The FA Cup Mystery: Disney World Or A New Kitchen

For the 31st consecutive year Spurs fans will wake up on the day of FA Cup Final with little, if any, interest or intrigue in the forthcoming showpiece event in the sporting calendar. 

18th May 1991 was the last time FA Cup Final day was relevant for us when quite frankly the world was a very different place….Cher was top of the Charts with The Shoop Shoop Song, no homes in the UK had access to the world wide web and Harry Kane was not even a twinkle in his parents’ eyes.

Tottenham Hotspur FA Cup Winners 1991. Gary Mabbutt, David Howells and Gary Lineker with the FA Cup

As a 10-year-old who was just into my third year as a fully-fledged Spurs (and football) supporter I assumed that this day would come around frequently. I was totally consumed by our successes in the competition going back to 1901. If you include replays the ten years prior to ‘91 provided 5 FA Cup Final Day’s to look forward to. 

Since our last appearance in 1991 no fewer than 21 clubs’ set of fans have experienced seeing their team appear in an FA Cup Final. 21 clubs is just a little less than 25% of the entire Football League pyramid. Finalists since ’91 have included Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesbrough, Southampton, Millwall, Cardiff, Portsmouth, Wigan, Hull City, Crystal Palace and Watford – all of whom have spent at least half of that 30-year period outside of the top flight). 

It is actually absurd that Spurs have not made one final – despite the ‘magic of the cup’ rhetoric the better teams tend to reach finals and win it. Spurs are one of only 6 clubs to appeared in the top division for each of those 30 intervening seasons and have mostly finished in the top half at least.  They are a real outlier in a list of clubs not to have appeared in an FA Cup Final during the period. The only other clubs to have played in the Division 1/Premier League for 10 or more seasons and not to have reached a final are:

Blackburn Rovers (18 seasons)

Fulham (15)

Leeds United (14)

Bolton (13)

WBA (13)

But what has happened that has prevented Spurs from building on their 1991 success which at the time was a record 8th occasion to have won the famous competition? 

Why is the FA Cup relevant?

Firstly, let’s consider the importance and significance of winning the FA Cup.  I have resigned myself, as a staunch traditionalist, that this is not a competition that ultimately progresses you as a Football Club. Since ENIC took over 20 years ago only seven different teams have won the competition  – 5 of the established ‘Top 6’ and the other two being Portsmouth and Wigan – both have subsequently languished in the lower divisions. Even Arsenal’s recent FA Cup successes (4 since 2014) have not done anything to propel them back to the heights of English football – if anything that have acted as a detriment to their league form which has seen them drop out of the Top 4 positions since 2016. 

To give a domestic real-life analogy putting all your eggs into the FA Cup basket is akin to wanting to book a Family Holiday to Disneyworld instead of having a new kitchen fitted. Two weeks in Orlando will be magnificent for the kids and you’ll remember it affectionately for a long time but the new kitchen will enable you to put a healthy meal on the table every night and ultimately will help you to sell the house in a few years’ time. The stars have not yet aligned in N17 for both to happen.  

Speak to any football fan over 40 years old and they will tell you how they dreamed of scoring the winner in an FA Cup Final at Wembley, how FA Cup Final day was akin to Christmas Day with round the clock coverage on both the UK’s main terrestrial TV stations. It’s also worth remembering the football landscape and how it was consumed. Until the birth of the Premier League and Sky Sports’ involvement in 1992 armchair football fans would receive live on their televisions on average less than 1 live game per week. 

There was no Champions League as we now know it with its predecessor, The European Cup, involving just one club per country and in a straight knock out format so once the English team were knocked out there was little further interest in the competition. Additionally, there was no European football for any English clubs between 1985 and 1990.   So, apart from up to 30 live 1st division matches the only live football accessible on TV was one game per FA Cup round, the League Cup Semi-Finals and Final and the odd England game. Following ‘less is more theory’ the FA Cup Final was therefore something of a novelty often taking place on famously glorious sunny May Saturday afternoons. It was very likely the most significant live match on TV in the football calendar. 

The current (pre Covid) broadcasting rights saw 160 live Premier League games in addition to each and every one of the 92 Champions League matches (from group stage onwards) plus Europa League Games and League Cup games before you even start to add in the 5+ games per round available from the FA Cup. Therefore, by the time middle May comes around even the most hardened armchair fan would be suffering from fatigue. 

Without the carrot and incredible riches provided by the Champions League – once its participation was extended to 3 and then 4 clubs in England post 2001 – clubs were far less commercially driven and so success was far more tangible for its on-field achievements. By Christmas clubs invariably knew whether they have any chance of winning the league – but unless you were amongst one of maybe two or three times – the lure of winning the FA Cup could take precedence by the time the 3rd round weekend comes around in early January. There was little tangible difference between finishing 4th and 16th in the old Division 1.

Participation in the Champions League is of far greater financial importance than winning the FA Cup – there is perhaps even a case for extending that to Europa League qualification too. From a purely financial perspective there is simply no comparison:

FA Cup Winners£1.8m
Champions League Group Stage£12m
Europa League Group Stage£2.2m

It’s got much harder to win

From looking at the winners of the FA Cup since 1991 and then comparing this to the same time period prior to 1991 you all see a huge difference in the pedigree of its winner.

Number of Different WinnerMedian Average League Place Finish of FA Cup WinnerNumber of Winners that Finished in 1-4 in LeagueNumber of Winners Finishing 11th or Lower

It is also worth noting that three winners in the earlier period were second division teams (Sunderland 1973, Southampton 1976 and West Ham 1980).

If you consider that since 1992 we have only finished in the top 3 on three occasions (2016, 2017, 2018) and that in the latter two occasions we were beaten in a semi-final by a team who would finish above us then perhaps the most obvious reason why we haven’t won the FA Cup has been that sadly the bar has risen and we are still not quite good enough. 

That is perhaps a ‘get out’ for 30 years of failure in the competition and it is still beyond belief that clubs such as Millwall, Stoke, Southampton, West Ham, Watford and Middlesbrough have all enjoyed a grand day out at Wembley (or Cardiff between 2000 and 2007). 

The table below summarises Spurs’ progress in each FA Cup Competition since 1991.

YearRoundTeam who knocked us outScore
19923RAston Villa0-1
19965RNottingham Forest1-1(P)
19973RManchester United0-2
20044RManchester City3-4
20084RManchester United1-3
20094RManchester United1-2
20165RCrystal Palace0-1
2018SFManchester United1-2
20194RCrystal Palace0-2
Spurs’ progress in each FA Cup Competition since 1991

The Ingredients needed to reach an FA Cup Final

I have identified what is I think is required to actually get to a Cup Final:


The role of random luck is often ignored in an age of micro-analysis and as such it is almost impossible to quantify exactly how significant luck is. The FA Cup’s very concept is based on the randomness of balls being drawn from a bag. Clearly avoiding the better teams can be very beneficial as can being drawn at home. 

It shouldn’t be forgotten that our last successful FA Cup run in 1991 saw us drawn against four lower league opponents in Rounds 3-6 before playing Arsenal in the Semi-Final who admittedly were the champions elect that season. However, to play Nottingham Forest in the final (they had finished 1 place higher than us in 9th that season) was kinder than it could have been. 

Looking through Winners and Runners Up progress since then is littered with good fortune – for example Man Utd’s run to the 2016 Final included no away games against PL opponents, none of the other ‘big 6’ teams, and three ties against lower league opponents before beating Everton and then Crystal Palace in the Semi-Final and Final. 

Equally Cardiff (2008) and Millwall (2004) reached the Final as 2nd tier clubs but hadn’t been drawn against any Premier League teams all competition.


Much like the point above random luck plays a crucial part. Unlike a league campaign where luck and randomness can even out over a 38-game campaign one bad decision or the spin of the ball is crucial in a knock out competition. I have identified some of the more obvious examples below. On each occasion there is no way of telling whether the incident in question would have resulted in a different outcome:

  • Anderton not awarded penalty v Arsenal in 1993 SF at 0-0
  • Not awarded penalty v Newcastle for clear handball in 1999 SF at 0-0
  • Michael Dawson slipping on the shoddy Wembley turf v Portsmouth in 2010 SF at 0-0. 

Injuries can come at bad times. In recent years Kane’s injury sustained in Jan 2019, and Son’s international duty meant neither were available at Crystal Palace in 2019 (perhaps they wouldn’t have been selected anyway?). 


You are more than likely going to meet one of the established other top 5 sides on route to a final. Since beating Liverpool in 6th round in 1995 we have lost all 15 ties against:

Man U x4 – 1997 (Round 3), 2008 (4), 2009 (4), 2018 (SF)

Chelsea x4 – 2002 (6), 2007 (6), 2012 (SF), 2017 (SF)

Arsenal x2 – 2001 (SF), 2014 (3)

Newcastle x3 – 1999 (SF), 2000 (3), 2005 (6)

Everton x2 – 1995 (SF), 2021 (5)

Additionally, we have lost our only ties against other fellow PL teams:

Crystal Palace x2 – 2016 (5), 2019 (4)

Portsmouth  – 2010 (SF)

Man City  – 2004 (4)

Nottingham F – 1995 (5)

Barnsley  – 1998 (4)

Norwich City – 2020 (5)

Since that Liverpool victory we have won only 16/41 FA Cup ties against fellow Premier League teams. The most impressive was perhaps the 2-0 5th round replay victory against Leeds in 1999. Aside from the win at West Ham (6th Round 2001) and Leicester (3R 2016) the other 13 victories have come against teams we finished comfortably above at the end of that season:

Wimbledon (98/99), Charlton (2000/01), Bolton (01/02, 09/10, 11/12), WBA (04/05), Fulham (06/07, 09/10), Reading (07/08), Wigan (08/09), Burnley (14/15), Swansea (17/18), Southampton (19/20) 

To put this into context this is the equivalent of gaining 44 points in a season – we have only gained less than 44 points twice during this period (93/4 and 97/8).

However, this is more frustrating as we had beaten the same opponent (who had knocked us out) in the league that season so knew how to beat them and/or were better than them at the time. It suggests that we are more committed to winning league games than FA Cup matches. 

Apart from Man Utd’s aforementioned run to the 2016 FA Cup success and then Manchester City in 2019, the last 10 winners have beaten one of the other Top 5 teams:

YearWinnerTop 5 Teams Faced
2011Manchester CitySF v Manchester United
2012ChelseaFinal v Liverpool, SF v Spurs
2013WiganFinal v Manchester City
2014Arsenal5R v Liverpool, 3R v Spurs
2015Arsenal6R v Manchester United
2016Manchester United
2017ArsenalFinal v Chelsea, SF v Manchester City
2018ChelseaFinal v Manchester United
2019Manchester City
2020ArsenalFinal v Chelsea, SF v Manchester City

In what is already a very congested domestic schedule the FA Cup campaign (for Spurs) begins post- Christmas. Even with the benefit of a kind draw and random in-game luck the timing of fixtures plays a crucial part particularly if we haven’t had a deep squad to pick from. 

For every season since 2009 we have gone into the second half of the league season, either in or just around the Champions League places. Rightly or wrongly the revenues this creates will always take precedence.  

In retrospect 2016 probably presented our best chance of progressing – having been drawn against Crystal Palace at home in Round 5 we rested Lloris, Alderweireld and Eriksen and lost 1-0. A victory would have seen us drawn against Reading and then Watford before a final against Manchester United. However, the week before the Palace tie we had won 2-1 at Manchester City to establish us as genuine League Title contenders. 

Equally, European football resumes in February usually around the same time as the FA Cup 5th round. In 13 of the last 15 seasons dating back to 2007 we have had the latter stages of either the Champions League or UEFA Cup/Europa League to balance. 

Whilst the FA Cup is still considered as a superior competition to the League Cup it is also worth noting that by January the latter is at the semi-final stage and therefore just two ties away from yielding trophy success – on five occasions since 2007 we have found ourselves in a League Cup Semi-Final where typically the second leg is scheduled in the midweek just before or after FA Cup 4th round.  In 2008, 2015 and 2019 we exited the FA Cup.  


Sorry – I hate the phrase as well and get how its constant use can perpetuate a vicious cycle if only just amongst a fanbase. Contrary to popular belief every team is a bit ‘Spursy’ – even Barcelona can lose 3-goal first leg victories and concede 8 goals in a semi-final. 

However, in analysing why we’ve not won the FA Cup since 1991, or at least reached a final, ingredients 1-4 explain most but not all of our failures.  There are still those years in which there was simply no better explanation than that we shot ourselves in the foot either in specific moments or approach to a one-off match which provides the ultimate jeopardy of elimination. 

Most notably the 1995 and 2010 FA Cup Semi-Finals against Everton and Portsmouth come to mind. We went into both games as big favourites but managed to lose both in fairly humiliating fashion. On both occasions though it is worth remembering that had we won we’d have had to play Manchester United and Chelsea respectively. 

Does the FA Cup help to breed future success?

There remains the argument that to win The FA Cup (or League Cup) could act as a catalyst to greater things and would enhance our chances of going onto challenge for and win the Premier League or Champions League. Does anyone think that had we won the FA Cup in 2012 we’d have got over the line in the Leicester season, or had the know how to deal better with Liverpool in Madrid? There’s really no way of knowing. Can anyone say beyond any reasonable doubt that had City not won the 2011 FA Cup (with an uber dull 1-0 win over Stoke) they would not have gone on to record 4 league titles?

In summary the reasons for not adding a 9th FA Cup success is that for much of the 90’s and early 2000’s we weren’t very good and since 2006 it hasn’t been the priority. 

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