decided on a single instant.

A team can launch a hundred attacks and fail to score, while the opposition steal a lucky deflected goal from a corner to win. A single decision from a referee can change everything. One moment of inspiration – one single cataclysmic error – can decide a match.

Arsenal might deserve to beat Sutton by a dozen goals and fail to do so, losing instead to a wild breakaway, a terrible mistake from the goalie or the referee, or an inspired wallop from a crazy distance that just happens to be the greatest kick of somebody’s life. The whiff of the upset is in the air again – so cry havoc and let loose the underdogs of sport.

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Match of the Day Live: The FA Cup is on BBC1, Monday 7:30pm (Kick-off 7:55pm)